Teaching Your Teen to Drive

Father teaching daughter how to drive
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The very idea of helping our 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. Not every teen is ready at 15 or 15 1/2 or 16 to begin learning to drive. Once you feel that he or she 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 or she will be driving and what skills you will be working on.

Remember you are the coach. Your role as the teen driver's parent is to coach him or her 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 them to do.

 Praise the 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?" Teach them to be aware of their surroundings by asking questions.

Start slow and build up. When you start out with your teens, go to an empty parking lot and spend a lot of time starting, stopping and turning.

When they are comfortable there, move on to a quiet residential area with fewer cars. Then move onto streets with heavier traffic. We need to help our teen learners develop confidence in the very basic skills before moving on. 

Be constantly aware. One of the hardest things about safe driving is being aware of your surroundings. But for a new driver, that 360-degree awareness is not a skill which they have yet mastered. So you will need to be the one who watches on all four sides of the car.

Be careful with directions. Give your teens lots of notice when you want them 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, tell them they did it "correctly."

Set realistic goals. I have found that the number of times we drive with our teens is more important than the amount of time in each session. At 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. As mentioned earlier, your driving is your teen's best example. So try to follow good driving practices as you drive with your teen as a passenger. If you try to bear the yellow light from turning red, so will they. If your lane changes are too quick, theirs will be too. Drive the way you hope they will drive when you are not with them.

Essential Skills Teen Drivers Need Most

What is it that teens need to learn to be a safe driver? Here is a checklist of what you and their driver's education professional will need to emphasize during their process of learning to drive.

The Vehicle Itself

  • Mirrors
  • Seat belts and air bags
  • Tire inflation and inspection
  • Dashboard warning lights
  • Fueling up
  • Checking fluids

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


  • 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

Feeling a little overwhelmed? Well, that's certainly natural in this situation. We forget sometimes how complex driving a car can be. The key to tackling an overwhelming task is to break it down into steps and work each step. Let's take a look at one way to put these skills into stages of teaching.

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. 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 it to. 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 and moving to a multilane street during the stage. At the end of this stage, your teen should be able to:

  • Navigate safely through an intersection, including those with signals, 4-way stops, 2-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 3-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 stage 1-4. Don't try to start on Stage 5 until you feel comfortable that your teen has the stage 1-4 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 your teen to drive is a harrowing experience for some fathers. But if a dad will take the time to prepare, will work on building skill by skill, and will patiently work with his teenager, he can make a huge difference in his teen's driving, now and in the future.