So your teenager is old enough to learn to drive. That’s awesome! For a parent, it can also be terrifying. I mean, they’re the most precious people in our lives – isn’t it irresponsible to put them out there with all those crazies?!?!? We all know that car accidents are the #1 killer of teenagers. How can we reconcile this, and let our kids grow up to be responsible adult drivers?

I wrote this post to help parents help their kids survive to adulthood, and not wrapped in a cocoon locked in the house. Give them the best shot by giving them lots of opportunities to learn by doing.

Why am I qualified to write this? So far, I have taught one of my kids to drive, and I have taught 100s of other kids in the Tire Rack Street Survival program as an in-car instructor. I myself have done dozens of high-performance driving schools as both a student and in-car instructor as well as competing in wheel-to-wheel racing. Through my own journey, I have learned what works and what doesn’t, along with important aspects of driving that are ignored by “normal” driver education.

As I was approaching the time when Marina (my older daughter) was going to get her learner’s permit, I was nervous and excited at the same time. I started teaching teens and adults important skills behind the wheel when she was a tiny baby, and was always excited for the opportunity to give my own child my focused attention. Kids are awesome learners, and if I could help shape how my own kids approach driving, then I knew I could rest a little easier once they were driving on their own.

Here are a few tips for parents of new drivers that I think are important to take seriously.

They Are Already Nervous - DO NOT MAKE IT WORSE

A nervous person will not learn or perform as well as a calm person. Yes, I know you are nervous in the right seat. Yes, I know you are going to see 100 things they need to do differently in every moment, but there is no need to name each of those 100 things while they are driving. That is not an effective way to teach. Certainly call out imminent danger, using clear concise language and a calm tone. Do not judge them – inform them.

Here’s an example: Compare calmly gesturing toward a cyclist that they may not see and saying “see the bike?” versus “Oh my god! Are you trying to kill that cyclist?!?!?!”

They want to do well and they don’t want to disappoint you. Help them achieve that!

Let Your Teen Drive You ALL THE TIME

Practice makes progress. The only way for a person to learn something as complex and nuanced as driving is seat time. Going anywhere at all with your teen? THEY ARE DRIVING. This may be hard, because as humans we don’t like to be uncomfortable – but think it through. The more time they have to learn the art/skill of driving with you, the better of a driver they will be. Right? Simple as that. Make excuses to go places so they can drive more. Drive on all kinds of roads in all kinds of situations. Freeways are actually quite simple to drive on – no stoplights, pedestrians, or cross traffic. DO IT.

Make A Plan Together

For the newest drivers, make a plan with them about how you’re going to start on this journey. Do it together! I like using empty parking lots for the first couple of times, just to get used to operating the car. Move up to quiet residential streets, then work up from there. Talk with your teen about how they’re doing and what they want to do next. Plan it together. Push them appropriately, i.e. there’s no need to spend 2 months in the church parking lot. Maybe 20 minutes. They learn faster than you do.

Debrief After Every Drive

Spend 30 seconds after they park to talk about the drive. Hopefully you haven’t had to say much while they’re driving (it’s hard, I know!). Talk in detail about any complex / nervous situations that arose AFTER you park. Have THEM identify what they will do differently the next time, perhaps giving hints, but don’t give them a lecture. Help them to discover what to do differently.

Understand the Role of Tunnel Vision

A brand new driver will be overwhelmed with everything going on. Someone who is overwhelmed will have tunnel vision, and only be able to focus on one thing at a time. Understand and accept this fact of human behavior and work with your teen on one thing at a time. As they get more comfortable, their vision and awareness will expand and will only come with time and practice.

Watch Their Eyes

A crucial part of being a safe driver is seeing everything around you. Watch your teen’s eyes while they are driving to make sure they aren’t staying fixated on one thing. Ask them “What are you looking at?” to remind them to keep their eyes moving versus giving them a lecture.

