Everyone has been there—you’ve cared for your baby for a long time, and you don’t want anything to happen to her. So when your teen asks to drive your precious car, it’s a little nerve-wracking. What if your teen scrapes your car in the parking lot? What is your teen dents a fender? The possibilities of what can happen to your car are nearly endless, and you just can’t bare the thought.
OK, all kidding aside, you don’t want anything to happen to your child, and it’s scary for everyone on the road when a new driver is behind the wheel. From my experience behind the wheel—and in the car with plenty of drivers I barely trust—I’d say the single most important thing about driving is learning to stay calm.
What Happens When You Yell, “LOOK OUT!”
Your first impulse is self-preservation—duck, throw your arms over your head, and generally take your attention off the road. But when you say, “look out,” you are obviously trying to get the driver to pay MORE attention to the road, not less.
Teens drivers need to learn driving instinct. They’ve never done it before, so they have no muscle memory or learned behavior that would involve looking straight ahead, properly applying the break, checking mirrors, or (in worst case scenarios) swerving. Yelling a warning at them only enacts the instincts they have developed—which is generally to freeze. A frozen teenager in a vehicle weighing thousands of pounds traveling even at only 35 miles per hour can do enormous harm.
What You Should Say
Even if your life is not in danger, it’s not always easy to keep your cool yourself. But if you’re the teacher, then you’ve got to keep a lid on it. Instead of shouting a basic warning, tell them what’s coming—“Curb!” “Tree!” “Stop sign!” “Stop light!” And of course, “Break!” is acceptable, but not for long.
When “GO!” and “STOP!” Just Aren’t Enough
I had the reverse experience with this one—when I was just a kid (let’s say 10 or 11), I was in the car with my mom. We were in a new area in the days long before GPS devices or Google Maps, and she was checking a map. The light turned green, and I saw she still had her head buried in the map. I said, “Mom, go!”
And she did. Almost right into the back of the car in front of us.
She did out of instinct or worry that something was wrong. When anyone receives that kind of warning, the first impulse is often to obey simply out of self-preservation. Our suburban wasn’t exactly the most responsive vehicle in the world, so she at least had a chance to slam the break before plowing into the next guy’s bumper.
When your teen is driving, “Go!” and “Stop!” don’t tell them what the situation looks like. Do they need to go nice and easy such as at a drive thru, or do they need to get a move on when driving on the highway? Do they need to stop because you found the right house in a neighborhood, or do they need to stop so that they don’t hit a dog or a child in the middle of the road?
What You Should Say
After the incident with my mom, she told me that it’s best to simply say, “Green,” or, “The light is green.” Again, it alerts the driver to the situation at hand. “Stop sign” is something we can digest faster, because it doesn’t enact adrenaline like the word “stop” will do.
No Teen Has a Right to Drive
Turning 16 gives kids in most states the ability to get their license—but no one has a right to drive. If they want to drive, they have to obey the law, and the first law they have to heed is the sound of your voice.
Driving is all about trust. Think about the two yellow lines that separate drivers going opposite directions at 45 mph each. That kind of crash would be fatal if either driver betrayed the other’s trust that the laws would be obeyed. If you’re at a party and someone gets in the driver’s seat, you don’t always trust that driver to make it very far, so you don’t get in the car.
But when you’re teaching a teen to drive, you know they’re incompetent to drive on their own. You can’t trust their ability to handle every situation, so you have to develop mutual trust—they have to trust your instructions, and you have to trust their ability to obey them.
What to Do with a Teen Who Doesn’t Obey
As soon as you can’t trust the teen behind the wheel to obey you, then no other driver on the road can trust that teen, either. When that trust is gone, the teen has no right to be on the road.
Some parents or teachers worry that they would be too strict to demand the keys back. But please remember: a car accident where your teen T-bones another driver is unforgiving. There is no replay, undo, backspace, or reset button. Go find an empty parking lot and practice obedience until they can get it right.