What’s the Best Age to Start Teaching My Teen to Drive?

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

Teen girl and mom using a computer to learn about defensive driving.

Picking an online course to learn about defensive driving can be fun. Seriously.

Is a five-year-old too young to learn to drive? When my daughter, Ava, was five, she got behind the wheel of a pink, battery-powered Barbie car. Everything she knew about driving, she’d learned from watching cartoons. So she closed her eyes, floored it, whipped the steering wheel back and forth maniacally, screamed, and headed straight for traffic.

I barely caught her before she careened into an oncoming car. It was terrifying—and straight out of Looney Tunes. Except my daughter is not made of celluloid. I know that driving is not something kids are born understanding. But I was suddenly intensely aware that—without my help—she was learning driving skills inadvertently from the information she was consuming. She was too young to drive. But her mind was a sponge and she was soaking up driving lessons from cartoons—and watching me drive. I taught her to cross the street and not play in the road. I realized I could take more control over what she was learning from the back seat, too.

“Every time you get in the car, whether your kids are buckled into a car seat or a traditional seat belt, it’s a teaching opportunity,” agrees Hale Gammill, Director of Driving School Operations for eDriving in Southern California. “Don’t waste any of them.”

First I pointed out that if had she been driving an actual car, she had to look where she wanted the car to go. So closing her eyes wasn’t her best decision. (Though the scream was a nice touch.) She nodded. She didn’t have to be behind the wheel to see the logic. “They always crash in cartoons,” she explained. “I was scared.” I pointed out that we don’t always crash when I drive so I would teach her to drive safely. So, every time we got in the car, I found lessons she could learn easily from the back seat.

In fact, just buckling her into her car seat was an opportunity to teach. “Explain why you use a seatbelt when you drive,” says Gammill. “And the importance of this safety harness for the driver, as well, in keeping you safely in one place in case of a collision or emergency stop.”

“And then move on to the importance of a proper seat position adjustment,” suggests Keith Russell, Regional Director of Business Development and Operations for DriversEd.com, IDriveSafely.com, and eDriving. “Tell her why you don’t want to be too far from the pedals or the steering wheel, that your arms should always be bent at the elbow so that there is no tension in your hands or arms, and so you are comfortable while driving.”

When I was fixing the head rest before driving, I took a minute to explain why. “The head restraint should always easily support the middle of the back of your skull,” says Russell. “To prevent whiplash in the case of an accident.”

Once I started this, she started asking questions. So I knew I was onto something. “What’s that for?” She asked when I used my turn signal. “That’s a good opportunity to explain how important it is to use turn signals to communicate with other drivers,” offers Gammill. “They should be used on all turns and whenever you want to make a lane change or exit the road.” While I had her attention, I thought. Why not mention the hazard lights? “Those are not just for emergencies,” agrees Gammill. “Hazard lights are important to use if you drive in a torrential rain, when making a parallel parking maneuver, and for any unique occurrence on our roadways to inform other drivers of a safety issue.”

“Why don’t you hurry up and catch those cars?” Ava asked when I was driving on the freeway. “It’s not a race,” I told her. “And that’s an opportunity to discuss the importance of having a proper space cushion between you and the vehicle you are following,” says Russell. “This will help her to begin to understand one aspect of defensive driving. The proper space cushion is determined by road conditions, time of day, and weather. Explain that you want to give yourself a minimum of a 3-second following distance in dry daytime driving and more in worse conditions.”

By the time Ava got behind the wheel herself as a freshman in high school, she had internalized a lot of these lessons. She did well in that class. And anytime I forget to use my turn signal, drove too close to a car in front of me, or put my hands in the wrong place on the steering wheel, she still corrects me. I don’t think she remembers any of the driving lessons she learned from Looney Tunes, but, when I listen patiently to her lectures correcting my driving, I know she remembers what I taught her.

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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