Watch Their Hands

Watch your teen’s hands to get some understanding into their comfort level. If you can see the tendons in the back of their hands because they are gripping the wheel, then they are nervous. Help them calm down and gain confidence with your words and tone. Encourage them to notice their hands and soften their grip. A death grip will prevent smooth and effective control of the car.

Have Them Narrate

A fun exercise is to have your teen narrate to you everything they are doing, everything they are seeing while they are driving, and every decision they are making. This has two benefits: 1) It reinforces the behavior of constantly scanning and evaluating the situation, and 2) it will calm you down to know that they are paying attention.

Understand Vision In General

There are two pieces in this point, and it is the most important thing that EVERY driver needs to know – be it teens or even you, perfect parent driver.

FIRST: If you are a human and you are looking at the horizon, you will see twice as much below the horizon as above.

You can verify this easily: when out on the road, look at the license plate of the car in front of you. How much of the distant traffic can you still see? Now shift your gaze to that distant traffic. Still see the license plate? There you go. Do this exercise with your teen.

SECOND: Your brain can consume an incredible amount of information instantly. Look far ahead to understand what is happening far ahead. You will simultaneously be able to understand what is happing close to you. This gives you more time to plan what you’re going to do. If you’re staring at the rear of the car in front of you, you’re giving yourself a small fraction of the time to react versus looking far ahead.

If I could give any driver a single piece of advice, it would be: LOOK FAR AHEAD!!!

Chances are you will be looking farther ahead than your teen. A good exercise is to ask your teen “what is the farthest thing you can see on the road”. Do this regularly. Watch their eyes – if they seem fixated on the car in front, ask that question. It’s a far more effective way to shape their behavior than scolding or lecturing them.

Practice Emergency Braking

It is likely that you have no idea what the anti-lock brakes (ABS) in your car feel like. ABS usually makes the brake pedal buzz, and that scares some people into braking less (!!!). 40% of all rear-end accidents can be avoided if the person merely presses harder on the brake pedal (!!!).

To help your teen understand what the car is capable of and how it feels, find a safe place to practice emergency braking. I like to go to an industrial area at night, or an office park on the weekends. Find a stretch of road that is long, straight, and wide. As the parent in the Seat of Responsibility (the right seat), use the mirror on your side to verify there are no cars behind you AT ALL (not even far behind). Have your teen verify this in the rearview mirror too. Now have them accelerate to 35-40MPH and have them SLAM on the brakes.

Do it again and again. Have them get comfortable with what it feels like, how amazingly quickly the car can stop, and that nothing will break if they put their whole leg into it. If they come to a gentle stop and don’t feel the ABS, then do it again and again until they get it. You can even push down on their knee to help them along if need be. Soon this will get really fun, and they will be awesome at understanding how well the car can stop, and how it feels when they do it.

And stop worrying – this will not hurt the car at all.

Practice SMOOTHNESS

This is another one for you too, perfect parent driver. The best drivers (even in racing situations!) are smooth and gentle with the car. This is not only good for the comfort of passengers, but also is a great tool in developing sensitivity to the car and what it is doing. Spend some time focusing on transitions – slowing to stop, stop to accelerating, straight to turning, cruising to braking. Any transition (outside of an actual emergency) should ideally be undetectable when it actually started or ended. Use praise to encourage this behavior.

Don’t Fear the Freeway

My most poignant memory of learning to drive was the stress I “experienced” from my dad the first time we went on the freeway. But the reality is, the freeway is not a chaotic mess like some city streets are. Practice merging, on- and off-ramps, changing lanes over and over. Practice practice practice. Use positive reinforcement. Ask leading questions rather than giving lectures. Keep a calm tone.

Reach Out

For anyone I know with a new driver, I would be super stoked to spend some time helping your teen understand how to be a better driver. Seriously. I love this stuff. You can sit in the back seat too, but you have to promise to keep quiet. :) We need to do everything we can to help our teens successfully transition to adults, and driving is an important part of that. Just let me know. zack@steinkamp.us