Teaching Your Teen to Drive

Safe Driving Habits and Skills

Father teaching daughter how to drive
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The very idea of helping your children learn how to drive strikes fear into the hearts of many fathers. Worries about putting a teen behind the wheel of one of the family's most expensive and dangerous possessions are real and tangible. If you are embarking on the process of teaching your first teen to drive, or if you are trying for a first "successful" experience, then there are some things you should know about teaching your child to drive.

What To Know and What To Expect

As you begin the process of teaching your teen driver, you should be aware of the basic rules for success.

  • Let your teen take the initiative. Teens vary as to what age they are ready to learn to drive. It can be as soon as they meet the age requirement or they might not yet be mature enough or want the responsibility. Once you feel your child is ready, express that feeling and then wait for your teen to approach you. Don't push the issue—an overly anxious teen driver can be a dangerous thing.
  • Plan ahead. When you start working behind the wheel, know ahead of time where you are going and what you are going to do. Let your teen know the area in which he will be driving and what skills you will be working on.
  • Remember you are the coach. Your role as a driver's parent is to coach your teen through the basics of driving. Avoid talking down to your teen or getting upset. Try not to generalize with comments like "You're too distracted." Be specific in what you want her to do. Praise good performance.
  • Correct by asking questions. Rather than saying things like, "You're going to get a speeding ticket if you don't slow down," try a question-asking approach such as "What's the speed limit here?" Ask questions to teach your teen to be aware of the surroundings.
  • Start slow and build up. When you start out with your teen, go to an empty parking lot and spend a lot of time starting, stopping and turning. When the teen is comfortable there, move on to a quiet residential area with fewer cars. The next move is onto streets with heavier traffic.
  • Be constantly aware. One of the hardest things about safe driving is being aware of your surroundings. That 360-degree awareness is not a skill which teens have yet mastered. You will need to be the one who watches on all four sides of the car.
  • Be careful with directions. Give your teen lots of notice when you want him to do something. For example, rather than saying "Turn left now," try anticipating and say, "We will be turning left in the next block." Also, only use the word "right" for a direction. When your teen does something well, say he did it "correctly."
  • Keep the lesson short. The number of times you drive with your teen is more important than the amount of time in each session. In the beginning, limit your practice time to 15 to 20 minutes at a time. As your teen's confidence increases, you can extend practice times.
  • Start off in daylight and good weather. As your teen is developing their driving skills, try to focus on daytime driving and when road conditions are good.
  • Set a good example. Follow good driving practices when you drive with your teen as a passenger. If you try to beat the yellow light or make abrupt lane changes, so will your teen.

Essential Skills Teen Drivers Need Most

Here is a checklist of what you and a driver's education professional will need to emphasize during your teen's process of learning to drive.

The Vehicle Itself

  • Mirrors
  • Seat belts and airbags
  • Tire inflation and inspection
  • Dashboard warning lights
  • Fueling up
  • Checking fluids
  • Cleaning the car

Basic Operations

  • Controlling the car
  • Safe turns
  • Shifting gears
  • Backing up
  • Signaling to other drivers
  • Braking
  • Avoiding distractions

Interactions with Others

  • Making lane changes
  • Dealing with intersections
  • Maintaining safe driving distances
  • Defensive driving skills
  • U-turns
  • Three-point turns

Parking

  • 90-degree parking
  • Angle parking
  • Parallel parking

Advanced skills

  • Freeway driving
  • Night driving
  • Driving in snow and/or wet conditions
  • Towing

Emergency Response

  • In case of an accident
  • Changing a flat tire
  • High wind driving
  • Downed power lines nearby

The Five Stages of Learning to Drive

The following five stages of drivers education will help you figure out how to best help your teen develop good driving skills. In each stage, your teen should be proficient at the skills being taught before moving on to the next stage. Each stage will likely take several behind-the-wheel experiences for your teen, so don't try to move too fast.

