Teaching Teens How to Drive

Teaching Teens How to Drive

Kids can't wait to get their license, but teaching them to drive can be one of the most frustrating phases of parenting.

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Chevy Chase mom Lisa Hartigan runs through the range of emotions experienced by parents teaching their teens to drive. Photos by Liz Lynch.

“CAN I DRIVE?” my 16-year-old daughter asked eagerly.

It was late on a Sunday afternoon last June when Emily and I were about to return home to Silver Spring from a family party in Severna Park. The 45-mile trip would take us along Route 50 and the Beltway, both roads certain to be congested with returning beach traffic. Emily had logged hours of practice on the busy roads near our home and deftly handled a nearly empty Intercounty Connector on a Sunday morning, but this would be her first attempt at driving in heavy traffic on a multi-lane highway.

Suddenly I envisioned the road ahead morphing into a deathtrap filled with hurtling hunks of metal, bent on cutting off our aging Volvo wagon and sending us careening into the side of the Severn River Bridge. I took a deep breath and handed over the keys.

GETTING A DRIVER’S license has long been considered a rite of passage for teens. The flip side—teaching your teen to drive—is arguably one of the most difficult roles of parenting. Parents who’ve been through the experience often shudder as they recall the anxiety inherent in turning over the family car to their child.

“You’re putting your life in their hands,” Potomac parent Linda Johnson says bluntly, recalling her experiences teaching her daughter, now 18, how to drive and most recently, her son, 17, who got his license in January. “You’ve got to give up that control.”

Whenever the subject comes up, one couple I know instantly finds themselves transported back to that scary moment a few years ago when they feared for their lives as their novice teen driver blindly drove the family car off an exit ramp and into oncoming traffic on I-95.

Lisa Hartigan of Chevy Chase recalls how she blithely assumed that a trip to Maryland’s Deep Creek Lake would provide her daughter, 16-year-old Hailey, with a couple of hours of easy highway driving practice—that is, until the road they were on unexpectedly narrowed and became lined with concrete barriers as they passed through a small town.

“We were in a luge,” Hartigan says. “I totally thought she’d be taking off the mirrors. It was petrifying.”

As teens often do, her daughter remembers differently. “It wasn’t as dramatic as she makes it sound,” Hailey scoffs.

FOR MOST FAMILIES, the process of teaching a teen to drive officially begins with a trip to a Motor Vehicle Administration branch for a learner’s permit, the first step in Maryland’s graduated-licensing system.  

The requirements for getting a driver’s license have changed dramatically since the days when most baby boomers were learning to drive. Growing up in Connecticut, I remember trying to stay awake through driver’s education class taught after school by our physical education teacher. My in-car lessons consisted of driving around our small town, mostly with my mom, while running errands. That might explain why neither my older brother nor I passed our driving tests the first time.

Today’s teens face a more onerous challenge. The adoption by all states and the District of Columbia of graduated driver licensing in recent decades means that most teenage drivers are required to spend more time driving supervised—and under rules that may limit the number of passengers and nighttime driving—before becoming fully licensed.

That’s a good thing, experts say, because it increases the amount of experience that teen drivers receive, reducing the chances that they will be involved in an accident during their first few years of driving. After all, it’s well known—and terrifying to us parents—that car crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens.

The adoption of graduated licensing is changing that dynamic. A March 2014 report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that “substantial reductions occurred in fatal and nonfatal crash risk among teenage drivers” after states implemented graduated driver licensing beginning in the mid-1990s.

In Maryland, the graduated-licensing system requires new drivers to progress through three levels of licensing: a learner’s permit, a provisional license and a full driver’s license. Teens can apply for a learner’s permit when they are 15 years and 9 months old as long as a parent or guardian co-signs their application. Before receiving a permit, they must pass a vision screening and a computerized test based on the Maryland Driver’s Manual.

Once teens get a permit, they must hold it for nine months before applying for a provisional license. They also must complete a state-approved driver’s education course—involving 30 hours of classroom instruction and six hours of behind-the-wheel training—and log a minimum of 60 hours of practice driving with a supervising adult, while maintaining a conviction-free driving record.

Trying to fit all those practice hours into their busy lives may be one reason that the number of teens who apply for a license as soon as they are legally able has dropped in recent years. In 2012, for example, just 28 percent of 16-year-olds held driver’s licenses nationwide, a sharp decrease from the nearly 41 percent of 16-year-olds who held licenses in 1996, according to Federal Highway Administration statistics.

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