For as long as there have been cars in America, they've stood for freedom. The open road. The ability to go anywhere and do anything -- a teenager's dream. Cue the sound of a needle running off the record, oldsters, because that's not the case anymore. When you were a kid, your parents probably had to ground you for driving before you'd gotten your license. Or for driving a car full of your friends to a lake way outside town.
Why go to all that trouble when you've got a smartphone? There's nothing a kid could say to her friends in person that she can't say just as fast, and with a kitten emoji, in a text message. Where driving to the next town over while listening to Bel Biv Devoe used to be the height of freedom, teenagers can now follow political uprisings halfway around the world in real time. They can watch grown Norwegian men in fox costumes dance in the woods, then make their own parodies of "What Does the Fox Say" in their very own bedrooms and upload them for all the kids in South Korea to appreciate. I bet you never did that with your parent's car, old-timer.
But most kids do still need to learn to drive, if only so you can send them out to pick up their siblings while you finish making dinner. Here are 10 tips to make your transition from driver to teacher a bit less crazy-making.
This is your chance to be the Robert De Niro or Cate Blanchett of the suburbs. Get in the driver's seat and have another adult -- maybe your spouse, maybe your own parent, maybe a frenemy -- sit in the passenger seat and tell you how to drive. That's right. Have them tell you where the pedals are, how the turn signals work, where the switch for the headlights is located. Have them offer encouragement to you as you pull out of the driveway. Have them be the driving teacher you want to be.
And if you're brave, have them also be the teacher you're likely to be. Try it when you come to your first stop sign, which your teacher doesn't think you see. So he screams, "Stop. Stop! STOP!" He stomps his imaginary brake. He clutches his chest as you stop in a way that you feel is perfectly fine. Which is when you say to him: "Fine. Gawd." For those of you who are advanced actors, you may dismissively blow your bangs out of your eyes. Remember how annoying that was. Be the better teacher.
Whether it's a little light-blue booklet or a Web site, read what your kid will be reading when she studies for the written part of the exam. If there's an online practice test, take it. If you're really brave, tell your kid how awful you did. Not only will reading the rules of the road help you help your new driver study, it'll bring you up to date on the current traffic laws in your state. New laws are passed all the time, and you're probably violating them all over the place. The basics almost always stay the same: pass on the left, stop at stop signs, slow down when the light turns yellow. But HOV lanes, pedestrian laws, and more can (and do) crop up as safety awareness increases and technology improves. Use this opportunity to teach the old dog (that's you) new tricks.
It's time to actually get into the car with the monster you've raised. Fingers crossed.
For the safety of yourself, your car, and everyone else in a one hundred-mile (160.9 kilometer) radius, go someplace without a lot of other people around. Or cars. Or light poles. Or shrubbery. Or anything. If you could do this first driving session in a crater on the moon, that would be ideal. But the next best thing is an empty parking lot. Really empty. Shuttered strip mall empty. Why? Because your kid is going to mix up the gas and the brake his first time out and you want it to be scary enough that he doesn't ever do it again, but not so scary it requires repacking the airbags.
Once you've found the perfect parking lot, keep going back in every type of weather. Torrential rain, fluffy snow, even slippery leaves all pose driving challenges. For the new driver, the important thing is to know what these things feel like from behind the wheel. When they're comfortable on dry pavement, you can begin to teach them cool stuff like steering into the skid. And maybe even how to do doughnuts.
You've prepared yourself with method acting, reading the course material and with location scouting. Now do yourselves a favor and keep the sessions short and sweet. Really short, or they'll definitely turn into something less than sweet. In fact, 15 or 20 minutes each time out is plenty for getting the basics down without burning out or screaming at each other. The more often you can do these short sessions, the more likely it is the new driver will actually retain some of the wisdom you're handing down.
Another benefit to keeping it short? Your equilibrium. New drivers tend to make the car lurch about, which can make you (the passenger) lose your lunch. Take a motion sickness pill, strap on a pressure-point wristband, or bring along some candied ginger, because nothing says "You're doing a great job, son," like throwing open your car door and hurling on the pavement.
The first time you get in a car with your kid at the wheel is probably the first time he's ever been at the wheel of anything, unless you're the kind of family who lets the kids drive an old beat-up pickup truck all over the farm. You guys probably don't need 10 tips for driving lessons, though. You've got fences to mend and cows to birth. Get back out there!
