View from the Back Seat: 5 Tips for Raising Better Drivers

October 9, 2013 by V.R.M. - 2 Comments

While my friend and I were out enjoying a glass of wine the other day, she received a text from her bright, 19-year-old daughter. “I have something to tell you, but promise you won’t get mad,” it read. “Don’t worry,” read the text which quickly followed, “I am not pregnant and I have not failed a class.”  We laughed and knew: it was probably about the car. Turns out that, while picking up a Jimmy John’s sandwich, S had miscalculated the length of her family’s Volvo and knocked out the rear window by backing into a dumpster — a classic “lack of experience with a car” kind of accident.

It's not that complicated: your steering wheel won't have these many buttons. (Image courtesy of autoevolution)

It’s not that complicated: your steering wheel won’t have these many buttons. (Image courtesy of autoevolution)

My friend’s daughter, S, is a relatively new driver – a product of Michigan’s new, complex driver education training which demands that kids complete two permit segments before they can apply for a full drivers’ license. At 14 yrs 8 months of age, kids can start Segment 1 of Michigan’s driver education. Before the driver begins supervised driving, he or she attends a minimum of 24 hours of classroom instruction followed by a minimum of six hours of supervised behind-the-wheel instruction and a minimum of four hours of observation time in a training vehicle. Upon completion, the kid gets a Level 1 license, which he or she can use to drive with a parent or designated adult over 21.

Segment 2 is offered after the driver has held a valid Level 1 License for at least three continuous months and has acquired 30 hours of driving experience time including a minimum of two hours of night driving.  The driver must then  attend six hours of classroom instruction and complete the remainder of 50 hours behind the wheel (including a 10-hour night driving requirement). The applicant also completes a written exam. After these requirements, the driver, who must be 16 years of age, applies for a level 2 license. This license carries many restrictions, including inability to drive at night (unless traveling to work) and inability to carry more than one passenger.

Finally, at age 17, after completing all of the above and if the young driver has managed to drive for one year without citations or accidents, he or she can apply for a final, no restrictions license.

It took S several years to complete the requirements above, mostly because like every other kid in high school, she had far too many scholastic obligations and activities to get all of the above requirements in. She was 18 when she obtained her license right before she went off to college (where she does not have access to a car, and thus cannot continue to practice).  At 19, she is a tentative (but not reckless) driver who uses turn signals and drives at a safe speed, but is still working on her comfort level behind the wheel.

If you don't want your teen to do this, don't do it yourself.

If you don’t want your teen to do this, don’t do it yourself. (Image courtesy of

The intent of Michigan’s complex driver training system is, clearly, is to turn out safer drivers. In theory, all these requirements should be producing more confident, safer drivers, but based on what I see on roads every day, I don’t believe this to be true. Most drivers on the road seem grossly unaware of their cars and its limitations, driving too harshly in unsafe conditions. Many drivers are completely unable to judge speed of oncoming vehicles when merging, and do so at unsafe speeds. Too many drivers are too busy chatting or texting on the phone to use turn signals, and most don’t bother to pay attention to what other drivers are up to, which is a recipe for disaster. As a parent, this causes me great concern, because one day I will send my own daughters into the world behind the wheel of their own cars to deal with a myriad of dangerous drivers.

Just like with (almost) everything else, raising a good driver begins at home, possibly when kids are too small to reach the pedals. Below, we offer a few tips you can use to raise better, safer drivers.  (Note: our tips will probably work best before your kids hit puberty, at which point they won’t listen to anything you say. At that point, you should just hand them over to Street Survival’s Bill Wade).


The safest way: keep both hands on the wheel at 9-and-3 position at all times.

1. Be a good example. If you drive poorly, so will your kids. If you’re on the phone when you drive, or drive using one hand and do anything but pay attention to the road, your kids will learn that it is ok to do just that. I am not immune from the temptation to do other things in the car, but I have found a great way to keep me focused: ask your kids to call you out when you aren’t. I’ve taught my girls to ask me to put the phone down if I use it in the car, and to remind me keep two hands on the wheel when I drive. When they remind me, I thank them for doing so. The best part? When they are riding in someone else’s car, they remind them, too. (I admit this is probably not as charming to the other driver as it is to me, but hey — safety first!)

2. Talk to your kids when you drive. Take the time to tell them how the road feels under different conditions and how the car is behaving. Point out people driving well (“look at how nicely that Audi uses its turn signals!”) and people driving poorly (“did you notice how that green car changing lanes looked so unstable? The driver probably yanked on the wheel pretty hard!) Aware passengers grow up to be aware drivers, and aware drivers are always safer on the road.


Spend time driving with your kid now so you worry less later. (Image courtesy of PPBH)

3. Take your kids driving as early as possible. I am not suggesting you sit your 8-year-old on your lap and let him steer the car, or let him drive the car at age 12 like my Mom did.*  Play cars and go-karts are great ways to teach kids how cars handle. We have lots of fun taking the girls go-karting, which allows them to feel various aspects of a car, including the throttle and brake, in a safe environment. Many places have karts where little kids can ride along. Take your kids, drive karts with them, and then use the opportunity to teach them how to drive safely around other cars. What could be more fun?

4. Practice, practice, practice. When your kid does get old enough to drive, take the time to have them practice as much as possible.  Resist the urge to issue a string of corrections (note to self!) and instead maintain a dialogue with them so they remain aware and maintain skills. Let them make mistakes with you so when you send them out into the real world, they will have a few more points of reference.

5. Invest in a teen driving training program. One of the single best things parents can do when their kids are able to drive is to send them to a car control clinic. Tire Rack’s Street Survival program, or MidOhio’s Honda Teen Defensive Driving program are two great examples of day or weekend programs which make kids much safer drivers.

The day when my daughters drive away behind the wheel of a real car will come soon enough. Until then, I will make it my mission to turn them into the best possible drivers I can, for their safety and that of other drivers. I figure I have a few years to work on their driving skills and awareness of others on the road – and on my own meditation skills – before the day arrives.

Have you taught your child to drive? Do you have any tips on how to make the drivers’ training experience better? Let us know!

*These shenanigans took place in Central America over 30 years ago, so I am not suggesting you follow suit. When prompted for comment, Mom said, “he lived, didn’t he? And your brother is a great driver now, probably thanks to me!”


Got a teen on your hands? Here are Tire Rack Street Survival’s Top Ten Things To Remember:

1. Eyes up! Look 10 seconds down the road.

2. Eyes out! Scan your surroundings, be situationally aware. Give yourself an out.

3. Mirrors! Eliminate those blind spots.

4. Sit up! Sit in the seat properly and buckle up!

5. Shut up! Limit cell phone use – and absolutely – NO Texting

6. Hands on! Two hands on the steering wheel all the time.

7. Pull not Push! Pull down on the steering

8. Not so close! No less than 3 seconds behind the next vehicle. Allow more time for tractor-trailer trucks…look for their mirrors.

9. Know your car! Everything working right? Do the maintenance. Know your tires! Check pressures monthly.

10. Mind your Manners! Drive appropriate to conditions. Bad weather? SLOW DOWN. No Road Rage. Be Safe!