Thursday, September 22, 2005

Steering the course: with a little hands-on training—and a lot of patience—you can help your teen become a safer, smarter driver

Every year, teens across the country pass their driver's education courses at school and earn a license. But that doesn't necessarily mean they're ready to get behind the wheel.

"Really, the driving exam is a screening exam. It only screens out the very worst," says Bella Dinh-zarr, Ph.D., national director of traffic safety policy for the American Automobile Association in Washington, D.C.

The truth is, in the hands of teens, cars are far more deadly than firearms. Motor vehicle accidents are the number one cause of death and injury for teenagers, claiming the lives of more than 5,500 in 2001.

When it comes to reducing risky driving behavior by teens, parents hold the keys.

Researchers from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development have shown that when parents set limits and take an active interest in teaching their teens to drive, the risky behavior that leads to accidents is greatly reduced.

Teaching your teen to drive will take planning, patience, and time. Even if the law in your state doesn't require it, experts say that parents should aim to get in 50 hours of supervised driving with their teenager in the first six months after she gets a learner's permit. All this time driving together can be exhausting, frustrating, and nerve-racking. But if you make that investment, the reward is incalculable.

If you're going to teach your teen to drive or supplement the training he'll get in a school program, the first thing you need to do is locate a big, empty parking lot.

"The road is not the best place to learn how to drive. The parking lot is," says Carl Kircher, a former race car driver and veteran racing instructor who runs the nonprofit Xtreme Measures teen driving program in the 800,O00-square-foot parking lot at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Kircher suggests a three-part training course in the lot where you choose to train your kid.

Part 1: Here your new driver will learn the basics: steering, accelerating, and braking. Pretend that the parking lanes are the road, and have your teenager drive to the end of the lane, come to a stop, put on the turn signal, look both ways, and turn. That way, he or she can begin to understand how much steering it takes to negotiate the corner, Kircher says.

Part 2: Once your teen masters the basics, Kircher suggests taking a half-dozen soda cans (fill them with water or sand so an errant breeze won't blow them away) to the parking lot and spacing them about 50 feet apart. Have your teen drive in and out of the path of the cans, then turn around at the end and drive back through in the other direction.

Part 3: Set a boundary--say a particular parking lane--then have your young driver accelerate to 30 miles per hour and attempt to stop with enough precision to line the front bumper up with the designated line. This will help your teen learn how much braking it takes to bring the car to a halt.

Following these parking lot sessions, you can venture out onto a country road, preferably one with little oncoming traffic. Gradually work your way up to busier roads and higher speeds, but don't rush it.


Once you're on the road, your young driver is going to face a complicated set of rules and variables. Traffic situations that you take for granted are going to leave your kid flustered and frustrated. How you respond as a backseat driver can make all the difference in developing a confident, accident-free driver. Here are some tips to bear in mind:

Remember the 3 Ps. Planning, patience, and a positive attitude: Repeat these words to yourself before heading out on the road, and be sure to follow them. Plan specific skills you want your young driver to work on for each session; be patient as he makes mistakes and learns from them; and maintain a positive attitude in the car.

Set a timer Dinh-zarr recommends limiting driving sessions to an hour or less. "Your patience probably wears thin as a parent anyway," she says.

Think about how your driver learns. Hey, she's your kid. More than anyone else, you probably have a better idea how she learns and processes information.

"People's learning curves are a lot different. Someone who learns a lot slower or doesn't have as much natural ability can still be as successful as someone with a lot of natural ability," says Danny McKeever, a former professional race car driver who runs Fast Lane, the official racing school of Toyota Motorsports at Willow Springs International Raceway in Rosamond, California. "They might just take a little longer to learn."

Stay inside the comfort zone. "Positive reinforcement is so important," Kircher says. "People have a tendency to push teen drivers too hard, too fast. And the only result is that they feel uncomfortable. Put them in a situation that doesn't put them at risk from a confidence level."

