Give teens the keys to staying safe
By Lisa M. Schab, L.C.S.W.
Watching your teen sit behind the wheel of a car, start the ignition and actually drive away from your house is the ultimate cutting of the umbilical cord. It is a far more painful experience than the physical snip performed at birth.
Once you allow your child to drive, you give him not only the responsibility for keeping himself and others physically safe, you also give him the chance to travel around the world of his own volition. In short, you lose a lot of control.
Because it’s not healthy to prevent your child from ever driving, it is important to start using your control and influence before your teen gets his license. Here are some ways to become an active part of your child’s driving education that can help keep him safe even when you are not in the passenger seat:
• The state requires 25 hours’ practice—give them more. Current Illinois law requires teens to have 25 hours of documented, supervised behind-the-wheel driving time with a parent or other responsible adult in addition to their formal driver’s education. As with any skill, practice improves performance. So, don’t stop at 25 hours. The more time your teen spends behind the wheel, the better driver he will be.
• Start slow. According to driver’s education teacher Mike Wittes, one of the biggest mistakes parents make is putting children in driving situations they are not ready to handle. Before you hit the streets, keep the speed very slow and the area free of obstacles. Let your child begin driving in a large, empty parking lot. Eventually take him down streets with very little traffic at the slowest time of day. Work up to faster speeds and more traffic only after you see that he is ready.
• Diversify. Allow your novice driver to practice in a wide variety of areas (rural, city, suburbs), a wide variety of weather conditions (rain, snow, sleet, fog) and at different times of day (from dusk to dawn). Have him drive on one-lane roads and six-lane highways, and make a variety of intersection decisions, from railroad crossings to four-way stops. Take him through toll booths so he learns how to concentrate on the road while throwing money out the window. Drive him on and off of highway ramps and let him practice merging so he learns how to pick up speed and watch the traffic behind him. Drive through crowded city traffic so he learns to watch the lights at the same time he watches for pedestrians, bikes and kids running after stray baseballs.
• Share teaching responsibilities. Let your teen drive with both parents or another responsible adult whom you trust. He will benefit from observing the strengths and skills of more than one person. It’s also important that he is with a calm driver. If you can’t handle driving with your child at speeds over 45 miles per hour without clutching the door handle, leave the highway sessions to your spouse.
• Teach defensive thinking. One of the biggest problems with teen drivers is their lack of judgment. Rather than anticipating a complication might be around the corner, they assume there won’t be a problem. Help them learn to be cautious. When you are in the passenger seat, describe possible situations—as you are entering an intersection tell him, “A car on your right is running the stop sign” and have him respond.
• Practice driving in the places he will travel the most. Is your teen going to be driving mostly down rural roads on his way to work or school? Take him on those roads for a good part of his practice time. Will he spend most of his driving time pulling in and out of parking spaces at the mall? Or driving through fast-food restaurants? If so, take him through these areas again and again.
• Set limits. The more passengers your teen has in the car, and the more distractions (listening to the radio, changing compact discs), the poorer his concentration will be. Once your child has his license, you still can set limits on his driving. Some parents allow their children to drive only during daylight hours or prohibit them from driving passengers for the first month. Others limit initial driving to roads with speeds of 45 and under, or set a distance radius that can’t be breached.
• Finally, demand a reality check. Before your teen gets in the car, look him in the eye and remind him of the obligation he has when his hands grip that steering wheel. Driving a car is the biggest responsibility he has at this point in his life. Drive the point home by requiring him to recite aloud the names of everyone who will be riding in the car he is driving, including his own. Have him say that he literally holds each of these people’s lives in his hands. Then have him look out the windshield at all the people driving toward him and all the pedestrians walking near him, and have him say aloud that he also is responsible to do his part to keep these people safe and alive.Lisa Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville and the stepmother of two, ages 19 and 23.