Teaching a Teen to Drive in Southern California

Abbey behind the wheelEarlier this year, Abbey got her driver’s license. She’s the fourth child I’ve taught to drive, and my last. Riding along with my kids while teaching them was challenging at times, interesting at others, and, believe it or not, fun overall.

Through the experience, I’ve learned that teaching a teenager to drive takes a lot of composure, even more patience, and a process. While I can’t help much with the composure and patience parts, teaching four kids has allowed me to develop and refine my process that I’m going to share with you in the rest of this post. 

The Ground Rules

Before we even start driving the car, there are a few rules I have to make sure the process goes smoothly. The rules are non-negotiable.

Rule #1 – The teacher is always right when the car is in motion

I don’t want to get into arguments about what is the right or wrong thing to do when situations come up when the car is in motion. The fact of the matter is the teacher has many years of experience, the driver does not. So when the teacher corrects the driver or tells the driver to do something, the driver must listen and obey the direction. While I may not be right all the time, arguing about it while the car is in motion is the WRONG time to do so. When the car is stopped, or when the lesson is finished, then I’m open to discussing the situation. It’s a good review and reinforces things that were learned during the drive.

Rule #2 – Only one teacher in the car at a time

I don’t have a problem with lots of experienced drivers in the car, but there is only teacher. The teacher sits in the passenger seat and is the only one the driver listens to. The last thing a learning driver needs to do is listen to multiple people telling them what to do, especially if the instructions are conflicting.

Rule #3 – No phones

Phones are silenced and put out of view, either in the center console or in the glove compartment. The driver needs to be focused 100% on the road and not worrying about the latest Snap they’re getting. It’s a good habit to start immediately that the driver needs to take forward when they get their license.

Rule #4 – No setup shortcuts

Prior to starting each drive, the seat needs to be in the proper position. All mirrors must be adjusted properly. Seat belts must be fastened. The driver needs to get in the habit of making sure all the adjustments are made prior to moving the car.

Rule #5 – Stay composed

This rule applies to both the driver and the teacher. I’ve been in a car when a kite has come down in the middle of the road, when an untied load came off the truck in front of us, when a biker was nearly hit, and numerous other adrenaline pumping incidents. The key is staying calm and providing measured instruction. If the teacher loses their cool, the chances are high that the driver will too. Having both driver and teacher panic usually ends in tears.

The Curriculum

These are the key skills that I feel a new driver needs to learn, especially when driving in Southern California.

  1. Neighborhood driving – involves getting comfortable with cars turning into and backing out of driveways, watching for parked cars and doors opening, pedestrians crossing the street, children at play, bikers, etc.
  2. City driving, especially during busy times – involves watching for cars across lanes, making unprotected left turns, paying attention to traffic lights, watching crosswalks, being alert for emergency vehicles, etc.
  3. Canyon driving – involves learning to control the car around both sweeping and tight corners. There are numerous winding canyon roads in Southern California, and it is inevitable that a new driver will end up on one (or more) of these shortly after they get their license.
  4. Freeway driving – one cannot get around Southern California without driving on the freeway. The driver needs to comfortable getting on/off the freeway, making lane changes, passing, watching for road hazards, maintaining speed, and watching for unexpected variations in traffic speed (i.e. congestion).
  5. Dealing with traffic on the freeway – getting caught in traffic on the freeway is the norm in Southern California. The driver needs to know how to anticipate slowdowns, and how to handle stop-and-go traffic.
  6. Distance driving – it’s usually good to go on at least one or two long road trips where the driver has to maintain concentration behind the wheel for 2-3 hours (or more) at a time. Eventually, the driver will need to take a long trip using the car, and I like to be comfortable knowing they’ve done it before and have experience maintaining concentration.

What About Driving School?

At this point, you might be ready to sign your teen up for more than the minimum required 6 hours of behind the wheel training. Personally, I wouldn’t do it. I’m sure my kids picked up a couple of tips during their 3 two hours lessons, but it was not worth the money paid. The only real value in my opinion was the last lesson where they showed the kids the driving courses the DMV used for their behind the wheel test. I could rant for quite a bit here, but let’s just say that I’m not a fan of the third party behind the wheel training. However, it’s one of those things that the law says you have to do, so that’s what I did.

Embrace the Challenge

Instead, I would encourage you to embrace the challenge. It’s an opportunity to teach them one of the most important skills they need to learn. It’s a great opportunity to bond with your teen. It builds a common experience that you will have forever. If you have multiple kids and you use the same process, it’s builds a shared experience with their siblings. It will also make you a better driver by making you aware of all the little things and habits that you take for granted while driving.

I wouldn’t delegate it to a stranger. Sure, it will challenge you at times. It will test your patience. It will stretch your nerves. In the end, it’s worth it. I’ve had some of the best and most memorable experiences with my kids while teaching them to drive.

The Drives

There will be 10 posts that will follow this one, each describing a different drive in Southern California. These will be centered in Ventura County, but the drives can be picked up anywhere along the route. In each drive, I’ll cover the skills I’m looking to develop so you can adapt these drives to your own area if the routes are not convenient given your location. Another thing you’ll notice is that each drive builds on skills from the earlier ones, with each drive getting more challenging. Once you see the skills being taught and the progression of the drives, I’m certain you’ll be able to develop a set of drives for your particular area that are similar in style, difficulty and length.

You can see the drives as they are posted by clicking here.

Parting Words

Teaching a teen to drive can feel overwhelming, especially if you don’t have a process. Having a process reduces the uncertainly and relieves a lot of the stress and anxiety. There will still be challenges, but it will make it much easier to navigate them.

When I look back, my dad spent a lot of time teaching me to drive. I still remember and appreciate it. I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve spent teaching my four children. Embrace the challenge. Enjoy it. You only get one chance to teach your teen to drive which makes it a true, ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity.