Let’s Go Practice Driving—in a Parking Lot!

[By DriversEd.com Contributing Writer Christina Tynan-Wood]

Overhead view of an empty parking lot.

An empty parking lot is the best place to start practice driving.

Want to get your teen to stop playing video games and go outside? Here’s a trick that always works: Walk into the game room. Jingle the car keys to get his attention. Ask, “Want to drive the car?” You might get panic. You might get enthusiasm. You might get a hug. But you will definitely get his attention. And if he jumps up and puts his shoes on, you have to be ready to follow through.

If this is his first time behind the wheel, this might be one of those parent/child moments neither of you forget. So calm down and be patient. You don’t want to hear the story of how you freaked out, screamed, and made him panic and crash the car over Thanksgiving dinner for the rest of your days. He will be nervous. So you should be calm. Pat yourself on the back now for the valiant effort you are bringing to this. And then use our expert plan to make sure this first drive goes well.

I asked Keith Russell, regional director for DriversEd.com, I Drive Safely, and eDriving and Hale Gammill, director of driving school operations for Southern California’s eDriving, what they would do if they were taking your teen out for this first drive. Naturally, they offered terrific pointers. These guys are the foremost experts on driver education and traffic safety in America. So you’ve got this. All you have to do is follow this plan.

Before You Start Practicing Driving in a Parking Lot

Start in the Driveway
You said, “Drive the car.” You didn’t promise a hot lap on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Sitting in the driver’s seat is a big deal. So start in the driveway and introduce him to the controls in this completely unfamiliar cockpit he is about to helm. And remember that every future drive will start right here in the driveway. So let him get it right. Work on backing straight down your driveway. When he’s got that, let him get out of the driveway and practice turning left and then right.

Clear! STAT!
Before he begins backing, make him take a thorough look around the vehicle. Environmental awareness doesn’t necessarily come naturally. So reinforce that it is his job—no one else’s—to ensure there are no toys, bikes, or kids around. Clear? The next lesson is to look only in the direction he’s traveling. That means looking to the rear of the car the entire time he’s backing up until he comes to a complete stop. This is a necessary habit to build. Feel free to repeat till he gets it right.

Go Slow
He doesn’t want to drive fast. Not yet. Not in reverse. Not even if he claims he does. This should all happen in slow motion. He is learning and he needs to maintain complete control of the car. He can drape his right arm behind the front passenger seat but he should have his left hand at the very top of the steering wheel. If he is too short to see, he might need to lift his body off the seat for better rear viewing. Make him stop at the end of the driveway before going in either direction. Remind him to look in both directions before backing onto the street. Then look one last time—just to be sure—before proceeding.

Practicing Driving in a Parking Lot

Beginning with Parking Lots
Next, let your teen drive to a quiet local parking lot. The lesson for the road portion of this drive is how to constantly scan the road while driving. Explain that he should begin a new scanning pattern every twelve to fifteen seconds. That pattern looks like this: Look straight ahead, glance in the rear view mirror, look straight ahead, glance at the left side mirror, look straight ahead, glance at the right side mirror, look straight ahead. Repeat. And he must do this while always remaining aware of what is in front and behind him. This is a very important part of defensive driving and environmental awareness.

Stop! Fast!
Once you are at the parking lot, practice a quick stop. It seems simple. But it’s important. Stopping should eventually be so familiar that it comes naturally—whatever the situation. Today, do this at ten—or even five—miles an hour. First explain that his foot should pivot off the accelerator to the brake pedal and that looking down at his feet is not allowed. Reaction time is important here so practice this until it’s easy. Then, get up to today’s slow speed and… Stop! Do it again. Practice makes perfect. Feel free to come back to this one again and again.

Making Turns
If you’ve got a nice empty parking lot, use the rows of parking spaces to practice making right and left turns. Look for smooth turns with even speed control. He’s going too fast if he has to brake excessively and too slow if he’s hitting the accelerator. Remind him to use the turn signal, even though there are no cars. You are building an important habit. So pretend there’s city traffic behind you and explain how to give an early warning of at least 100 feet.

Plan to Do It Again
That was fun, right? Maybe even more fun than a video game. Your teen learned something about driving. You learned something about your teen. And, while this is a bittersweet moment for parents—this is a big step toward adulthood—getting over this hump has some real perks. Pretty soon, he will be able to run to the store to pick up groceries. So, before either of you get tired or annoyed, call it a day and plan to do it again soon.

Christina Tynan-Wood is a freelance writer living in Northern California. She covers technology, cars, and parenting for national magazines and blogs at GeekGirlfriends.com.

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  • Ken Bakka

    I started both my kids in parking lots of empty businesses a short distance from my house and when I felt they were up to it I let them drive the 1/4 mile (2 turns) home and then the first time it snowed I took them back to those same parking lots to let them see how differently a car acts when snow is on the groundbecause I would rather them learn there the easy way instead of NO snow driving knowledge when they had to find out the hard way.