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Learning to Drive: A Guide for Parents
Published: Saturday, May 3, 2008

By: PDE Publishing

This popular booklet, LEARNING TO DRIVE: A Guide for Parents, was first published in 1986. This invaluable booklet has been distributed by school boards, driving schools, auto associations and even, in part, by CNN on its web site. The content of the booklet was drawn from the wisdom of dozens of professional driving instructors. It is an excellent guide to the pitfalls of driver instruction and the techniques that can make the parent co-driver's difficult role safe, satisfying and successful.

Copyright 2002 PDE Publications. This booklet is reprinted here with permission of

What's involved for you, the parent?

Getting a driver's license is often referred to as the modern equivalent of a ritual of passage to adulthood for the young, new driver-and it's certainly a dangerous one.

A wise parent will seek the help of reliable professionals in preparing the teen for the complex world of the automobile and traffic. It's not enough for today's teenagers to learn as their parents did. The driving world they enter is far too intense to tackle without serious preparation.

As a parent you are the one who cares most about your teenager's driving ability and safety. This booklet will help you participate in the process of educating your teenager behind the wheel. It will give you insights into the skills and knowledge that professional instructors accumulate over years of teaching. It will inform you about the pitfalls lying in wait for the amateur instructor during the early stages of learning, about the defensive strategies taught in modern driving courses, and about the need to follow up after licensing to ensure that your teen continues to develop defensive driving skills and safe habits. 

On the road

If possible, leave your teen's first on-the-road experiences to the care of a professional. Many a nasty accident has occurred because an inexperienced beginner was allowed to get into a situation that was too much to cope with. A miscalculation in speed, a sudden change in traffic conditions, or an awkward combination of circumstances could lead to disaster. The professionals are used to anticipating such problems-and they have the advantage of dual controls. Your task as co-driver is to back up the work of the professionals with well-planned and coordinated practice sessions. 

Preparing for the test

Learning to drive a car safely and efficiently in modern traffic involves much more than training to pass a government road test and get a license. However, this is a necessary first stage. Government driver examiners want to ensure that the new driver has adequate control over the vehicle, knows the rules of the road and the correct procedures for managing a vehicle in traffic, and can make safe decisions.

The professional instructor is skilled in teaching these basics. Your role as parent/co-driver is to reinforce what the instructor teaches and provide practice time. It will help enormously if you take the time to refresh your memory by reading through the "Driver's Handbook".

Helping your teen learn to become an effective driver is an opportunity for you to improve your driving and become a better role model.

The following outlines some of the major defensive driving concepts taught on modern driving courses. You can get more information on these from your teen's driver education textbook. 

Defensive driving techniques

Being a good defensive driver means more than just being cautious, and mere experience isn't enough either. The good defensive driver has to work at developing good driving techniques. The following is a summary of the defensive driving concepts commonly covered in driver education courses.

Managing space and time

This concept is critical to the tactics used in defensive driving. The driver must have space to maneuver and time to react. The following time rules help the novice to compensate for inexperience and are invaluable in reducing risk in traffic.

The 2-second rule

This provides safe spacing when following another car at any speed. By noting when a car ahead of you passes a fixed point and counting your time to reach that point, you can determine whether your spacing is safe. Two seconds (count "one thousand and one, one thousand and two") is the minimum safe space. This should be practiced from the passenger seat! The beginner will then develop a sense of what a safe space looks like at different speeds.

The 4-second stopping rule

This is an approximate guide to stopping distance at speeds over 60 kph (37 mph). Choose a fixed point on the roadway ahead and count the seconds until you get there. If you counted four seconds, that point indicated your minimum stopping distance.

The 12-second visual lead time

Ideally, the defensive driver is anticipating traffic movements and potential hazards as far away as the point the car will reach in 12 seconds. Within this distance the driver should scan the scene, including the sidewalks, and make adjustments to speed and position as necessary.

The Smith System

The Smith System is one of the most widely used methods for improving defensive driving. It provides five rules for training the eyes to see what is important in driving. They are:

  • Aim high (to steer accurately and anticipate problems)
  • Keep your eyes moving (avoid fixed stare, stay alert)
  • Get the big picture (don't allow your eyes to be drawn to one area)
  • Leave yourself an 'out' (practice the 'what if...' game)
  • Make sure they see you (when there's conflict for space make eye contact with other driver).

These rules sound simple but it takes considerable practice to develop the habit of using them at all times in traffic. Good management of space and time allows the Smith system driver to use the five rules most effectively, always having time to scan the scene around the car and adjust speed and position to minimize hazards.

