How to Teach your Teen to Drive: 5 Tips

The time has come for your teen to get behind the wheel—but are you ready to get them ready for the road?

driving instructor with student

Each rite of passage that parents watch their kids go through can feel like a muddle of pride, excitement, and complete and utter terror about what moving farther and farther into the world can bring. But there is something particularly frightening about children learning to drive—and for good reason. Not only does their independence skyrocket, the dangers that come with a set of wheels are real: car accidents are the leading cause of death for teenagers in the US. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) reports that in 2011, 2,650 people from ages 16-19 died in car wrecks, and another 292,000 ended up in the emergency room after a crash.

The Wall Street Journal reports that although most states require 40-50 hours of parent-teen lessons before licensing a teen to drive, a recent study assessing teens after six months of supervised driving practice found that 54% of them still made serious driving errors. While parents are good at teaching basic driving skills such as steering, controlling the car, and parking, many fail to teach accident-avoiding skills.

Car accidents are the leading cause of death for teenagers in the US

Parents, it seems, tend to focus on aspects of driving that were their own problem areas, all those years ago. Another issue is that by the time a parent is ready to teach their child, many driving behaviors have become so automatic—like slowing down and carefully checking for pedestrians while approaching a crosswalk—it doesn’t occur to parents to teach them. As a result, The Wall Street Journal reports that parents are failing to focus on teaching their new drivers what to do in dangerous, highly stressful situations. While the old standbys are good—no cellphones within sight, hands at 10 and 2, properly positioned mirrors—Quoted is here with some important tips that might not occur to parents.

Each state has different requirements when it comes to pre-license training. For the details on what your teenager will need, check here. Once you know the requirements, it’s time to get to work and teach your teen to drive. Even if your child plans to take Driver’s Ed, you’ll still need to help them practice.

Tip Number 1: Be a wo/man with a plan

Consider following a teaching plan researched and developed by experts. State Farm has a great one called Road Trips, as does The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia—theirs is called Teen Driving Plan.

From NPR: the Teen Driving Plan guides parents in teaching their teens useful, life-saving things like how to drive in all weather conditions, and how to navigate heavy traffic and parking lots alike. In a study testing the effectiveness of the Plan, just 6% of teens who’s parents used it failed their road test, while 15% of teens who’s parents didn’t use the Plan failed.

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Tip Number 2: Important skills to teach

Deborah Hersman, president of the National Safety Council, told the Wall Street Journal that “The most important things parents can teach teens are how to develop hazard recognition and judgment—making the left turns into oncoming traffic, how to merge on and off highways at high speed.” So once your teen has the basics down pat, you’ll want to keep increasing the difficulty of their practice. Don’t play it safe and stick to parking lots and back roads—instead, help your teen earn the confidence and skill they’ll need for their whole driving career with highway driving and busy, complicated streets. It’s also important to help your child learn to drive in different weather conditions, as well as at night. Both driving plans mentioned in Tip 1 emphasize these lessons.

Tip Number 3: Dealing with sudden obstacles

Perhaps you remember learning to drive—your parent probably warned you that if a small animal ran into your car’s path, it was important you not swerve to avoid it. Maybe you, like us, balked, thinking you’d never want to kill a squirrel, or heaven forbid, a cat. A small animal running into the road is frightening and shocking, and most people’s natural instinct is to swerve, but that reaction is much more likely to end in a crash. It’s hard to run over Thumper, but it’s better than getting into a wreck, or a collision with another car. It’s important to talk to your teen about what to do in the event of a sudden obstacle in the road so that if it comes up, they are prepared and know what to do. If the obstacle is too big to hit—a deer, moose, or even a broken-down car—Popular Mechanics suggests teaching your teen to scan for “exit points”—grass medians and such.

Tip Number 4: Skid practice

Dangerous situations are difficult to recreate safely—you wouldn’t set up another car to run a red light just to see how your teen driver would handle it. But skids are something that are safe to practice and come up a lot in the real driving world. Popular Mechanics spoke with survival driving instructor Bill Wade who suggests donuts in a vacant parking lot:

“With the car up to speed, give the order to turn abruptly and keep accelerating. Sharp cornering and even skidding in a controlled environment beats doing those things in an emergency. If the car skids (that is, oversteers), the car’s weight shifts forward and the rear end fishtails. During oversteer, tell your pupil to tap the brakes and slowly turn away from the direction of the skid in order to regain control.”

Wade suggests giving lessons in vacant lots in all types of weather so your child will have experience with wet, icy, and snowy pavement.

You want to increase the difficulty of your teen's driving practice

Tip Number 5: Hug it out

And finally, in remembrance of our own days learning to drive (which often ended in tears), we advise teachers to be aware of their attitude. Teaching a child to drive can be terrifying, but learning to drive is difficult too, so try to keep the mood light—a relaxed environment is much easier to learn in than one in which yelling is a constant. And remember to offer praise to your new driver when they do well—“Great job checking your blind spot and glancing over your shoulder before merging.” As Popular Mechanics writes, positive reinforcement will help your teen continue using safe driving behaviors even after you’re no longer in the passenger’s seat.

The Wall Street Journal spoke with scientists from the University of Iowa who, based on their research, suggest parents use open-ended questions about their teens’ driving, then summarize their answers without judgment or criticism, and finally use “I” statements to explain to their own feelings:

“For example, if a teen rolls through a stop sign, a parent might say, ‘Tell me about how you handled the intersection back there,’ listen to the answer, and say, ‘So you did sort of a rolling stop’? After listening to any additional explanation, the parent might say, ‘When you don’t stop completely, it scares me. I get concerned that it might become a habit and the next time someone will be coming fast. For my peace of mind, I need to know that stopping completely becomes a habit for you.’”

After being a part of these types of conversations while learning to drive, teens were much more likely to agree with their parents’ assessment and the teens even showed a 21% decline in risky behaviors.

Finally, we beg you, don’t be like our old babysitter’s mother who taught her children to drive while wearing a helmet and fervently pressing the passenger’s side floor with her foot, hoping a break pedal might appear. No good can come of it.

  • Stephanie Smith

    Ugh, tip #3 is so hard, but people need to do this more. I love animals, I cried when I hit a bird when I was in high school. But, I was on a busy road with traffic going the opposite way, and if I had swerved it would’ve been chaotic. Skid practice is important too, especially in Utah where black ice is common. These are great tips, thanks for sharing!

  • Gary Birtles

    I think it is very important for teens to learn how to be defensive drivers. The most important safety advice I was given while I was learning how to drive was to always expect the drivers around you to make poor decision. Driving with this mindset helps you expect the unexpected. It makes driving a lot safer.

  • Gwen Miller

    I really like what you said about building your teen’s confidence by sticking to parking lots and back roads. When I was a teen and learning to drive, my dad took me out on the freeway right away. It really scared me, and I didn’t like driving. I think if I ease my kids into that, they will be more comfortable behind the wheel.

  • Mickey

    I’m in the thick of it with my 16 year old son….we’re trying the freeway today for the first time. I’m terrified. Here goes…………………..

  • Judson

    I am teaching my little sister how to drive! I am a graduate student learning how to be a clinicale mental health counselor and my sister has a little bit of a learning disability, but she is doing very well. We have the basic street driving down, working on parking, and for the first time entered the 2 lane highway with a little bit of difficulty. We are goingt to spend 30+ hours perfecting side streets before entering again. Does anybody have any tips for me or book recommendations to help me teach my sister?

  • Rebecka Toney

    Last line: I believe the author meant “brake” and not “break,” although I might be wrong!