For the rest of us, it's worth remembering that the placement of the pedals and switches and knobs and everything else is brand-new for your kid. There's no reason for the gas to be on the right and the brake on the left; that's just how it is, and you simply have to get used to it. The only way to get used to it is to take a deep breath, put those hands on the wheel at 9 o'clock and 3 o'clock (that's right -- it's not 2 and 10 anymore, Gramps) and practice.
In these short and sweet sessions, you don't need GPS. And honestly, if you guys get lost in the empty parking lot, maybe neither of you should be driving. For that matter, since you're imparting such wisdom to your new driver, you want to be sure she can hear you, so the radio isn't necessary either. Promise that she can listen to whatever she likes -- no matter how much it makes you grind your teeth -- on the way home. And really, during these driving sessions there's no reason for her to be reaching for the console at all. You can be in charge of the heat and the A/C, the fan speed, any of that stuff in the middle of the car.
And NO CELL PHONES. Not at all. Not even plugged into the entertainment system. Not even if the robot woman who lives in your car will read the text messages to you. None of it. Non-negotiable.
You're only spending 15 to 20 minutes in the passenger seat, so make sure the rest of the time you're modeling good driver behavior. On the morning drive, with your kids in the car, point out tricky things like stop signs hidden by branches. When you pick them up after soccer practice, help them notice the idiots crossing in the middle of the street in the dark while wearing all black clothing. Just because they're dumb doesn't mean you get to run them over.
And speaking of dumb, point out your own boneheaded moves. When you slip through a yellow light, note that you really should have slowed down and stopped there. When you forget to signal a right turn, help your kids see the bicyclist you cut off giving you the finger. Acknowledging your own mistakes is probably more helpful than being perfect.
When your kid graduates to driving on an actual street, pay attention to what he's paying attention to. Is he taking little glances at the curbs where there might be important signage or kids chasing errant kickballs? Is he checking the rearview mirror every once in a while? You're most likely to drive where you're looking, so make sure his attention is on the street ahead, not at his friend standing on the sidewalk -- unless you want to end up on that sidewalk yourselves.
Also make sure your kid hasn't, as it's called in the novel "Watership Down," gone tharn. That's when the rabbits end up in the middle of the road staring into the approaching headlights as they bear down on those fuzzy little bunny bodies. Your kid's face should not look like that. He should be watching and registering what's happening, not freaking out in wide-eyed panic.
She's mastered the parking lot. She's ready for the road. A small road. A quiet road. Maybe a residential street with a few slow-moving cars. When she's got this down cold, it's time to move to a busy street with traffic lights and pedestrians. And then to a street with more than two lanes. And then to a highway. (Warning: merging with highway traffic will freak any new driver out. It freaks a lot of practiced drivers out, too, apparently.) Get each degree of difficulty down cold before moving on to the next level. It's like a game of "Candy Crush" -- it's all the same stuff with a few new obstacles and a higher level of difficulty. And later, she can tell all of her friends about it on Facebook. If teenagers even use Facebook anymore, that is.
You've done all you can do. It's time to let the little bird fly on its own. With enough practice sessions and guidance from a wise parent such as yourself (one who refrained from stomping the imaginary brake pedal and hissing through clenched teeth), your new driver is finally ready to take wing. Just remember: Without a second pair of eyes in the car, new drivers have to be even more careful and pay even closer attention to what's happening around them when they're driving solo. Practice helps, so send her to the store for milk, send her out to pick up her little brother from Little League and give her a time by which you expect her to return.
Do you hold your breath when you're driving through a tunnel? HowStuffWorks looks at a survey exploring driving superstitions.
Author's Note: 10 Tips for Teaching Your Kid to Drive
The first time I sat in the driver's seat, my mom sent me out to back the car up a bit in the driveway so it wasn't under the basketball hoop. I was maybe 10. I didn't know which pedal was which, and I nearly backed into the house across the street.
The second time, my dad pulled his ancient, bare-bones Jeep Wrangler over on a deserted dirt road after dark and let me get in the driver's seat -- for about three minutes. I was maybe 14.
It was a long time before I drove again. I'm old enough that smartphones were science fiction when I was 16, but I really didn't want to be bothered learning to drive. My best friend had a car she loved, and driving me around gave her an excuse to drive. Why would I give up my personal town car service?
I did, eventually, get proper driving lessons from just about everyone, and I passed my driving test when I was 17. My mom, my dad, my grandparents, my aunt and even my college friends got in on the act when they taught me to drive a stick shift in their ratty old VW Fox. I'm sure that not one of these people ever thought I'd write about cars for a living after that series of lessons.
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