Road Commentary Driving

This technique is used with more advanced drivers. The driver is asked to do a running commentary on what hazards or factors he or she is taking into account while driving. ("Car turning left ahead," "approaching crosswalk," "car overtaking in the left lane," etc.) 


Attitude determines how knowledge and skills will be used. It determines whether a driver will be cooperative or competitive in traffic, whether he or she will accept a high level of risk or put into practice the concepts taught on defensive driving courses.

Your biggest contribution to your teen's safety and effectiveness behind the wheel will be your example. Patience, courtesy, and a willingness to improve will be your best assets. Now is the time to review your own driving habits and offer your teen the example of courtesy and consideration for other road users. This may do more than anything else to ensure your teens driving safety. 

Planning practice sessions

Random driving around during practice sessions can be dangerous. It's all too easy for the novice driver to get into trouble, particularly in the early stages. Before getting into traffic be sure that your teen has good coordination with hands and feet. Until the novice is sure of the pedals, the danger of hitting the wrong pedal in a panic situation is always present.

It's important to plan practice sessions. Decide where to go and what you are going to do before setting out. Take some care in selecting a suitable area. A large deserted parking lot is ideal for the initial sessions because it allows the beginner to concentrate fully on the feel of the controls and the response of the car.

For the initial street sessions find the quietest streets possible. Your teen will learn the correct road and traffic procedures from the professional instructor. Your job will be to provide good feedback while he or she practices these procedures.

Accurate lane driving and positioning for turns, good signal timing, and good road sense are the basic ingredients for passing the government road test. These will be learned more effectively by driving around the block with somebody who provides good feedback than by hours of random driving on highway or streets. On the other hand, a co-driver who allows the novice driver to get away with faults or who provides poor feedback may hold back the learning process considerably. 

Practice hints

Stay alert. Some beginners may give the impression of being confident and in control but may be totally unprepared to deal with any sudden change in conditions and very reliant on you, the co-driver, for guidance and even assistance in control. Anticipate problems and always be ready to react.

Communicate clearly. Give directions well in advance and try to always use the same terms (don't say accelerator one time and gas pedal the next, for example).

Don't hit the beginner with everything at once. A simple right turn, for example, involves several steps-checking mirrors, signaling, checking blind areas, braking, positioning, checking for traffic before the turn, steering, and recovery. To expect a beginner to follow all of these correctly during the early sessions is asking too much.

Don't get excited during practice sessions. This communicates itself quickly to the driver and can make performance difficult.

Don't overload. A big part of being an instructor or co-driver is reminding the driver to check traffic and to signal and to bring attention to potential hazards. But once again, remember that everything you say is also a distraction for the driver. Be sparing in your comments and, above all, try to avoid letting the beginner get into situations he or she can't handle.

Stop and discuss. When your teen makes a mistake, he or she may not be clear as to what went wrong. Explaining and discussing while on the move is not very effective. The beginner is too busy driving! Stop as soon as you can, while the mistake is still fresh in the memory, and sort out the problem. Don't jump on every mistake, however, and make a big thing of it. This will affect the beginner's confidence and concentration on the driving task.

Don't clash with what the professional driving instructor teaches. If your teen is doing something that you think is incorrect and maintains that the driving instructor teaches this way-talk to the driving instructor. Student drivers often wrongly interpret their instructor's directions.

After licensing

The first year of driving is a high-risk period for the beginner. Inexperience combined with a lack of skill means that one in five male 16-year old drivers and about one in ten females will have an accident during their first year of driving.

Some of the worst accidents occur at night and with a group of young people in the car. If alcohol or any other kind of impairment is involved the risk in this situation is magnified several times.

Some supervision during the first year or two will help reduce risk. It's a good idea to keep track of the kinds of driving situation your teen has experienced and to gradually work in new ones (for example, night driving, rain, snow, freeways, heavy traffic, passing on the open highway, and so on). Watch for the accumulation of bad habits such as forgetting to signal, sloppy turns, speeding, sudden changes in speed or direction, lack of alertness.


Safe driving is very much a matter of seeing what needs to be seen and making good decisions, but this is not simple to achieve. As vision expert Dr. Joe Shapiro points out, "Eyes don't tell people what they see. People tell eyes what to look for." In other words, experience and training play a major role in ensuring that a driver's eyes will look in the right places at the right time. The novice driver's biggest enemy is the complacency that comes from early success at learning driving basics. Parents' role is to help their teen overcome that complacency and continue to build driving skills after licensing.

Provided with permission by

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