Forty days and 40 nights, that’s exactly how much time remains until my only child is scheduled to take his driving test. Not unlike Moses time spent on the mount, ensuring that my son capitalizes on those 40 days and nights to become not only a “skilled” but “wise” driver is essential. Talk about a task of near biblical proportion.
Seriously, when it comes to teaching our teens to drive, the focus is on helping them develop the basic skills, which are usually lacking when they first get behind the wheel. After a couple of months of demonstrating a good feel for the basics, the typical teen’s parent shifts into passive mode piping up only to offer corrective instruction (i.e., slow down, brake, stop, etc.) or an occasional “attaboy” throughout the remainder of the learning period. Research suggests, however, that parents should be using this time to instill broader principles of good judgment, accurate hazard perception and level-headed decision making—all higher level skills essential to driving.
That’s a pretty tall order and one that I wasn’t equipped to handle when my son got his permit last September. So, not unlike Moses, I went searching for answers (including doing a good bit of praying that I'd be able to help my son and we'd be safe on the road!) In my case, I was determined to find the definitive guide to help me better train and coach my teen driver so that he was more than just a driving machine. Did I find it? No.
What I did find were lots of publications filled with checklists and lessons as well as reminders that teens have the highest crash risk of any age group on the road. Now don’t get me wrong, these resources are helpful. The New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission, for example, produces and distributes Safe Driving, A Parent’s Guide to Teaching Teens that includes a series of lessons that address critical topics ranging from safe merging and passing, to scanning the road and allowing adequate following distance between your vehicle and the one ahead of you. It also has a handy log teens can use to keep track of when and where they drive and in what conditions—important for ensuring that you’re exposing your teen to a variety of driving situations and environments throughout the permit phase of our state’s Graduated Driver License or GDL program.
But does the publication delve into those higher order issues I noted above? And perhaps, more importantly, does the information adequately prepare me to supervise my teen? Again, I have to say no and I’m betting there are other parents who feel the same way I do.
So what is the answer? Here’s what I’ve discovered since I started this journey with my son 11 months ago. First, it’s okay to admit that teaching your teen to drive is not only nerve-wracking (it’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life), but hard not just for you, but your child. Don’t be afraid to talk about this with your teen since I’m betting he or she is pretty anxious, too. (In my son’s case, imagine having the leader of the New Jersey Teen Safe Driving Coalition as your mom and supervising driver!)
Second, make time to review and use the publication noted above and other teen-driving related information you receive from your auto insurance carrier (many do provide free and helpful information via their websites) and/or other organizations to supplement your knowledge and help formulate a plan of attack. Also talk to your teen’s classroom driver education teacher and behind-the-wheel instructor (something we should be doing before, during and after his in-car training) for tips on how best to train and coach your novice driver. If you’re not leveraging the expertise of these professionals, you should be!
Third, take the time after every practice driving session (or as many as possible—I know families are busy) to talk about what your teen experienced on the road. Ask him to describe what was going on around him (if he can do this while driving—called commentary driving—even better) and how what he and other drivers did impacted his and their safety on the road. Just as a coach breaks down film after a game to assess what players did and didn’t do well, the same is essential for teen drivers. Take advantage of every opportunity to discuss your teen’s time on the road so that it becomes much more than practice, but a far deeper discussion addressing decision-making, the need to remain 100 percent focused on the road and what’s going on around you, and, most importantly, safety.
My son and I have gotten pretty good at working through the parent-teen anxiety. Our communication has also improved immensely (I rarely hear "I know mom” and he has learned that I’m not yelling when I ask him to check his speed against the posted limit, plus we talk about what’s happening while he’s driving) and we’ve grown closer from this experience. But it hasn’t been easy and over the next 40 days and nights, I’ll remain vigilant in my effort to get him out on the road to hone those higher order skills.
At the end of the day, I’m trying to do the best I can—based on what I’ve learned and continue to discover daily—to help him become a skilled and wise driver. But that doesn’t magically happen once he passes the road test. In fact, it’s my duty and obligation not only to my son, but everyone else on the road to continue the practice sessions and post-driving discussions with him long after he has his license in hand. As for these remaining 40 days, well they’re not the end of the journey, but the beginning of a lifelong learning process for both of us.