Teaching a Teen to Drive: The Introduction

This is the first in my series of drives I use to teach a new driver. The description and overview of the series can be read by clicking here.

When I’m teaching a teen to drive, the first drive is actually a series of drives. My goals at the beginning of this process are:

  • Go over the ground rules outlined in my first post to make sure we are on the same page
  • Allow the teen driver to get comfortable with setting up the car and the controls – adjusting the seat; adjusting mirrors; setting the steering wheel position; location of headlight controls, turn signals, hazards, parking brake operation
  • Make sure the teen driver knows location of brake and gas pedals – yes, it may seem basic, but remember this is their first time
  • Develop spatial awareness, meaning the teen driver knows the front of the car extends beyond what they can see and demonstrate the concept of blind spots by standing outside the car while the teen sits in the car using the mirrors

Once we’re good with the initial phase, then I move on to driving the car by first having the teen driver get comfortable using the gas and brake, especially understanding the pedal pressure required to move the car and stop it. I also go over the concept that an automatic drive car will start to move (when on a flat surface) as soon as you take your foot off the brake.

You can see a list of all the drives (and articles) in this series by clicking here.

Then I move on to letting the student steer the car making both left and right turns while also using the turn signal. It’s never too early to start reinforcing good habits. I make sure the teen driver sees that the wheel will straighten itself out as the car comes out of a turn so they don’t oversteer or fight the natural movement of the wheel. Finally, I begin introducing them to the concept of preparing for a turn by braking before the turn, coasting into the apex, and accelerating out. Of course, this is all done at low speed (15mph or less) but is important to teach now so they understand the concept during later drives at higher speeds.

For the above exercises, I like to start out in a large empty parking lot, preferably one located in a residential neighborhood or a business park. The reason for the location will become obvious in just a minute. Lucky for me (and my kids), there is a Community Center close to my house that is in the middle of a residential neighborhood. On Saturdays and Sundays, the parking lot is empty for long periods of time. It makes it an ideal location to start the process. The lack of other cars, whether parked or moving, removes a lot of the initial anxiety for the new driver and lets them focus on getting comfortable behind the wheel. Plus, given there is no one around, they don’t have to worry about being judged or looking silly.

Once I feel that the teen driver is comfortable controlling the car, we’re ready to venture out into the surrounding neighborhood. Knowing when the teen driver is comfortable is a matter of feel. You should be able to tell when the starts and stops are smooth and the turns, both left and right, are under control. I’ve found it usually takes 3-4 parking lot only sessions of around 20 minutes each before we’re ready to move on. Also, I don’t  say in advance when we’re going to head into the neighborhood. We just go. Again, I don’t want to build up unnecessary anxiety over what is coming so the student stays focused in the moment. When it’s time, I just direct them out of the parking lot and into the neighborhood.

When venturing into the neighborhood, these are the things I’m on the lookout for and want to teach:

  • Checking both directions before pulling out or entering an intersection using the left-right-left on pull-out strategy
  • Maintaining reasonable speed while driving (speed limit +/- 5mph)
  • Maintaining lane position
  • Watching for people in parked cars in case they open their door, watching for people pulling into and out of driveways, and being mindful of their surroundings and watching for kids playing, people in crosswalks, pets, bouncing balls, etc. – the key is to have them start learning the concept of defensive driving by anticipating the worst case scenario in advance so they are prepared and ready to take evasive action when necessary

I’ll typically do 2-3 neighborhood only sessions before we move onto what I call the increasing concentric circle strategy. That’s where I start going on drives that are further in distance but use the parking lot as the start and end point. I’ll start incorporating higher speed roads and heavier traffic patterns into the experience, as well as stop lights, protected and unprotected turns, multi-lane roads, lane changes, and finally, entering and exiting the freeway. This is usually another 3 or 4 sessions, depending on how the teen driver is doing

The freeway piece of the drive is done on the last session and is another unannounced adventure. New drivers (and even some experienced ones) have an inherent fear of driving on the freeway, so I treat it as no big deal and just have them enter the freeway from a right hand lane on ramp. I have them bring the car up to speed, merge onto the freeway, and take the first exit, which keeps the freeway portion short to build confidence. It’s extremely important to take the teen driver calmly through the process. The more composure and confidence you exhibit, the better they will do. If you’ve done enough concentric circle drives, they’ll be ready for it. It’s a skill they have to learn sometime, and it’s a critical piece in just about all the drives we’ll cover from here on out.

From start to finish, you’re probably looking at between 10-15 sessions before there is enough of a comfort level to start taking on the longer drives I’ll cover in future posts. It’s important to do as many sessions as it takes so you have a strong foundation to build on for future drives. If necessary, don’t be afraid to return to the parking lot or any of the concentric circle drives if you feel a refresher is in order or you need to reinforce a particular concept at anytime during the initial teaching process.

The remaining posts in my driving series will be single, self-contained routes. I’ll provide an overview of the skills to be taught or reviewed, along with a map of the route I used so you can use the same, or devise an equivalent route suited for your area.

Up next, it’s time to hit the open road!