When it’s time to teach your teenager to drive, begin by taking the time to make sure your teen is knowledgeable about and comfortable with the vehicle and its controls.
Start with a tour of the vehicle
Before you hit the road, demonstrate how to adjust the seat and side and rearview mirrors to fit the teen’s needs. Make any other accommodations that are necessary, such as tilting the steering wheel.
Review the controls and features of the car. Make sure your teen knows how each of these works:
- Dashboard controls
- Steering wheel and seat adjustment
- Mirror adjustment
- Turn signals
- Safety features like airbags and seat belts
- Emergency lights
- Parking brake/release
- Starting/turning off the engine
- Gas, brakes (especially ABS)
- Warning indicator lights on dashboard (such as low fuel, oil, temperature indicator)
Also, be sure to show your teen where the registration, insurance card, and car manual are located.
Get a feel for the vehicle
The first time your teen actually drives the car, start in a safe location like an empty parking lot. Have your teen practice applying gas and brakes, driving straight, turning, and backing up.
As you see your teen beginning to master these skills, take note and make the situation a little more complex next time. For example, instead of just stopping and starting, have your teen pull into and out of a parking spot.
It can take several outings to learn how to get from point A to point B, and to figure out how much pressure to apply to the brakes to stop or how far to move the steering wheel to turn.
This is also a good time to remind your teen driver to pay attention to the surroundings:
- Look ahead and to the sides.
- Check mirrors.
- Scan continuously for hazards.
- Teach your teen to keep a clear ‘safety space’ around the car so there’s room to react to any hazards. The farther he or she hangs back from the vehicle in front, the better your teen will be able to see what’s ahead. Seeing better and farther provides extra time to react to changing traffic conditions.
Start in low-speed, low-traffic areas
Once your teen is comfortable with the basic operation of the car, take your lessons to quiet streets where your teen can practice staying on one side of the road, anticipate cars exiting driveways, and learn to pull up to a stop sign.
For the next several lessons, stick to roads that have slower speed limits (under 35 mph). Emphasize that the posted limit is only a guide for an acceptable speed in excellent conditions. Your teen should drive even slower in poor weather, heavy traffic, or areas where there are a lot of pedestrians.
Beginner skills checklist
Vary the routes to practice the following:
- Turns: speed and use of signals
- Braking smoothly: gradually slowing to a stop
- Accelerating smoothly: steadily increasing to a safe speed within the posted limit
- Approaching intersections controlled by stop signs or lights
- Determining right of way
- Single-land and multi-lane roadways (low speeds)
- Changing lanes
- Maintaining appropriate speed
- Scanning for and identifying hazards
- Keeping a safe following distance
- Sharing the road with cyclists, pedestrians, school buses
- Driving in a school zone
- Reacting to an approaching emergency vehicle
- Using turning lanes
As your new driver starts to master these skills, pay attention to which ones he or she is confident with. As you both become more comfortable, continue to expose your teen to different times of day, levels of traffic, and weather conditions on familiar roads.
At this point, your teen has mastered the basics and needs lots of practice getting used to the road. For the next several hours of driving practice, stick to low-speed, low-traffic roads. Try to take a different route each time to be sure your teen is getting the variety needed to become a safe driver.
Driving on the highway
Driving on a multi-lane highway for the first time can be scary. Start your teen out by driving at quieter times of the day to practice merging into traffic, staying in the lane, and using higher speeds and safe following distances without the added stress of rush-hour traffic. Once you are both comfortable with that, gradually move on to busier traffic situations.
Before heading out onto the highway, prepare your new driver for:
- Higher speeds that call for longer stopping distances
- The need to check blind spots before changing lanes
- Driving near large trucks
- Anticipating interchanges by reading signs
- Allowing a ‘safety space’ around you, in the event you need to pull off the road for another vehicle or debris
- Looking for traffic stopped or slowing ahead
Advanced skills checklist
Skills a new driver needs to master while in high-speed, high-traffic conditions:
- Merging into traffic
- Identifying road signs and exits
- Navigating toll booths
- Passing and being overtaken
- Maintaining proper speed
- Being courteous to others
- Keeping a safe following distance
Difficult driving conditions are dangerous for all drivers, but are extremely hazardous for new drivers. After you and your teen feel confident with his or her ability to handle each driving situation in daylight and good weather, make sure your teen has plenty of opportunities to drive each type of road at night and in rain, snow, and fog. Discuss using features like the defroster, fog lights, and bright headlights.
Until both you and your teen driver are comfortable with driving in ‘degraded’ conditions, he or she shouldn’t do it without supervision, even if the law says it’s allowed.