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Oregon Family Magazine

Teen Driver Safety

09/01/2020 08:52PM ● By Tanni Haas, Ph.D.
Parents often like to supplement their teens’ official driving lessons with their own lessons behind the wheel, and that’s a great idea. Studies show that teens who receive additional driving instruction from their parents have fewer accidents than teens who don’t get any extra help. What can parents do to ensure that their teens get the most out of their time together in the car? Here’s what the experts say:

Let Them Take the Lead

Once you’ve told your teens that you’re willing to give them driving lessons, back off a bit and don’t push the issue. “If your teen isn’t driving you crazy about teaching her to drive,” says Carleton Kendrick, a family therapist who works with teens, “she’s probably too nervous to begin the process.” Wait patiently until they’re ready for your help. As Wayne Parker, a certified life coach and author of Power Dads, puts it, “an overly anxious teen driver can be a dangerous thing.”

Talk Before You Get into The Car

Even when your teens say they’re ready to learn how to drive, it’s likely that they’ve heard horror stories in the news or from their friends that are making them scared. Nicole Runyon, a social worker who deals with teens, suggests that parents “create a calm and peaceful space for them to talk.” Try to alleviate any fears by listening carefully and reassuring them that you’ll support and help them become competent and safe drivers.

Give Them Advance Warning

Give them some advance warning when you’re ready for the first lesson. Talk with them about, as Mr. Parker puts it, “where you’re going and what you’re going to do.” Teens don’t like surprises, especially from their parents. Get together to plan the route and the skills you’ll be working. It’ll put you on a more equal footing.

Treat Them Like Adults

Teens like to be treated as adults. That includes when they’re learning how to drive. Ms. Kendrick says that parents should avoid talking down to their teens, making any negative comments, or treating them like little children. She suggests that parents “praise specific progress and improvement, while offering non-judgmental, optimistic, and encouraging words.” The goal is to make your teens more aware drivers, not to make them feel shamed or judged.

Another way to guide your teens is to ask them questions instead of giving commands. Instead of saying slow down or “you’re going to get a speeding ticket,” Mr. Parker suggests asking “what’s the speed limit here?” Studies show that teens whose parents ask questions rather than make critical statements get into fewer accidents.

Put Yourself in Their Shoes

Studies also show that many parents focus their instruction more on skills that they had difficulty mastering when they themselves learned how to drive than on the skills that best prevent teen accidents. Instead of spending much of your time teaching your teens how to parallel park (a maneuver that can make many parents break into a sweat), focus on skills like how to safely merge on and off highways, which is in fact a major source of teen accidents.  

Stay Calm

It can be stressful teaching your teens how to drive, but don’t show it. Ms. Kendrick encourages parents to hand over the reins to someone else if they can’t keep their “anxiety in check and it’s turning the teaching experience into a tension-filled meltdown zone.” Try to stay calm, even if your teens are creating the tension in the car. “Just role with it,” says Dr. Corinne Peek-Asa, a professor of public health and expert on vehicle injury prevention. Studies show that when the atmosphere is tense, parents offer less constructive feedback and even less feedback that’s focused on safety.

Be a Good Role Model

All kids, including teens, learn more from what they watch their parents do than from anything parents tell them. Be a good role model and drive safely when you’re in the driver’s seat and your teens are the passengers. Jen Stockburger, director of operations at Consumer Report’s Auto Test Center, puts it well: “The example you set for them behind the wheel may be the most important in terms of actually keeping them safe, more so than any other safety message you’ve given them in their entire life.”

Tanni Haas, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Department of Communication Arts, Sciences & Disorders at the City University of New York – Brooklyn College.