It’s scary out there.
Launching a teen driver is a terrifying prospect as a parent. I know this, because this summer, I’ll be doing exactly that. I’ll admit it: I’m a bit scared. I have a lot of confidence in my generally-responsible and level-headed teen, but still… there are all those other people out there.
But I love driving! I want my teen to love driving, too, and to not be afraid of it. (Fearful and timid drivers are a danger to themselves and to others. ) I also want her to be as safe as possible on the road. As we all know, teen drivers can get in an awful lot of trouble.
We know the obvious, but there’s more.
Don’t drink and drive. Don’t text. Don’t Snapchat. Don’t speed. Don’t Snapchat your speed! Wear your seatbelt. That’s all good stuff, of course, but I have long been frustrated with the lack of real-world car-handling advice and instruction in driver’s ed courses. Driver’s Ed is primarily about teaching young people the rules of the road and scaring them out of those big obvious no-nos.
Understanding the handling (turning, accelerating, stopping) of your car is critically important to everyone for greatest safety on the road. It’s especially important when it comes to surprises like deer or debris in the road, poor road surface conditions, and accident avoidance. I bet you thought that once you can make the car go forward and backward, left and right, and stop in time for a red light you knew all you needed to know. Nope… there’s more. And Driver’s Ed probably isn’t teaching it to your kid.
Four Things to Teach Your Teen Driver
I was taught to drive by my dad, a man with previous dirt-track racing experience and who is a veteran of a decade of driving in West Africa. Besides his driving credentials, he’s just a plain old good teacher. He managed to keep his calm (at least outwardly!) teaching two daughters and two sons to drive, and taught his wife, my mother, to drive stick-shift, too, in our red 1978 Toyota Corolla. The advice that follows is culled from things my dad taught me and my siblings, plus some additional tips which come from friends who are experienced auto-enthusiasts and hobbyist racecar drivers.
1. Watch much farther ahead. And look where you want to go.
If you’re hitting your brakes after the car in front of you lights up his rear brake lights, you’re likely braking too late. The faster your speed, the farther ahead you need to be watching. This means that on the freeway, by the time the car in front of you is braking, you should ready to cover the brake or already doing so. Teens especially are prone to fixating only on the car directly in front of them.
If you’ve ever had someone mindlessly tailgating you, no matter how you slowed down or sped up, you’ve seen this car-in-front fixation at work. My dad taught me, “Don’t let someone else drive your car for you.” Don’t mindlessly follow exactly what the car in front of you is doing! Watch farther down the road. Watch the overall flow of traffic. Spot down lines of cars to what’s ahead of the cars in front of you. Be ready.
My friend Ann pointed me to another really important, related tip: look where you want to go. The exact mechanism is buried in our lizard-brains, but focusing on where you want the car to go (and not on what you are afraid of hitting!) even when you’re not in control of the vehicle, even when you’re not trained in evasive maneuvers, makes a difference in where your car ends up in a wreck. This means some coaching while you’re out practice-driving with your teen. “If you hit ice right here, where would you look? If the freeway up by that bridge was blocked, where would you look? If that truck is suddenly in our lane, where do you look?”
2. Start small, then escalate. Your first reaction should not be “stomp on the brakes.”
On an icy road, hitting the brakes hard can upset your car’s balance and throw you into a spin. In other situations, simply taking your foot off the gas may be all you need to do. Truth is, you can’t predict exactly what you’re going to need when, so it’s really important that your teen understands that overreacting can get you in as much trouble (and sometimes considerably more!) than doing less. Which brings me to another point…
3. In emergency maneuvers, use less steering than you think you need.
A common mistake that inexperienced drivers make is to dramatically yank a steering wheel back the opposite way when reacting to a mistake or a road hazard. This can throw the car off balance. This kind of overcorrection is the most common reason an SUV will roll over! Fasten in your teen’s mind the phrase “use less” so that when an emergency maneuver is required, your teen is less likely to overcorrect. You can always steer more if needed but you cannot undo a fishtailing, out of control car swerving across multiple lanes. Nor is there anything you can do to save a car or SUV that has started to tip or roll.
Related tip! Teach your teen that if they do run a wheel off the pavement, they should gently steer back onto the road surface. Yanking the wheel in panic will get them in trouble fast and may punt them into oncoming traffic or the ditch.
4. When it all goes wrong, your brakes are better than you think.
Start small but don’t be afraid to go big when it comes to braking. Dan, a photographer and experienced autocrosser, suggests drilling this tidbit into your kids’ heads: your brakes are better than you think. In ordinary street driving, you use only a small fraction of even an average car’s braking power. When the poo really hits the fan, go big and stand on that pedal with everything you’ve got.
Nearly all cars built after the mid-1990s have anti-lock brakes, so the old rule about pumping your brakes in an emergency is no longer correct. The ABS system will take care of that for you, so just mash that pedal as hard as you can when all the other options are exhausted, and remember to look between the trees you’re headed for, not at the trees! (Remember tip #1?)
And finally, teach your teen that the ABS system going off makes a low groaning or growling noise and makes the brake pedal vibrate! Have them brake hard from a slow speed on a slippery surface, such as a snow-covered and empty street or parking lot, so that the ABS goes off. This way they’ll know what it feels like and won’t pull their foot off the brake in surprise in a real emergency!
Finally, Consider A Defensive Driving Course (For You and Your Teen!)
I always recommend additional defensive driving instruction after your teen gets their driver’s license if you’re within a decent drive of a track where a course is offered. Here’s the course description of the class available at my nearby racetrack. These courses are usually $150-$300 and include professional instructors, vehicles provided by the school, and time on a skidpad (a surface made slippery to teach adverse road condition skills.) Many auto insurance companies underwrite these schools and some may offer discounts to policyholders whose teen driver has completed one.
If you need help locating an appropriate course near you, please contact me!
The biggest advantage of these courses is the chance your teen will have to experience emergency braking, recovering from a skid, and avoiding obstacles in a safe, controlled environment with a professional driving instructor beside them before they encounter these things in the family car on the way home from a football game late at night! That’s money well spent (and most of those courses cost less than having the family minivan pulled out of the ditch!)
Good luck, Mom or Dad! Enjoy these moments —
they’ll be gone before you know it!