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Ask Joanne

Learning to drive: a guide for parents Add to ...

I have a teenage daughter who will soon be learning to drive. I want to help her practise driving, but I’m concerned that I won’t do her much good as I’ll be in “parenting” rather than “teaching” mode. Can you offer any advice? – Michelle in Victoria

It is certainly not for the faint of heart to attempt to establish an effective teacher-pupil relationship with your loved ones – especially when you’re behind the wheel of a car, probably your car. Just the thought has me wanting to run a hot bath, and crank the panpipes to relieve the tension. You’ve guided this life through diapers, early schooling and a tempest of hormones, and now you’re handing over the controls?

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Ideally, your beloved will learn the finer points of motoring with a professional instructor.

As with mastering any new skill, completing some homework between lessons is essential. In British Columbia, where last year more than 49,000 teenagers received their first licence, the Insurance Corporation of B.C. recommends 60 to 80 hours of practice over the term of the learner’s stage.

So, how can you optimize practice sessions with your daughter? According to Seann Wells of DriveWise B.C., a mental adjustment is the first step.

“A lot of people have a hard time driving with their sons or daughters. It’s the family dynamics, right? Maybe they didn’t clean their room that morning, or they’re not doing homework, or skipping chores. But when you’re in the car, rather than think of each other as ‘parent’ and ‘daughter,’ or whatever the relationship happens to be, it should always be ‘co-driver’ and ‘student,’ ” says Wells.

“If you have that mental division, then any extra baggage doesn’t seem to filter into the car, it’s a neutral place and you’re just there to learn to drive. That’s really key.”

Second, ensure you don’t put a new driver in a situation that’s clearly beyond his or her ability. “Start slow. Start in a parking lot and work on very basic things like turning, acceleration, and braking. Go on a day when it’s not very busy, and there’s very little stress.

“And then slowly graduate to maybe a quiet residential road, and do lots of right- and left-hand turns, and slowly build from there. If for whatever reason you think it’s not going well, you can always retreat and go back to an area where the student did feel comfortable,” says Wells.

“If the student feels comfortable and is driving well, the co-driver is going to feel comfortable, and the atmosphere in the car will be relaxed. As soon as you start getting tense, no one’s learning anything.”

“You want to use that ‘L’ phase to expose them to lots of different things in a graduated way, from very easy things to eventually different sorts of conditions like night-time driving, rain, and things they can expect everyday on the road,” says Wells.

Remember that your daughter will be observing your driving, too. As a parent, you know how children can pick up habits from others. Two of the most common reasons new drivers fail their road test are failure to shoulder-check into the blind spot (during right-hand turns, lane-changes, or when pulling to the side of the road), and speed control.

Perhaps the most important part of the co-driver/student relationship is dialogue. You want to know that you’re on the same page and looking well ahead, so there are no surprises.

“One tool I use with my students, and really encourage any co-driver to use, is running commentary. Get the student to talk about what they see when they drive. If the co-driver can hear the student describing the upcoming crosswalk, or confirm that they see the red light, or someone about to pull out of a driveway, it removes the guesswork.

“It’s a great tool. It brings the stress level down, because the co-driver realizes the student is looking in the right spot. If something is missed, that’s where the co-driver can jump in with advice. Sometimes it’s difficult; most new drivers are teenagers and they don’t always want to talk much, but encourage them and keep working on it and they’ll tell you what you want to hear,” says Wells.

The key to safe driving is being mentally engaged behind the wheel. The best you can do for your daughter is help her practise correct driving habits in an emotionally neutral environment. If you can’t manage this and tempers start to fray, hand her over to a capable instructor, and spend an hour on yourself.

E-Mail Ask Joanne at globedrive@globeandmail.com

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