There are many things to consider before letting your child get behind the wheel. While early driving practice tends to follow the same tactics our parents used, that’s where any similarity ends.
After years of escalating teen traffic-related death rates, 37 states, including Tennessee, have adopted what’s called a “graduated driver’s license.” Teens may still get their Learner’s Permit at age 15, but are not allowed to have a regular Class D license until they meet certain requirements and reach the age of 18. There are two intermediate steps in between. Visit state.tn.us/safety for a chart.
However, most experts agree that learning to drive begins long before teens are eligible for a permit. Like it or not, kids learn driving behavior from their parents. How parents treat rules such as speed limits and yellow lights, and safety issues such as seat belt and cell phone use, have a huge cumulative influence over the years their children are passengers in their cars, watching them drive.
This recently hit home with Nashville dad Sandy Campbell while riding with his 16-year-old daughter Jessie. “I was getting on her about holding the steering wheel at the bottom with one hand,” he says. “Then I realized that’s how I drive. When you’re teaching your child, you become very much aware of your own bad habits.”
Talk While You Teach
“Commentary driving” can help parents and teens become aware of both good and bad driving habits before the teen ever gets behind the wheel. The first step is to start talking about what you see and do as you’re driving. For instance, you might say something like “I’m starting to brake for that stop sign at the intersection coming up ahead. Do you see any cars coming from the left? Right? Are there any pedestrians waiting to cross the street?”
After doing this for awhile, have your teen talk you through all the steps, including road conditions, potential hazards and correct driver response. While parents may get a lot of rolling eyes and “give-me-a-break” attitudes, experts say engaging in commentary driving for six months to a year as passengers makes teens much more aware of what they’re supposed to be doing behind the wheel.
Campbell also advises parents to start working on directions before the teen actually starts driving. “Until you start driving, you don’t care where you’re going. There’s no sense of direction because it’s not needed,” he notes. “I was amazed that I had to tell Jessie where to turn every corner to get to church or school or the grocery store, even though we’ve been going the same way to these places for years.”
Because Metro Nashville schools don’t offer driver’s education classes, Campbell taught Jessie to drive by himself. Other parents choose to pay the $250 or more charged by professional driving schools such as Brentwood Driver Training, with offices in Brentwood, Nashville and Hendersonville. Williamson County recently increased its fee to $230 for driver’s ed, offered year-round in four high schools and during the summer in two additional high schools. All high schools in Rutherford County provide driver’s education classes as part of the curriculum.
Area driver’s education classes, whether provided by a private company or public schools, consist of 30 hours of classroom instruction followed by six hours of behind-the-wheel training. Teens may legally drive with a certified instructor before getting their Learner’s Permit, but high school instructors Ben Cates in Murfreesboro and Don Kirby in Franklin agree that it’s more productive to have the permit before actually driving a vehicle.
Safe Learning/Safe Cars
Kirby, who teaches at Centennial High School, advises parents to take their kids to a “big, empty parking lot to practice basic skills like steering and braking before class in order to spend quality time on the road.”
In Rutherford County, students get this basic experience at the mini driving range at Middle Tennessee State University, where they also have use of a driving simulator before actually hitting the road, according to Driver’s Ed teacher Cates.
It can be unnerving for parents to ride in the car with their teen at first, but Cates says that the parent “must be very calm while coaching, because the teen can’t learn when you’re frustrated – and because it might cause an accident if you’re yelling.”
Jeremy Lyon, president of Brentwood Driver Training, notes that parents usually yell things like “Look out for that mailbox!” when instead they should be saying, “Look at the road, look at where you want to go.” He points out that the young driver’s hands follow their eyes, so if they are looking at the yellow line that’s where they will be driving; if they’re looking at the side of the road, they’ll be too close to the shoulder.
Lyon further says that because inexperienced drivers tend to over-correct when driving, it’s particularly dangerous for them to drive Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs) or any vehicle that tends to roll. He recommends a small to mid-size car for at least the first year.
Statistically Speaking …
Vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers, and 16-year-olds are involved in five times as many fatal accidents as the general public, according to the American Automobile Association (AAA). Forty-one percent of 16-year-old drivers in fatal crashes involve only the teen’s vehicle, making it by far the most frequent type of crash.
Lyon attributes these statistics to the fact that young drivers tend to over-correct and because they are very easily distracted – by other people in the car, fiddling with the radio or CD player or talking on the phone. In fact, he has pulled the radio fuse in the car his own son is learning to drive.
Tennessee’s graduated licensing system addresses most of these concerns by limiting the number of passengers and prohibiting late-night driving, when conditions are more dangerous but also when teens tend to be out joy riding. Even so, instructors and experienced parents agree that there’s no substitute for parental involvement. This means a lot of supervised practice, as well as knowing when, where and with whom your teen is driving, every time he gets behind the wheel.
The Benefit of Classes
Don Kirby says that 90 percent of his students take driver’s ed because of the discount awarded by most insurance companies, but warns parents that “driver’s ed is not a cure-all; passing the class doesn’t mean the student is ready to drive alone. One of the most important aspects of safe teen driving is attitude – and that’s something I can’t control.”
Scott Brunette, a Nashville dad who taught two teens to drive, points out that beginning drivers are going to make mistakes. “It just goes along with it. Classes give a deeper understanding of laws, but don’t increase skills. That’s something that comes only from practice and experience” he says.
Lyon has also discovered that having a financial stake in a vehicle – either by helping pay for it or making insurance payments – is a big motivator for teens to drive more carefully. “They don’t consider the danger – they’re invincible at 16,” Lyon laughs, “but they really think about the money.”
A driver’s license is a ticket to freedom for teens and often for their parents as well. By modeling good driving habits, making time for plenty of supervised practice, enforcing rules and limits and providing a safe vehicle, parents can hand over the keys with confidence.
Nancy Brown is a mother and freelance writer. She lives in Bellevue.
ONLINE DRIVING TIPS:
Before handing over the keys, do a little research on your own. Check out some of these Internet resources:
carfax.com – sign up to get weekly email tips, statistics, stories, etc. to help parents get involved in their teen’s driving education.
realworlddriver.com – website hosted by Ford Motor Company and the Governor’s Highway Safety Association that includes four lessons covering hazard recognition, vehicle handling, space management and speed management. There’s a quiz at the end, and a perfect score is rewarded with a prize.
roadreadyteens.org – a video game helps teach safe driving, available at no cost.
driversed.com – online home-study driving curriculum that meets insurance discount requirements.
Information about Brentwood Driver Training can be found by calling 373-5634 or at studentdriverusa.com.