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Teaching Your Teen To Drive: Theory, Mechanics, And Practice

Nov 20, 2007
When you spend part of every day behind the wheel of your car, it can be easy to take the act of driving for granted. You may have forgotten how much time and training went into making you a competent driver. You might not even think much about driving at all, really...until it's time to for your teenager to take the wheel.

To help your teen get off to a good start, introduce him or her to three general categories of knowledge about driving: Theory, Mechanics, and Practice.

Driving Theory

The theoretical part of driving is the process of grasping mentally what is happening when one drives. It includes knowing what to do in certain types of traffic situations, or particular weather conditions. When two people stop simultaneously at a red light, who gets the right of way? What do you do when a car begins to skid? How far should you stay behind another car on the highway, when traveling at 50 miles per hour?

One option is to help with the "book learning" at home, through conversation and the use of learning aids such as instructional manuals and websites. Other possibilities are professional driving schools or school-sponsored drivers' education classes.

Driving Mechanics

The mechanical part of driving includes being aware of the car as a working piece of machinery. Before even turning the key in the ignition, teens should become familiar with the vehicle and its parts. They should know how to find basic foot controls like the accelerator and brakes. They should also be able to find the turn signals, headlights, and horn without having to look. If the vehicle has a manual transmission, be sure that they understand the shift pattern, the basics of how to use the clutch, and when the different gears are typically used.

In addition to vehicle controls, mechanics includes thinking about how fundamental laws of physics apply to driving. You don't need to turn your driving lesson into a science lecture, but an idea like "objects in motion tend to stay in motion" translates neatly to "the faster you're going, the longer it takes to stop."

Encouraging your teen to think in physical terms can help him or her to understand, for instance, exactly why it is dangerous to tailgate another car, particularly at higher speeds. On the other hand, the corollary idea, "objects at rest tend to stay at rest," could help to explain why a driver might use a lower gear when starting up a steep hill.

Driving Practice

The practical part of driving involves taking the theory and mechanics and putting them to actual use. Remember that being a passenger is not the same as being a driver. Even if your teen has paid close attention to your driving habits over the years, it's not the same as actually driving. Emphasize the difference between theory and practice--between watching, and actually doing.

It can take years for some of the theoretical aspects of driving to become automatic. Young drivers may know intellectually that slamming on the brakes could cause a car to skid on a wet road--but when an animal runs out in front of the vehicle, the first instinct is to hit the brakes hard and fast. They can learn to override these types of automatic responses, but only with practice and experience.

Of course, these broad categories are intended only as a starting point...or possibly as a reminder of how much knowledge you actually have to impart. Detailed information in each of these areas, drawn from your own experience as a seasoned driver, will be the best instruction that your teen can get.
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