As a parent, my number one goal has always been to keep my children safe, which is why the thought of one of them getting behind the wheel feels petrifying if not entirely counterintuitive to my motherly instincts. And yet, every year, teens all over the country take a driver's exam followed by a road test, also known as a driving test, road exam, behind-the-wheel test, in order to achieve the most important teenage status symbol: freedom of the open road.
But before any kid sits behind the wheel of a car, they have to pass that dreaded driving test first. Scared? Take a deep breathe. Teaching a teen how to drive doesn't have to be a stressful or scary milestone for anyone. With enough preparation, an eye toward safety, and keeping in mind that there is never a rush to getting a driver's license, parents and kids can come out of the experience feeling well-prepared to hit the road.
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Here are a few things you can do before even signing up for a driver's education class to set your teen up for success.
Model Safe Driving Habits
It's well established that kids learn more from what parents do than what they say. That's why, before your teen ever starts the journey toward earning a driver's license, you should make sure that you are already demonstrating responsible and safe driving habits.
"Kids are always watching," says Daniel King, who is the owner and operator of Driver's Edge Driving School in Maine where he has been teaching driver's education for 23 years. "If you are tailgating, speeding, neglecting to use your turn signals, or you get mad and yell at other drivers, then your kids will probably do those kinds of things, too." King recommends that parents take a close look at their own behaviors behind the wheel and address any areas that need improvements before teaching their kids how to drive.
Put Down Your Phone
With safety on the mind, parents need to be hyper aware of the issues around distracted driving. Every year, there are a reported 1,000 injuries and nine deaths a day due to distracted driving. Unfortunately, those numbers are projected to go up, not down.
"Parents can lead by example by putting down their phone, keeping their hands on the wheel, and making sure that everyone buckles up," says Casey Ashey, a patrol deputy at the Maine Waldo County Sheriff's Office. He points out how easy it to set up an automated message response so that friends and family trying to text or call will know that you're driving. And while some cars now come with hands-off phone systems, Ashey says even those are too distracting for kids learning to drive, so don't let them be an option for teens.
And keep in mind it's not just texting that is a huge problem when it comes to distracted driving, advises Ashey. "It's a hot button issue, but we see a lot of problems when teens vaping or smoking e-cigarettes while driving, too."
Take on the Role of Teacher
Once parents have gone over all the safety rules, have made it a habit to model good driving behavior, and have set family boundaries around things that distract a driver, they may be surprised to learn that they will spend more time as the teacher than a driver's ed instructor.
"Every state has its own driving rules, but typically after a student has taken a driver's education course and passed a written exam then they must go through a set number of practice hours driving with a licensed driver," explains King. That means you. Here are two big tips from the experts when it comes to being a good teacher:
Keep your stress in check. "We know that in the first six hours of practice driving the parent's stress levels will leave a lasting impression on their kid," says King. In short, A stressed-out parent will help create a stressed out teen driver.
Start small. To help relax, Kind suggests parents start off by finding a big empty parking lot to get their kid used to the family car.
"The student driver cars in a driving course are not going to handle the same way mom or dad's car will," says King. "So, it's a good idea to take some time and get a solid feel of braking, sharp turns, how the emergency brake works and feels, and learning how all of the features on the dashboard work before you try driving on a public road."