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better driver

Are you guilty of talking on the phone when teaching your teen how to drive? Tell us in the comments.Ron Chapple

Many things have changed since most of us learned to drive.

Keeping abreast of these changes is especially important for parents involved in teaching their children how to drive.

Whether the teen is enrolled in a driver training school/program or learning solely through a parent or other licensed driver, the in-vehicle theories and much of the practices are the same. The difference is the levels of knowledge and expertise of the person in the passenger seat.

Studies have shown that parents have the greatest influence on teen driving. The vast majority of young drivers start picking up many habits and some knowledge by simply watching their parents through the years. Of course, as that magic age nears, the teen will start paying more attention to not only how mom and dad drive, but how they behave behind the wheel. Most bad practices get their birth during these years.

A State Farm survey found that only a third of teens rate their parents as "very good" driving instructors and 60 per cent of parents admit to being nervous about teaching their teen to drive. In the realm of setting a poor example, 61 per cent of teens say parents have been distracted at least once by their phone while on practice drives together and 53 per cent of parents even admit to the mishap. Apparently the widespread messages about distracted driving are not getting through to parents.

Almost one-third of the teens surveyed said the parent was distracted by a phone or other electronic device while teaching them to drive either "sometimes, often or all the time." Fifty-three per cent of parents likewise admit they've been distracted while their teen is driving at least once.

The parent who would use a cell phone while teaching their teen safe driving practices is obviously doing so from habit and is unaware of the lesson they are giving. The survey found more than half the teens had seen their parents using the phone while driving and 43 per cent say they model their phone usage practices after that of a parent.

As parents, we set a powerful example behind the wheel. It is hard to convince the new driver to do as we say, not as we do.

Using a cell phone while driving sets the example. Continuing to use it while teaching from the right-hand seat cements the image. It is distracted driving in three forms – one in the danger it represents as a driver, the second in the fact you do not care enough about your teen or the teaching role to give it your full attention and the distraction for the teen driver as you talk on the phone.

An instructor has to be alert at all times. Granted the level of awareness and need for intervention diminishes as the new driver gains more knowledge and practice, but that second set of eyes should be there at all times.

Distracted driving was not a big deal 20-35 years ago when the parent was learning to drive. Cell phones were in their infancy with minimal coverage, audio systems were much less complex and navigation and other visual systems unheard of.

But there have been a number of other significant changes as well; changes that require a different approach to driving and teaching – chief among them the number of vehicles on the road and the roads themselves, multi-lane roads with high speed traffic and on and off-ramps.

Teaching a teen to drive is a job best left to the professionals. The best thing a parent can do is offer to extend the number of practice hours the new driver gets, the amount of supervised time behind the wheel necessary to learn and practice new skills – safely.

Halifax-based Richard Russell runs a driving school.