Raising a Safer New Driver: 10 Tips for Nervous Parents

By Gail Balfour
A dad teaching his son about the gadgets on the dashboard of the car.

It probably seems like only yesterday when you were strapping your kids into their toddler car seats with snacks and toys to keep them distracted. But now they’re teenagers, with their sight set on getting licensed and taking your car out for a spin. And distracted is now the last thing you want them to be! What can you do to help keep them safe? How much will auto insurance cost?

If you are worried about your young adult's safety behind the wheel, this is neither an unfounded fear nor overprotective parenting. The unfortunate reality is that young Canadians are over-represented in traffic accidents and fatalities.

In 2018, for example, 16- to 24-year-olds made up 11.8% of the driving population, according to Transport Canada. Sadly, collision statistics show that this age group makes up 16.5% of all road fatalities and 17.8% of all serious injuries when they're the driver.

The reason young drivers are more likely to get into car accidents is primarily due to inexperience and not fully appreciating the risks they take. The good news is you can help them overcome both obstacles to be better drivers.

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1. Straight talk about impaired driving

Make sure your young driver understands the consequences, both legal and physical, of impaired driving and make sobriety a requirement for the privilege of using the family car. For times when they’re hitching a ride with a friend, talk to your kids about how to navigate social situations when they suspect their ride is impaired. Offer to pick up your child, no questions asked, if they feel they’re in an unsafe situation.

Most, if not all, jurisdictions have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to drugs or alcohol. A young new or novice driver can’t have any of either in their system if they get behind the wheel. This why it’s essential to talk about both alcohol and drug impaired driving.

2. Drive undistracted and lead by example

Practice what you preach, especially when teaching your kids how to navigate the roads. Drugs and alcohol aren’t the only dangers; distracted driving is as well. In some parts of Canada, the number of distracted driving fatalities has surpassed the number of impaired (drunk or drugged) driving fatalities, according to a 2019 study by the Traffic Injury Research Foundation. Canadians are aware of this and yet continue to take these risks.

Remember, it’s not just about texting. Distracted driving can mean anything from reading a newspaper to eating a sandwich but it frequently involves using a cellphone. According to Statistics Canada, young drivers are particularly susceptible; 45% of 18-to-34-year-old drivers report using a cellphone while driving. Furthermore, a 2020 CAA poll finds 47% of Canadians have programmed a destination on their GPS or mobile device while driving, and a quarter say they’ve noticed an increase in other drivers using their phones while behind the wheel.

Emphasize to your child how dangerous it is to drive distracted, and make sure you set a good example. Like sobriety, promising not to text or make calls while driving should be a requirement of getting to use the car.

3. Speed kills for real – have that talk

Speeding is a big deal. Speeding convictions can lead to demerit points on your driver’s licence, expensive fines, and higher insurance costs. And for good reason too. According to Transport Canada’s 2011 Road Safety in Canada report, 27% of fatalities and 19% of serious injuries involve speeding.

The report also states that 40% of speeding drivers stopped by the police in Canada were aged 16-24, and 80% of young adult passengers killed in a car crash were being driven by a similar-aged driver. Talk to your kids about this, and make sure you guide them whenever they drift over the speed limit.

4. Stay calm

Before taking your child on their first lesson, try to get into a new driver’s mindset. One easy way to do this is to ask another experienced driver to get in the passenger's seat and direct your driving. You’re likely to hear them say:

  • Adjust your mirrors.
  • Turn on the ignition.
  • Pull out of the parking spot.
  • Turn here.
  • Slow down there.

You’ll be reminded how frustrating it can be to take direction constantly, and that may help you keep cool if your new driver gets snippy during a lesson. Don’t talk down to them; chances are they are nervous too.

5. Baby steps in parking lots

Start your first lesson in an empty parking lot, and then when your teen gets a little more comfortable, move on to quiet residential streets. Consider planning your route before you start out so you both know how the lesson is progressing, and if either of you gets too stressed or anxious, cut it short. Once your novice driver is more comfortable on the road, integrate lessons into helping with running errands. For example, have them drive to their dental appointment — with you beside them, of course!

6. Practice in all road conditions

It’s best to start driving on clear, sunny days, but all drivers need to be able to navigate in less-than-ideal conditions. Make sure your lessons span all seasons so they can practice driving in the rain and snow and take them out at dusk and dawn, so they learn how to deal with extra glare. Plus, busy city streets with tight parking spaces and one-way streets are all good things to practice once your young driver has built up some confidence.

7. Turn it over to the pros

In addition to at-home practice, have your child take driving lessons. It’ll save you time and minimize your -- and your child’s -- stress levels. Professional instructors are specially trained to teach new drivers and have safety features built into their vehicles, such as extra brakes. Plus, upon passing the lessons, your young driver will qualify for discounted insurance, and since coverage can get pricey, saving a few hundred dollars every year will be worth the cost of lessons.

8. Who’s going to pay?

From gas and insurance to maintenance and parking fees, cars are expensive. Remind your child that driving is a privilege and ask them to help with some of those costs – whether that’s a portion of the insurance premium or simply gas when they borrow the car.

While they may grumble about parting with their money, they need to understand the costs and build good habits and a budget for driving now. They’ll also feel more of a sense of ownership of the car and are likely to take better care while on the road.

Did you know? If your teen driver only holds a learner’s permit -- the type that requires them to have a fully licensed driver with them at all times when driving -- you don't have to list them on your auto insurance policy just yet. You do, however, have to list them once they advance to the licence level that allows them to drive without supervision. In Ontario, this means when they get their G2 licence and in Alberta when they get their Class 5-GDL (probationary licence).

9. Dashboard lights 101

Your kids don’t have to become mechanics, but knowing how to maintain a car is a helpful step in becoming a good driver. They should learn how to pump gas, refill windshield wiper fluid, check tire pressure, and change a flat tire. Also, go over the owner's manual for a refresher course on what each dashboard light means. And, ensure you have in the trunk of the vehicle a car emergency kit, extra wiper fluid, and a spare tire.

Go over the steps of what to do and how to stay safe if something goes wrong with the car when they are out on the road, and don't forget to provide the phone number of your roadside assistance program if you have one.

10. Accidents happen. Teach them what to do

No one wants to think of collisions happening, but at the same time, it’s probably the first thing on a nervous parent’s mind. Statistics show that crash risk is highest during the first months that teen drivers are licensed. If your teen gets into an accident, the last thing you want is for them to panic. Teach them to stay calm, check their surroundings, call for help, and gather the information needed (licence and insurance details) from the other drivers involved. It's important to stress that everyone’s safety is paramount and this is what matter most; reassure them that no matter what, you won’t be mad at them (and mean it).