Teaching Your Teen to Drive
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Teaching Your Teen to Drive

These dos and don'ts will help you ensure your teen learns the driving skills he needs.

Life Lessons

Teaching someone driving skills covers more than just the basics -- such as steering, signaling, merging, and braking. You want to help your teen learn to exercise good judgment and be responsible behind the wheel, so that he's able to meet the challenges his instructor -- and, later, a lifetime of driving -- will present to him.

Behind the Wheel: Dos and Don'ts

DO make sure your teen knows where and what the day's driving lesson will be. "This afternoon, we're going to drive to the hilly part of town and practice parallel parking on a slope." Having (and knowing) a plan will reduce anxiety for both you and your child.

DON'T take your teen out on the road for her first lesson. Start in a big, empty parking lot where she can master the basics without pressure. Slowly work your way from one challenge to the next, moving from quiet avenues to city streets to heavily trafficked areas, and finally, to freeways and highways. Be sure your teen is competent and confident at each level before going to the next (especially if you are teaching your teen on a standard shift).

DO point out what your teen is doing well: "Great job remembering to check your rearview mirror while you drive!" Praise specific improvements, and offer encouragement for those areas that still need work: "The more you practice, the more you'll get used to checking your side-view mirrors, too."

DON'T saddle your teen with negative labels or predictions: "You're such a careless driver! You're going to hit another car if you don't pay better attention." Avoid talking down to her, or treating her as if she is a child.

DO raise your teen's awareness of his mistakes, but do so without shaming or criticizing him. Asking non-judgmental questions such as, "Are you remembering to check your blind spot before switching lanes?" is much more effective than screaming, "For God's sake, don't you see that car?!"

DON'T use the time behind the wheel to nag your teen about unrelated issues. Your new driver has enough to concentrate on -- Who has the right of way? Uh-oh, pedestrian! What gear am I supposed to be in? -- without you haranguing her about the dishes she failed to do last night or the poor grade she got on her algebra quiz. Try to keep all talk in the car casual and breezy.

DO stay calm and collected during your teen's driving lessons. It's natural to be anxious when your child is behind the wheel, but if you are gasping or shrieking, clutching the door strap or thrusting your foot on an imaginary brake pedal, your anxiety will be contagious, leaving your teen too nervous to make the quick, confident decisions required of a driver. She needs to feel that you have faith in her ability. During stressful moments, focus on your breathing, inhaling and exhaling evenly. When your teen lurches to a stop, nearly slamming into the SUV in front of you, take a full breath, then count to 10, or 20, before reacting. If nothing seems to ease your anxiety, you might want to consider the following "Don'ts."

More Dos and Don'ts

DON'T be too proud to turn the teaching over to someone else -- a professional instructor, an adult friend, or another family member. It's not uncommon to find yourself having mini-meltdowns during every lesson or lashing out at your teen for every mistake. But it's not fair to let your stress or impatience turn the learning process into a tear-streaked affair. Do both you and your child a favor: Admit that someone else might be better suited, temperamentally, for the job (legally, whomever your teen drives with must have had his license for at least a year, but you'll want to pick someone with more experience than that). Be sure your teen knows that she is not to blame for your anxiety.

DO set aside time to teach your teen how to change a tire, test the oil and coolant levels, jumpstart a battery, and handle other emergency roadside situations.

DON'T take up your teen's driving time lecturing her on the intricacies of car engines, carburetors, wheel axles, and other mechanics. Her first priority is learning how to work the car, not learning how the car works. Any extra information will only overwhelm her (unless, of course, she's curious about the mechanics of cars, in which case she will seek out the information from you and others).

DO give your teen every possible opportunity to practice driving. Shopping trips, errands, and after-school activities are ideal times to sharpen "around the town" driving skills. Although young people have naturally quick reflexes, they haven't developed good driving judgment; only time behind the wheel can give them that.

DON'T let your teen take the driving test too soon. Many states require only six hours of supervised driving time, but most professional driving instructors suggest at least 40, and in all kinds of conditions -- nighttime, rain, sleet, snow, rush hour, high-speed, etc. Once your teen has her license in hand, she may assume (wrongly) that she's got this driving thing down, and she'll be less receptive to instruction. So, the more you teach her beforehand, the better.

DO set a good example when you yourself are driving. Stick to the speed limit, use your turn signal, wear your seat belt, and show respect to other drivers on the road.

Safety: Dos and Don'ts

The statistics on teen driving are startling: According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, motor vehicle accidents are the main cause of death for American teens, accounting for at least a third of all deaths among 16- to 18-year-olds. That's 5,000 kids a year. Do these numbers make you want to keep your teen from driving anywhere at all, ever again? There's no need to go that far! We've compiled a list of Dos and Don'ts that will help put your teen in a safe-driving frame of mind.

DO make seat belts a requirement for your teen driver and any of her passengers. Most teens have a mistaken sense of invincibility; they wear seat belts less often than older drivers.

DON'T allow your teen to pile her car full of friends, even once she has her license. Too many teen passengers create dangerous distractions -- rock music blasting, food flying, and drinks being passed around. Statistics show that the chance of a car accident increases with every additional passenger.

DO restrict driving during the high-risk hours. This means anytime after dark, and particularly Friday and Saturday nights, when the highest percentage of car accidents occur.

DON'T stand for driving under the influence. Have a serious discussion about the perils of combining drugs or alcohol with driving, and insist that your teen and her friends always have a designated driver when going out to parties. You might want to establish safe options for your teen, such as giving her money for a taxi ride home, or allowing her to call you at any time of night, if she and her friends aren't in fit condition to drive.

DO create a safe-driving contract with your teen. It should cover the safety essentials, including wearing a seat belt at all times and refraining from speeding and driving under the influence. Have your teen sign the contract, making sure she knows the ramifications of breaking it.

Lilan Patri is a freelance writer and creative writing teacher living in New York. She has not forgotten the tears she shed when her father taught her how to drive stick on San Francisco's steepest hills.