11 tips to sharpen your teen driver’s skills

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If you’re anything like us, you had the date for your teen’s driving test circled on the calendar. Hopefully, both you and your child were growing increasingly excited: you’re probably an anticipating some relief of daily shuttle duties, and they’re eager to prove their worth behind the wheel of a car—that expression of freedom we cherish so deeply.

If only it were that simple. COVID-19 brought nearly everything to a halt—including driving tests.

As the country prepares to pull back the shutters and slowly return to normal life, there’s no telling when driving tests will resume. How can soon-to-be drivers ensure that their skills don’t grow rusty, especially as memory of that driver’s ed class fades into the past?

Bill Wade is the National Program Director at the Tire Rack’s Street Survival driving school. In the absence of official driving instructors, Bill has kindly passed along 11 skills and exercises that parents can practice with their future drivers to help them stay sharp.

Seat position

Most young folks are so nervous prior to a driving test that they will ignore something as simple as a comfortable seat position. Teach your teen how to adjust the seat and steering wheel (if possible) so that they can use all the controls without having to lean or stretch.

Have them stretch out their arm without pulling their shoulder off the seat back; the steering wheel should hit their outstretched arm at the break of their wrist. Your teen should be able to press the brake pedal as far as they can without locking their knee; they should be able to get a large range of travel, and should slide the seat forward until that is possible.

Proper hand placement

Placing your hands at nine and three o’clock shouldn’t feel stilted—there’s an anatomical advantage to doing so, according to Wade. If you’re turning left, use your left hand to pull down on the steering wheel, rather than using your right hand to push up. You have smaller muscle groups in your forearm, and they are easier to control than the larger groups in your upper arm. Relying on your forearms rather than your beefy biceps means that steering adjustments (or inputs) will be more precise. This technique is especially helpful when you’re driving in less-than-ideal conditions, such as a snowstorm.

Seatbelt safety

This should go without saying, but tell your teen driver anyways: Always buckle up when in a car, whether behind the wheel or not. Position the horizontal portion of the belt low on your hips, not up on your stomach—in the event of a crash, a lower-slung belt is less likely to damage your internal organs. Similarly, the shoulder belt should be reasonably snug on your body.

If you’re wearing particularly bulky clothes, the seatbelt will require additional fractions of seconds to tighten against your body if you get into an accident. It might not sound important, but those tiny slices of time can be the difference between safety and serious injury. If you’re driving in colder regions, take the time to let the car heat up, then shed that down jacket before you leave the driveway.

Effective mirror positioning

Despite the plethora of modern automated safety technologies, none of them replace an aware driver. Your seemingly humble side and rearview mirrors are among your teen’s best tools in protecting their blind spots. There should only be a tiny sliver of your own car visible in each side mirror.

Contrary to what some of us were taught, Wade says that your teen should never look over their shoulder while driving to check their blindspot. His reasoning is simple: Your hands follow your eyes, so when you look over that shoulder, you subconsciously begin to change lanes. Instead, the proper mirror adjustment mentioned above—and simply leaning forward in the seat to momentarily gain a wider mirror angle—should be enough to determine whether or not it is safe to change lanes.

“Always in park” procedure

The mirror and the seat adjustments mentioned above should only be done when the vehicle is in park. The same goes any adjustments of the radio. These mundane adjustments might not be top of mind when your teen grabs the keys. Work to form their habit of adjusting driving-adjacent inputs before they hit the open road.

Sometimes numbers help: At 60 mph, your teen travels the length of a high school basketball court every second, and the length of a comparable football field in five seconds while doing 55 mph. It’s not worth the risk to change the station on the go.

Young Driver Teaching Tips Open Road
Sabrina Hyde

As important as these first five reminders are, the whole point of driver’s education is to familiarize young folks with the sensation of being on the move while behind the wheel. Wade also shared some behind-the-wheel exercises to work with your young driver.

“10-second rule” exercise

Often new drivers can be relatively short-sighted; they’re fearful of swerving from their lane and may not trust themselves or the car. Ironically, this same attitude may produce jerkier steering and prevent them from anticipating circumstances farther down the road.

To help your teen break this short-distance focus, have them pick an object somewhere down the road that they think is ten seconds away. Then, have them count to ten seconds out loud. Often, they’ll reach the object they’ve picked well before ten seconds have elapsed. Repeat this technique to help them improve their instincts. It’s almost impossible to be looking too far down the road—especially on interstates or highways.

Appropriate following distance

Many teens’ first accidents involve them rear-ending someone (or something) because they’re not familiar with the distance a vehicle requires to stop. According to Wade, the distance between two vehicles should be at least 3 seconds at any speed over 35 mph.

We’re going to ad lib here and say that with every 10-mph increase, you should allow for an additional second’s worth of room. You should discuss this idea of following distance in conjunction with the 10-second exercise mentioned above.

Nighttime driving

It’s important for you to get some seat time with your teen as they start driving in the evening. Discuss how low-light situations can mess with a driver’s perception and distance; encouraging them to lower their speeds as the sun sets. Many modern cars have headlights that automatically switch on at dusk, but show your teen in great detail how to adjust the headlight dial, stalk, or switch; make sure  they exactly what each setting does and when each is appropriate. There’s nothing worse than encountering another car at night with only a dim glow from its fog lights. Do everything you can to make sure your teen driver isn’t that car!

Additionally, explain to them why the “but I can see just fine” excuse never cuts it. Even if the light has only begun to fade, and active headlights don’t make a discernable distance to your teen, headlights don’t exist simply to serve a car’s driver. More often, the headlights serve other drivers on the roads, allowing them to trace the movement of your teen—and the car they’re driving.

Varied speed experiences

This should go without saying, but please don’t throw your new driver into the merging lane on the freeway within their first 20 minutes. Take it slowly, starting with around town speeds no more than 50 mph, and building up from there. Allow them to get comfortable with the car’s braking, turning, and accelerating behavior at different speeds. Braking a car from 70 mph is a very different exercise than slowing it from 40 mph. Trying to accelerate from 50–70 mph may be surprisingly undramatic, unless your teen is driving a McLaren, and newer drivers can easily blow pass a speed limit without noticing.

Scanning for wildlife and other factors

Around Hagerty’s Traverse City office, wooded roads are only a 15 minute drive in any direction you choose—and so are deer, raccoons, possums, and other wildlife. Your teen should be on high alert for unexpected intrusions apart from fellow drivers, including children, bikers, road debris, potholes, wildlife, and more.

Teach them to love the drive!

As you work through the instructional materials above, never miss a chance to compliment your teen on their driving, and celebrate their opportunity to enjoy the open road. After all, that’s what this is all about—making sure that the next generation never stops driving!

When driving tests are finally able to take place again, be sure to check out Hagerty’s License to the Future program and learn how you could help your teen get their driving license for free.

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