This is the point at which you put the family’s 1st or 2nd most valuable possession in the hands of someone who’s brain has not finished developing. The situation is this: 2 tonnes of metal travelling at up to 30 metres per second in amongst pedestrians, cyclists, lorries, buses, motorcyclists, agricultural machinery and other cars – how do you get the safe driving message across?
Your child may approach driving with apprehension or bravado, or somewhere between. Too timid and they’ll be a nightmare for other drivers on the road by being too slow and hesitant; too confident and they’ll exceed the limits of the car and have a crash.
There are some factors and experience which could mean that they control the vehicle much better right at the beginning, but they could have a surplus of confidence over ability.
Playing certain types of video games can make you a better driver. If your child owned a pedal or petrol-powered go-kart or have ridden a bicycle on the road, they will be much more attuned to the dynamics of the vehicle and much more aware of traffic around them. If your teen hasn’t had experience of any of these, it doesn’t mean to say that all hope is lost and they can’t become a good driver – they can!
Around 6-12 months before your teen is ready to drive, you need to start having conversations with them about what they want to achieve from driving and what skills they will need. How will it impact their life and how can they manage having a car. What will it allow them to do? What are the responsibilities of driving and the consequences of getting it wrong? What are their legal responsibilities? Reinforce the dangers of cellphone use while driving and remember that they will copy the example set by you, so if you’re a person who uses a cellphone while driving, now’s the time to stop.
You’ll also need to decide who will teach them to drive, what time and money effort they will put in and what the parameters are for using the family vehicle.
If you want to give them a head start, get them to do commentary drives from the passenger seat. They should be telling you what they are seeing and how it impacts the route ahead.
How to supervise your teen in the car
Without a doubt, the best option to get your teen up-to-speed is to use a driving instructor. They have all the tools to make new drivers feel at ease, plus dual controls in case something goes very wrong.
But, you will need to let your teen practice in your car otherwise it’ll take them an eternity (and cost you a mountain of money) to get them to the point where they have enough skill to pass the test.
The key to a fruitful parent-child relationship is communication. If you get angry and they get frustrated, your relationship with them can go downhill quickly.
Making a plan
Therefore, first, make a plan for where you will drive on your practice route and ensure your teen knows what the objectives are on each drive. This could be as simple as them driving to school with you in the car on a known route, or it could be that you’ll head out somewhere you’ve never been on a longer drive where you drive first so that they are not too tired when you get to the place you will be practicing (this is relevant if you live in the central city, but you want to practice on narrow country lanes – you can drive out of the city, then swap).
When deciding where to go, you can either use a GPS such as Google Maps backed up by advice, or you can give directions verbally with some advice. Giving directions verbally is the best option to start with as you can tell them far enough in advance so they won’t have sensory overload.
Tip: if you’re the type of person that says ‘right’ a lot as part of your conversation, this could become very confusing when you’re trying to give directions – maybe you remember this confusion of directions.
Use clear directions such as “at the next set of traffic lights, turn left”, and make sure you’ve given them enough time to move into the left-hand lane and signal for the lights.
If they are doing something wrong, it’s best to bring it to their attention with a question about the road rules. For example, if they are in the right-hand lane when they should be in the left, say “What lane is the correct lane to be in here?” (notice we didn’t use the ‘right lane to be in’). Or, “What’s the speed limit in an urban area?”
When they do well, give them praise, but there’s no need to be patronising or effusive – they are not four years old. When you give them feedback at the end of the drive, make sure you include what they did well as well as what they need to work on improving.
Before you engage a driving instructor, you can do a vehicle familiarisation lesson. Show them how the car turns on and off, what the lights on the dashboard mean, how to operate the lights and indicators, how to set up the mirrors and seat properly, the pedals, the gearstick, and any additional features.
As part of responsible car ownership, they’ll need to know about keeping the tyres pumped up and checking the fluids.
To get you familiar with instructing them, the best plan is to find somewhere quiet where you can practice manoeuvring at a safe, slow speed. When my Dad did this for me, it was at an abandoned airfield in the Lincolnshire fens, but you might not be lucky enough to have that near you. Empty car parks on a Sunday are a good option.
Start with around 20 minutes of driving. This is enough for a new driver. Build up to around an hour and vary the time of day. As they get more experience, try rainy and gloomy days and throw in manoeuvres that are tricky such as parallel parking.
If they are having lessons, check whether there’s anything they want to practice. Be vigilant that they are not developing bad habits such as not indicating.
Working towards the test
As you get closer to the test, listen to your teen’s apprehensions and fears. It’s natural for them to be worried about the test as it represents a milestone for them, especially if many of their friends have already passed. How will you deal with the disappointment if they do fail? How will you keep them motivated to try again? Talk to the driving instructor about how you can support what they are doing, too.