Accept the inevitability of mistakes. Of course your kids are going to make mistakes. The key here is how you help them learn from those mistakes. Remember, you're trying to build their confidence. Yelling that they're going to kill you isn't exactly going to help.

"Rather than say, 'You did this wrong and you did that wrong,' try saying, 'Well, that was all right, but let's try something different in that situation,'" Kircher suggests.


A National Institute of Child Health and Human Development study suggests that spelling out an agreement in writing is actually one of the keys to successfully teaching your teenager to drive. This agreement should clearly lay out the expectations and responsibilities of both the parent and teen, says McKeever. Here are some topics that experts recommend covering in an agreement with your teen:

* Truth or consequences

Your teenager must tell you specifically where he or she is going when taking the car. "If you tell me you're going to Tom's, I don't want to find out you didn't go to Tom's," Kircher says.

* An incentive plan

"There should be incentives for the first 12 months that they don't get a ticket," suggests Jeff Payne, a driving instructor and former race car driver who founded Driver's Edge, a nonprofit organization based in Las Vegas that teaches defensive driving and accident avoidance skills to teens. The flip side is that if your teen does get a ticket in the first six months, driving privileges are forfeited for the next six months. The consequences should be spelled out in the agreement.

* Drinking and driving

In study after study, more than one in three teens reported that in the past month they had ridden with a driver who had been drinking alcohol. One in six teens reported having driven after drinking alcohol within the same one-month period.

You may be convinced that your teenager isn't drinking. "But even the best kid makes bad decisions," says Payne. Consider making a pledge that you will pick up your teen anytime, anywhere, no questions asked, if he calls for a ride home.

* Passenger prohibitions

Having other teens as passengers in the car increases crash risk, Dinh-zarr says. "Parents often don't think about it because teenagers often ride with other teenagers. But that's a dangerous situation." Your agreement should spell out how many, if any, passengers your teen can carry.

* Curfew

In 2000, 41 percent of teen motor vehicle deaths occurred between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. So even if your state doesn't limit what time your teen can drive at night, you should. AAA recommends a curfew of 10 p.m. or 11 p.m., Dinh-zarr says.

* Seat belts

Teens have the lowest rate of seat belt use compared with other age groups. "Stress the importance of wearing seat belts," Dinh-zarr says. "Seat belts have been proven to reduce the risk of death by 45 percent. And this is the group that is most likely to get into a crash." Required use could easily be a part of your agreement.

* Good grades

You might want to consider adding a clause requiring your teen to maintain good grades during the first year or so of driving. "Grades have always been a biggie for me," Kircher says. "I made a contract with my kids to get good grades. That's their job. And they've done fabulously. Never had a problem."



Look at the left outside mirror, then move your eyes right across to the rearview mirror, and over to the right outside mirror. Keep your eyes moving back and forth across that plane, looking through the top half of the windshield.

"You then begin to see far enough ahead to see what's going on so you can anticipate what's going to happen," Kircher says.

To train your teenager to use the vision scan technique and be aware of what's going on around them in the car, ask questions when you ride along. Kircher suggests the following:

* "What's the color of the car behind you?"

* "What did that sign say that we just passed?"

* "What's the color of the car four cars ahead?"

Soon, looking down the road and being aware of what's going on will become second nature for your teen driver.



"Taking a little kid down to a go-cart track teaches them how a vehicle operates," says Jeff Payne, who runs the Driver's Edge teen driving program in Las Vegas.

"A lot of parents might not even think of that, but young kids who go out to go-cart races are going to be better prepared than 90 percent of these other kids when they get their licenses because they'll understand how a vehicle operates at its limit and have a little more respect for it."


* AAA offers a program called "Teaching Your Teens to Drive," which features a video or CD and a handbook that contains specific lessons and a sample parent-teen contract. Call 800/327-3444 to order.

* Information on Jeff Payne's Driver's Edge program based in Las Vegas can be found at

* For more on Carl Kircher's Xtreme Measures program, go to

* Information on Danny McKeever's FAST LANE Teen Scene program can be found at

Jack Croft

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