LOS ANGELES — My teenage son’s incessant lobbying to learn how to drive started a year ago during normal, pre-COVID times. A junior in high school, he had eyes for my Tesla and a head full of dreams about chauffeuring his friends with my wheels.
I was not enthused. He owns a bicycle, a skateboard, and lives within walking distance of the Metro Gold Line, I protested. Lime scooters were so omnipresent in our neighborhood; they were practically trash. Did he really need a car to get around?
His answer was predictable: “Uh, yeah.”
I knew I was being a hypocrite, having grown up in a midwestern suburb where it was routine for kids to get their driver’s licenses on their 16th birthdays. But I was also scared. Driving is, after all, the No. 1 killer of teenagers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
So I acquiesced — on the learning part, at least. I signed him up for the driver education class California requires for wannabe drivers under the age of 18, got the certificate in the mail proving he’d not only endured the 30 hours of instruction but passed with flying colors, and braved the Department of Motor Vehicles to secure his instruction permit. All before COVID slammed the brakes on his Ferris Bueller fantasies.
Now, instead of my 17-year-old enjoying some quality time behind the wheel of some stranger’s car as part of a formal driving school, I’m the one teaching him protocol for a stop sign. I’m the one giving him pointers for how to merge onto the historic 110’s death-defying on-ramps.
“Families have been impacted significantly with COVID shutting so many things down, including licensing agencies and driver’s ed programs,” said Pam Fischer, senior director of external engagement for the Governors Highway Safety Assn., a nonprofit comprised of the nation’s 50 state highway safety offices.
A new survey from the group found that 65% of teenagers are experiencing a disruption to their driver education because of COVID restrictions. According to the study, released as part of National Teen Driver Safety Week, 78% of parents are now teaching their teenagers how to drive.
“For most of us, we know how to drive, but we haven’t taught our kids how to do it,” Fischer said. “It’s one of the most frightening things we do, but we have to invest in it. We’ve invested in our kids for 16 years, and then all of a sudden, it’s time to drive. It used to be you’d throw them the keys, but this is the one thing that can kill them.”
According to the California Department of Motor Vehicles, teens aren’t just killed at a higher rate than other drivers; they are also injured more frequently and receive more traffic citations. What are parents to do, especially now, when they are already juggling work, home, school, and family responsibilities 24/7 under the same shared roof and are also tasked with hands-on driving instructor duty?
Fischer said it’s important that parents and teens are on the same page regarding the expectations and responsibilities of driving. The GHSA is one of several safety groups that recommend a Parent-Teen Driving Agreement that outlines the basic rules teens need to follow and the consequences if they don’t.
A sample Parent-Teen Driving Agreement on the website DriversEd.com, for example, reads like a formal contract between parent and child and requires them both to sign it. It includes agreeing only to drive a car when granted permission, always wearing a seatbelt, never talking on the phone while driving, never driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and calling a parent for a ride if the teen is unable to drive safely for any reason.
“When parents are actively engaged in their teen’s driving time, teens are less likely to crash and engage in risky behaviors,” Fischer said.
Fischer said that parents need to understand what the teen is required to do to get a driver’s license. “Too often, parents don’t take the time to learn. They rely on their teen to tell them, but they’re not always truthful. It’s incumbent upon parents to take the time to learn.”
Fischer encourages parents who have become inadvertent driving instructors to take advantage of online resources. The California DMV, for example, has a parent-teen training guide that can help families navigate the process.
One of the first steps the DMV recommends is that the parent and teen identify the driving skills the teen needs to practice. To a parent, they may seem routine, but a teen will need time to understand the proper techniques for backing up a car, making turns, negotiating intersections, changing lanes, merging onto freeways, and keeping a safe following distance.
The DMV recommends that parents familiarize themselves with proper driving techniques as some things have changed.
For example, hand placement is no longer 10 and 2, but 9 and 3, a change necessitated due to the inclusion of airbags in the steering wheel. Many states, including California, now include tire safety as part of their driver education curriculum. The new GHSA survey found that 52% of parents have not taught their teen how to check their tire tread depth, and 35% have not taught them about tire pressure. But tires represent a significant safety issue, accounting for twice as many traffic fatalities as distracted driving, according to GHSA’s survey partner, Michelin North America.
“Teens are not bad drivers,” Fischer said. “They’re risky drivers because they’re inexperienced, and their brains aren’t fully developed. Decision making and being able to assess risk is often what trips them up.”
Fischer encourages parent driving instructors to focus on some of the riskiest factors for teens, such as going too fast for conditions, following other cars too closely, and staying focused on driving without distraction.
“When we talk about the work of parents teaching teens, parents think that when kids feel comfortable accelerating smoothly, they’ve got it,” she said. “We need those higher-order skills where they’re scanning ahead and anticipating what’s out there and looking for it.”
Skill, Fischer said, is crucial for preparing to be a licensed driver.
We know that the time teens spend driving and gaining more experience and competence is really critical helping reduce risk.”
COVID-19 has affected the number of times parents can spend in the car with their teens developing their skills, Fischer said, but it is required in California for teens to receive their driver’s license. The state requires 50 hours of supervised practice, including 10 hours of night driving, as well as six hours in a driver’s training course before a teen can get a license.
“The more practice they can get, the better,” Fischer said, adding that research has shown 100 or 120 hours of practice is preferable.
She recommends parents find the time to let their teens drive doing routine errands, like going to the grocery store or doctor’s office. “Have your teen do the driving, so you have the opportunity to get them the practice they need, and you can continue to coach. The more time they can spend driving and practicing, the better.”