Four Things To Teach Your Teen About Driving.

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.

teenage boy driving carDon’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!

Should I Rent a Car For My Next Big Trip? Help For Life With a High-Mileage Car.

You’ve Got an Old Car. Will It Make The Trip?

Ideally, when you’ve got an old high-mileage car, you’ll take it into the shop and ask them to get it in tip-top shape before any long trips. But what if you know what the car needs and have been delaying major repairs due to budgetary concerns? Or what if you don’t have time to get it into the shop before you need to leave? Should you rent a car for your trip instead?

I’ve been in this situation several times myself. Here’s a look into the thought process I go through when trying to decide whether to pay for a rental car or risk driving my old car on a trip.

Warning! If you’ve been told that a repair your car needs is critical to safety, you must not drive it on a long trip. Period.

In this case, proceed directly to a rental car! Or reschedule your trip. Not all car maintenance needs are critical but some are a serious accident waiting to happen. Some will simply strand you if they break (a bad alternator or battery) or are uncomfortable (bad shocks in the back). Others can cause you to crash and die if they fail suddenly (broken steering or front suspension parts, bald or corded tires, brake line leaks) or mean the end of your engine (large oil leak, no oil, serious coolant leak, overheating.)

So, Drive The Beater or Rent a Car?

First, you’ll need to consider a few questions. Jot down answers to the following . . .

Do you have AAA or other roadside assistance? What’s the included free towing on the plan you have? Is your destination farther away from your favorite shop than the included towing on your roadside assistance? How far over the mileage limit is it? (AAA’s basic plans include five miles of towing free, but you’ll pay $2.50-$5 per mile over what is included with your roadside assistance plan for distances farther away.)

How comfortable are you having an unknown shop do a major repair on your car? If you know what’s likely the next thing to break, how much was the estimate for that work from your shop? Are you ready to pay at least that much at a shop or dealership between home and your destination? Or would you much rather be sure your own shop can do that work?

How Interruptable Is Your Trip?

Now, think about the trip itself. On a scale of “Hello? I’m the groom!” to “No plans, it’s just the two of us, just for fun,” how interruptable is your trip? How much trouble will you be in if a car break-down delays your arrival at your destination?  Are you traveling through populated areas with a common-as-dirt minivan (2010 Honda Odyssey) where there’s likely to be a shop almost anywhere that can work on your car? Or are you traveling through rural America with a French-built rear-engined Renault that was only sold in the US for two years in the 1980s? (A quiet shout-out to my internet-friend Fodder for that suggestion. And thanks to him, I spent way too much time on Wikipedia just now!)

“Adventure, yeah. I guess that’s what you call it

when everybody comes back alive.” – Mercedes Lackey

Make Some Ballpark Cost Estimates.

Now that you’ve thought about all of that, estimate what a breakdown, tow, and repair at a shop (if you have an estimate for the next chunk of work) might cost you. Then price out your theoretical car rental.

If you want to be really nerdy and methodical, consider the difference in gas mileage between your own car and the class of rental car you’d pick. On my last trip, the difference was 18 mpg on my car versus 40 mpg on the Jetta we rented! It made about $30 difference in fuel costs, recouping some of our rental car costs in fuel savings.

Write your two numbers side by side and look at them. Is the breakdown and tow number scary enough to make the rental car estimate seem like smart insurance against spending the larger number?  Or is the cost of a rental car high enough that risking the repair away from home seems like the smarter option?

Measure the Financial Aspects of Your Decision Against Time And Bother Factors.

Can you afford a delay in the trip? If so, maybe risking the potential repair on the road isn’t a huge deal and maybe can be a potential for a new adventure. Sometimes the best vacation memories are the ones that happen unplanned. Note that some roadside assistance programs offer trip interruption reimbursement, too, offering coverage for a rental car and an overnight hotel, if needed. Check the fine print of any plan you have. But if you’re traveling for the wedding of your baby sister, arriving on time is critical; time to reserve that rental car!

A Quick Case-Study From My Own Old-Car Life.

In spring of 2017, we had an out of state wedding to attend. At the time, we owned an early 2000’s Ford Crown Victoria with about 175,000 miles on it. We knew it would need rear wheel bearing work soon; you could hear it howling, especially at highway speeds. We also knew, from owner forums, that due to the design of the wheel bearing, there was a risk of the axle snapping if you let things go too long.  Although it was an additional expense, my gut told me that renting a car for the trip was good insurance against that wheel bearing blowing apart in weekend traffic on crowded, busy interstate through Chicago. So we did the rental car. It cost us, with a discount through Costco Travel, about $100 for the three days. A new rear-end (axles, wheel bearings, differential) on our car, at a Chicago-area shop, could have cost as much as $1500, and that’s not even considering the potential for a crash, injury, and damage to other drivers’ cars.

My gut instinct was proven correct a couple months later when we sold the Crown Vic in advance of buying our anniversary car.  (I’ll tell that story sometime, too.) A couple weeks after the new owner paid us for the car, he messaged me with pictures: the rear axle had indeed failed, at about 50 mph, causing the rear wheel to come off, causing body damage and flying debris, which cut through the neck of the gas-filler tube. Thankfully, nobody was hurt; the new owner was able to wrestle the car to a stop safely. I felt absolutely awful, even though we had advised getting the repair done immediately, and the new owner had even gotten estimates for the work before paying us for the car. But my thought process on deciding to rent proved to be really valuable.

If You’re Still Not Sure, Ask Me!

I can’t guarantee your old car is safe to drive on a long trip. But I can look at your shop estimates and decipher them for you. I can describe what can happen if that particular thing breaks. I can definitely help you clarify your decision to rent or drive your own car. If renting is out of the question due to costs, then I can help you mentally prepare for a big trip in an old car too, so if the worst happens, you can handle it with as little stress as possible. I even offer affordable on-call services so you can phone-a-friend while traveling if something comes up unexpectedly! Message me on Facebook for a free quote.

The Check Engine Light: Is My Car Safe to Drive?

Ah, yes, the check engine light. Source of many jokes and almost as many misunderstandings! Ignore it? Stop driving immediately? What do I do?

The most important thing you need to know is that the “check engine light” communicates information about a car’s emissions control and engine management systems. It will not tell you if your tires are dangerously worn, if your brakes are about to fail, if a component of your suspension is *thisclose* to breaking and causing you to lose control of your car.

Over my years answering car questions, I have encountered people who feel that as long as the check-engine light (or CEL, as it’s sometimes referred to) is not on, their car is safe to drive. This is a false assumption, as most of the maintenance issues which may make a car un-safe to drive will not trigger the check engine light!

Unless the check engine light is flashing or blinking (which is serious) a check-engine light is nothing to be immediately alarmed about, but it does need attention soon. If the car is still driving and acting normally despite the check engine light, you can finish your errands and go the family baseball game this weekend. Just remember to call and schedule a shop visit for sometime next week.

If, however, your check engine light is flashing, you need to stop driving the car as soon as you can do so safely. A flashing or blinking light means there’s a serious issue in the car’s emissions, engine controls, or transmission and damage can occur if you continue to drive. Pull over and stop driving as soon as possible! You may need a tow.

In short: blinking light is serious business; steady light needs attention soon but isn’t an immediate emergency.

And remember! The really scary and dangerous maintenance concerns your car may develop likely won’t trip your check-engine light at all, so keep up with regular brake inspections, oil changes, and suspension, steering, and tire maintenance even if your check engine light never lights up!