Raising a Smarter Driver: 9 Tips for Parents With New Drivers

Young teenage driver wearing braces, sits behind steering wheel with his father in passenger seat.

Kids these days are pretty great: they smoke far less than their parents, stand up for what they believe in, and are happy to rotate that PDF for technologically-challenged relatives. But young Canadians are also highly overrepresented in traffic accidents and fatalities. In 2015, for example, 16- to 24-year-olds made up 12.3 per cent of the driving population, according to Transport Canada. But when they’re the driver, they made up 18.6 per cent of all road fatalities and 20.2 per cent of all serious injuries.

Young drivers are more likely to get into car accidents, mostly because of inexperience and not fully appreciating the risks they take. The good news is it’s simple for parents to address these issues when they’re first teaching their kids how to drive.

1. Be upfront about impaired driving

In this day and age, most people know not to drink and drive, but your teen may still need clarification about what that means. Regulations differ by province, but for the most part, a new driver with learner's permits can’t have any alcohol in their system if they get behind the wheel. Make sure your young driver understands the consequences, both legal and physical, of drinking and driving, and make sobriety a requirement for the privilege of using the family car.

In addition, talk to your kids about how to navigate social situations where they suspect a friend has been drinking and plans to drive. If the friend swears they’ve just had one beer and will be totally fine, how should your teen respond? Will you offer to pick up your child, no questions asked, if they feel they’re in an unsafe situation?

And don’t forget to talk about other kinds of impaired driving, especially since recreational marijuana will become legal in Canada on July 1, 2018. People metabolize THC (the active ingredient in marijuana) at different rates, and there could traces of the drug in your system weeks or even months after it was consumed. But even if it’s harder for police to prove marijuana-impaired driving, several studies suggest the drug affects spatial perception, so it’s a good bet to avoid driving while high altogether. National Teen Driver Safety Week is October 15-21, and that may be a good jumping off point for your conversation.

2. Lead by example

It’s important that you practice what you preach, especially when teaching your kids how to navigate the roads. And drugs and alcohol aren’t the only dangers — Statistics Canada estimates that in 2012, distracted driving played a role in 23 per cent of fatal accidents and 27 per cent of accidents with injuries. Distracted driving can mean anything from reading a newspaper to eating a sandwich, but most frequently involves using a cell phone. And young drivers are particularly susceptible: according to the same Statistics Canada survey, 45 per cent of 18-to-34-year-old drivers report using a cell phone while driving.

Keep emphasizing how dangerous it is to text and drive, and make sure you set a good example. If you or your teen really can’t wait to reply to a text, pull over before starting to type.

3. Get in the right mindset

If you have decades of experience on the road, it can be helpful to get into a new driver’s mindset before taking your child on their first lesson. Ask another experienced driver to get in the passenger’s seat and to direct your driving: 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 constantly take direction, and that may help you stay calm if your new driver gets snippy during a lesson.

4. Take baby steps

Start your first lesson in an empty parking lot where you won’t crash and don’t have to worry about keeping up with traffic or staying within lines. When your teen gets a little more comfortable, move on to quiet residential streets. Consider planning your routes with your new driver before you start so you both know how the lesson is progressing, and if either of you get too stressed or anxious, cut it short. Once your child is more comfortable on the road, integrate lessons into errands. For example, have them drive to their dental appointment — with you beside them, of course!

5. 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. So make sure your lessons span all seasons so they can practice driving in the rain and on ice, and take them out at dusk and dawn so they learn how to deal with extra glare. Plus, construction zones are good place to practice reading road signs and navigating tight corners.

6. Turn it over to the pros

In addition to at-home practice, have your child take driving lessons. It’ll save you time, eliminate the stress of sitting beside a 16-year-old as they navigate the roads for the very first time, and you may avoid some tension-fuelled screaming matches over three-point turns. Plus, your young driver will qualify for discounted insurance. And since coverage can get pricey, especially for males under 25, saving a few hundred dollars every year can’t hurt.

7. Talk about money

From gas and insurance to maintenance and parking fees, cars are expensive. Ask your child 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 hard-earned babysitting money, they’ll feel more of a sense of ownership of the car and are likely to take better care while on the road.

8. Help them minimize trips to the pump

Teach your kids the basics of fuel efficiency so they — and you — can save on gas: map out trips before you leave to avoid backtracking through town, keep tires fully-inflated, use the recommended motor oil for your vehicle, and remember,  driving faster burns more fuel.

9. Go over car maintenance

Your kids don’t have to become mechanics, but knowing how to maintain a car is a major key in becoming a good driver. It’s a good idea for them to learn how to pump gas, refill windshield wiper fluid, check tire pressure, and change a flat tire. Also go over the owner’s manual together for a refresher course on what each dashboard light means.