I have spent the last 6 years developing driver education teaching materials specifically targeted to parents. The main reason? The moment parents turn their child’s safety seat around to face front, they become a driver education teacher.
I have thousands of completed traffic safety evaluations, mostly from children 9 to 18 years old which overwhelmingly show children learn driving habits and behaviors from watching their parents drive as they grow up. The majority of new drivers (less than 5 years driving experience) consider their parents to be the biggest influence on how they drive.
This is not what most parents believe. Research shows most parents mistakenly think the biggest influence on their children’s driving is their driver education teacher or peers. Even more surprising to many: laws and tragic stories have the least effect on new driver behavior.
So this month, I have a helpful exercise for parents. Many have told me this really helps as they start the learning to drive process with their kids.
NOTE: We are going to assume your child wants to learn how to drive and obtain their license. I urge parents not to force a child to learn to drive if they don’t want to. If kids are a little nervous, that is ok and understandable, but if they really don’t want to start the learning to drive process, I urge parents to wait until they are ready.
I’m going to explain right seat commentary driving. Yup. No misprint. I said right seat, as in passenger seat commentary driving.
Many parents and teens are nervous in the beginning. Becoming comfortable and effective in right seat commentary driving can help calm everyone’s nerves, before a teen ever gets into the driver seat. It’s also an option for parents to think about if initial driving lessons don't go well.
Commentary driving involves you, the parent driving, and the child sitting in the passenger seat. Before driving begins, all phones are off and preferably put in the trunk. The radio is also off, everyone is calm, no eating or drinking and no hands free phone use. In other words, zero distractions.
There are two main questions I suggest parents ask their child passenger to focus on, as the parent drives:
1. What do you see on the road clearly that could affect our driving?
2. Where could hidden/less obvious danger come from?
Here are some responses you would want to hear from your child as an answer to the first question:
• I see a vehicle coming from the other direction.
• I see a vehicle waiting to pull into traffic.
• I see a pedestrian walking a dog.
• A traffic light is changing to red and we have a vehicle tailgating us.
• I see a vehicle waiting to turn in front of us.
For the second question, look for answers like these:
• I see a green light intersection meaning we should look for a red light runner.
• Parked vehicles and big trucks can mean blind spots or hidden dangers.
• Buildings, trees or foliage may be close to the street which means hidden driveways
• Gas stations and strip malls could mean vehicles suddenly exiting.
• The edge of the road drops off sharply.
Right seat commentary driving helps develop situational awareness, blind spot recognition and eye scanning skills. These skills are vital to help all drivers avoid crashes but are even more important to inexperienced new drivers.
If you are worried your child might not yet have the maturity to start driving, I advise you try right seat commentary driving. If your child doesn’t want to try commentary driving or doesn’t take it seriously, this will confirm your suspicions; they are probably not ready.
There has been a massive increase in deaths and serious injuries for pedestrians and cyclists over the last 5 years. The safety and awareness skills learned by right seat commentary driving also apply when children are riding bicycles, playing outside or riding skate boards.
Many parents have told me how enthusiastic their younger children become about commentary driving. A friend of mine was doing the exercise with their 15-year-old and soon their 10-year-old wanted to try, too. The earlier we teach our kids about these concepts, the safer they will be as pedestrians, cyclists and ultimately—drivers.
For more information about these topics and beyond, I urge you to watch The Parent Driving Zone DVD. Free copies for DriveitHOME reader are available at tsef.org while supplies last.
I’ll see you here next month with another post!