Watching your kid transition from a learner’s permit to a driver’s license may give you a feeling of de ja vu, like a reboot of a John Hughes movie unfolding before your eyes. All the plot twists, conflicts, and resolutions you went through in getting your own license may be coming back to life in a coming-of-age tale starring your kid—the same kid whose diapers you used to change, whose first steps you watched while lining the way with pillows, and whose head you protected with a helmet when they were first learning how to ride a bike. Believe it or not, that kid is behind the wheel now, and your job isn’t to steer it from the side—it’s to guide them into making the right choices on their own.
Remember that feeling of independence when you were finally able to drive yourself and your friends anywhere your hearts desired? Remember all the shenanigans you guys got up to? Understandably, that may be the very reason you’re terrified now. Not to worry—your teen driver’s excitement is most likely balanced out with a healthy amount of fear, as it should be, because getting behind the wheel for the first time is a great responsibility. Not only are they responsible for their (or your) vehicle, but they also have a responsibility to their passengers and others on the road. They know that safety is paramount, but in the excitement of the moment, they may forget the crucial basics they (already or will have) learned in driving school.
In this article, we’ll tackle everything you need to know as the parent (or grandparent, aunt, uncle, or guardian) of a teen driving for the first time.
Help Your Teen Get through Driver’s Ed
Before your teen gets the opportunity to take the driver’s test, some states like California will require them to attend a driver’s education (or “driver’s ed”) class. Driver’s ed is specifically designed for new drivers. It will equip them with the know-how to legally obtain a driver’s license and understand the risks involved. These classes are offered in some local high schools as a school-sponsored program, but some are restricted by low budgets, which could affect the quality of instruction. As AAA spokesperson Tom Crosby said, “We are killing too many kids because they have not been taught correctly.”
Research driver’s ed programs in your area and help the teen in your life choose the best one. Attending driver’s ed is essential, even if your state does not require it. It’ll help your teen learn the following skills to make them a great driver:
1. Driving Laws and How to Keep a License
Simple road rules like properly identifying and following traffic signs and lights, driving according to different speed limits, and understanding the right of way are key to safe driving. Breaking too many of these laws will lead to a suspended or revoked license, so it’s crucial that your teen knows all these important laws before hitting the road.
The perfect time to review and quiz your teen on what they know (not to the point of hovering or distraction, of course) is when you’re on the road with them. Calmly ask what different signs mean as you point them out, whose turn it is when you reach a four-way stop, how soon you should use your turn signal before making a turn, what the speed limits are as you enter a neighborhood, a school zone, a main street, the freeway, etc. With your patience and some practical, real-time experience, your teen will be ready to drive with confidence in no time.
2. Driving Exam
Your teen’s license is issued by a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) after they’ve completed and passed a series of exams. A failing mark will mean your teen will have to repeat the whole testing process. These exams vary by state, and may include an eye exam, a written test on traffic laws and road signs, and a practical driving exam.
These tests may have changed since the time you had to take them, so stay updated on current tests so you can help the teen in your life pass the first time.
3. Vehicle Safety and Ownership
Driver’s ed will also cover the basics of owning a vehicle. These classes will cover the basic safety features of most vehicles, which your teen needs to be aware of because they could minimize injury or help them survive in the event of an accident. Seat belts, child restraint systems, and airbags are among the few your teen will learn about.
From bumper to bumper, take the time to point out all the different parts of the vehicle your teen will be driving, especially safety features like the emergency brake, hazards, etc.
4. Vehicle Control
Learning how to actually drive is as important as learning the theory of driving. Turning, lane control, and how to properly share the road with other drivers are just a few skills your teen will learn. Driver’s ed will also cover what your teen should do when emergency situations like floods or ice on the road suddenly catch them off guard.
Before your teen leaves driver’s ed, it’s important for them to know how to park properly. While some states’ driving tests don’t require parallel parking, it’s best for your teen to master that along with other trickier parking basics, like parking on a hill, before they get their license. Encourage and accompany your teen to practice regularly to make sure they have these essential skills down pat.