Stage 1: Learning About Your Vehicle

This stage involves a general orientation about how the vehicle works and what the driver needs to know about the car. Assign reading the manual as well as hands-on demonstrations. At the end of the stage, your teen should know:

  • How to start and stop the engine
  • How to turn on and off headlights and parking (or running) lights
  • How to turn on and off and to adjust windshield wipers
  • What the various lights on the dashboard mean
  • How to fasten seat belts
  • How to fuel the vehicle, check the oil, and inflate the tires
  • How to change a flat tire
  • What to do in case of an accident

Stage 2: The Basic Skills

In this stage, the teen driver needs to learn how to maneuver the vehicle and make it do what the driver wants. Most of these skills can be learned in an empty parking lot. At the end of this stage, your teen should be able to:

  • Make safe turns, both left and right, including signaling
  • Stop the car smoothly
  • Shift gears if using a manual transmission
  • Back the car safely and straight
  • Show awareness of his or her surroundings

Stage 3: Interacting with Other Drivers and Distractions

In this stage, your teen will be learning how to operate a vehicle safely with other drivers, parked cars, pedestrians, etc. in their environment. Most of these skills will require beginning on a residential street until comfortable and confident, then moving to a multilane street later during the stage. At the end of this stage, your teen should be able to:

  • Navigate safely through an intersection, including those with signals, four-way stops, two-way stops and uncontrolled intersections
  • Make a smooth and safe lane change
  • Maintain a "safe cushion" around the vehicle when in traffic
  • Drive courteously
  • Operate within posted speed limits and obeying traffic signs
  • Safely cross railroad tracks
  • Use mirrors and check blind spots

Stage 4: Parking and Other Turns

Driving is one thing, but parking can be quite another. There are probably more teen accidents associated with getting in and out of parking spots than from any other cause. Once again, an empty parking lot and a residential street are good places to learn this skill set. At the end of this stage, your teen should be able to:

  • Park safely on a hill—facing uphill and facing downhill
  • Safely parallel park
  • Safely pull into and out of a 90-degree parking space
  • Safely pull into and out of a diagonal parking space
  • Make a safe U-turn
  • Make a safe three-point turn

Stage 5: Advanced Skills

The skills in this stage are essential, but they are advanced and rely on proficiency in other skills learned in the first four stages. Don't try to start on Stage 5 until you feel comfortable that your teen has the other skills well under control. At the end of stage 5, your teen should be able to:

  • Drive safely on the freeway, including merging, lane changes, and maintaining safe distances from other vehicles
  • Drive safely at night
  • Drive safely in ice, snow, and wet weather

Teaching Responsibility in Driving

Throughout teaching your teen to drive, discuss the responsibilities your child is assuming when she gets behind the wheel.

  • Car maintenance: If something sounds wrong, a warning light is on, or any problem develops, it should be checked and reported to you or taken to a repair garage.
  • Passenger safety: A driver is responsible for ensuring passengers are wearing seat belts and aren't risking injury (such as sticking their heads, arms, or legs out of the window or sunroof). Discuss what to do if passengers are fooling around and being distracting.
  • Pedestrian safety: Teach your teen the importance of using slow speeds in residential areas and school zone and being aware of pedestrians who will be crossing the street.
  • Following the laws: The rules of the road aren't just book learning for the driver's test, they should be understood and followed consistently. There may also be restrictions on learner's permits for the time of day, passengers, and whether accompanied by an adult.
  • Distracted driving: Whether or not the laws of your state are strict on texting or using the cell phone while driving, discuss this with your teen and set a good example yourself.
  • Financial responsibility: Have your teen assume some of the financial costs of driving, such as filling the tank, getting an oil change, or paying a share of the car insurance.
  • Responsibility for other drivers: Not only should your teen drive courteously, teach what to do to report an accident or give assistance to others who are in an accident.

A Word From Verywell

Teaching your teen to drive is a harrowing experience for some fathers. But if you take the time to prepare, work on building skill by skill, and patiently work with your teenager, you can make a huge difference in your teen's driving, now and in the future.

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