Raise Your Teen’s Awareness with the Statistics
The numbers tell a cold truth about the newest drivers across the country. In 2016, more than 2,400 teens lost their lives in car crashes. That amounts to six teens per day. Driver inexperience is the main factor in these accidents, which are the leading cause of deaths for teens in the U.S. Lack of experience on the road is a serious issue, as one study claims that it takes about five years for a teen driver to reach the skill level of most drivers.
According to Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data analyzed by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 48% of teen accidents result in the occupant of the other vehicle being injured, and 29% of those occupants are killed. While only 2% of teen accidents involve the injury of a pedestrian or cyclist, 12% of those pedestrian or cyclist accidents result in death.
Take the time to sit down and have a conversation with the teen in your life about these issues, and stress the importance of practicing defensive driving so they don’t become a part of these tragic statistics. These statistics can help put things into perspective and encourage your teen to be more mindful when they’re on the road.
Essential Tips for Your Teen to Keep in Mind
Remind your teen that driving is a privilege and not a right, and that keeping this privilege will be easy if they follow these tips. Not only will they be able to keep driving, but they’ll also keep themselves and others safe in the long run.
1. Wear your seat belt and position your mirrors properly.
Tell your teen to make sure they always wear their seat belt, and to make it a rule that they don’t start driving until everyone in the vehicle is buckled up. Wearing their seat belt properly can prevent your teen from flying through the windshield in the event of a front impact. Also, tell your teen to check their mirrors and seating position to ensure they have a full view around the vehicle and are comfortable before they go.
2. Practice often, in all conditions, and with an instructor if needed.
If your teen is worried about different driving conditions, the best way to face their fear is to practice with you or an instructor. Practicing in situations where snow, rain, and ice alter driving conditions will help your teen react properly in any given situation. Knowing what to do in different driving conditions could mean the difference between keeping the car on the road and ending up in an accident.
3. Don’t text and drive.
Remind your teen to keep their hands on the steering wheel and eyes on the road. Tell them that if they must take a call or read a message, they should pull over to a safe area where they’re not obstructing the road. Eight out of ten crashes are due to distracted driving. While using your phone isn’t the only way to get distracted while driving, it is a common cause for accidents. Urge your teen to not fidget with the radio, eat or drink, read a map, put on makeup, or, most especially, reach for objects on the floor while driving.
4. Don’t speed.
Following simple laws like the speed limit won’t just keep your teen from getting tickets, it’ll also help keep them safe. Speeding leaves less reaction time between what surprises your teen on the road and bringing their vehicle to a full stop. Speeding also causes severe damage during a crash and, in worst cases, can lead to fatalities. Aside from making your teen safer behind the wheel, another good thing about not speeding is that it can help cut their fuel costs down by not working the engine so hard.
Essential Tips for YOU to Keep in Mind
Here are a last few tips—just between us—for you to keep in mind so you can make sure the teen in your life is as safe as possible on the road, and to help them grow to be responsible drivers.
1. Do not reprimand your teen without proper explanation.
Many of us can remember how exciting it was when our parents handed us the keys to the family car, but some of us may also remember how devastating it was when they took them away without much of an explanation. If you have a teen driver hitting the road for the first time and they commit a potentially serious mistake, make sure not to reprimand them without a clear explanation. Treating them with patience and respect will encourage them to really listen and learn from their mistake.
2. Lead by example.
Kids watch their parents all the time from the back seat, and that doesn’t stop when they get older. Setting a good example by following all laws, keeping your hands on the wheel rather than on the radio dials or your phone, and keeping your eyes on the road are just a few things you can impart to the teen in your life. That way, when it’s their turn to drive, they’ll be more likely to practice what you preach.
3. Set ground rules.
Making sure your first-time driver knows that driving is a huge responsibility is very important. Set some ground rules on car use and have an agreement on the consequences of breaking those rules. Learning the importance of following the law starts at home.
4. Don’t let your teen drive unsupervised with other teens.
Letting other inexperienced drivers give instructions to your teen is a situation you should avoid, especially at such a crucial time as them just learning how to drive. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that for drivers under the age of 18, having teen passengers increases the risk of a crash. In California, unless they’re accompanied by a licensed driver aged 25 or older, licensed minors are not allowed to have passengers under the age of 20 for the first year after they get their license. Regardless of the law in your state, it’s best to practice the same level of caution.