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Issue Date: August 2005 Issue


Drive Time

So your teen's ready to get behind the wheel. But before she puts her foot on the pedal -- and tests your mettle -- here are some important rules for the road.
Lynne Thompson
editorial@clevelandmagazine.com

Road Test

Are you still a little nervous about handing over the car keys to your teen? Here are seven ways you can help your child safely learn the ways of the road.

1. Have a plan. Talk to your children about what the both of you want to accomplish during each practice driving session (ex. parallel parking) and how much time will be devoted to each session (usually half an hour to an hour).

2. Find a place. It is best to find a vacant parking lot that will give your child enough room to get familiar with the automobile and learn the basics before hitting the open road.

3. Stay calm. There may be times when you want to yell and scream, but a calm approach will keep your child focused on learning and not worrying about making mistakes.

4. Keep a log. A record of dates, times and lessons will come in handy when it is time to sign the form stating your child has completed the 50 required hours of driving time.

5. Start with the basics. Don’t expect your child to know everything in a week. Work on a skill as many times as necessary until he of she is comfortable with it.

6. Have a parent and teen driver contract. Have a written document with rules and responsibilities on which both parent and child can agree. Include the number of passengers allowed, as well as when and for how long the car can be used.

7. Call your insurance company. Let your agent know your child will be driving with a temporary permit. Some companies require insurance on temporary permit drivers, while others do not make it mandatory until your child receives their permanent license. --

Source: Ohio Insurance Institute, www.ohioinsurance.org

Kathi and David Smith know they lucked out when it came to teaching their oldest child, Cory, how to drive.

Unlike his friends, who counted down the days until they were old enough to get a temporary license, the now-17-year-old North Olmsted High School student never even voiced a desire to get behind the wheel until he was 16 1/2 years old. In fact, Kathy and David first broached the subject. And when Cory did get his temporary driver's license, he turned out to be a cautious, conscientious driver.

But Kathi, a customer-service representative for a background screening company, readily admits that she was more than a little nervous the first time her son strapped himself into the driver's seat of the family's Chevy Lumina with her in tow.

"I was terrified," she says. "He was backing out of the driveway, and I was yelling, ‘Slow down! Slow down! Watch out for cars!'"

Anyone who's ever taught a teenager to drive can empathize. The very thought of getting into a car with an inexperienced driver who's more interested in tuning the radio than paying attention to stop signs and speed limits is enough to crumple any mother or father's steel nerves. The prospect of handing over the car keys to an eager 16-year-old with a newly minted driver's license is even more frightening. But experts say teaching a teen to drive is not only survivable, it actually can empower the parent.

"This is your last chance to be in charge," says David Thompson of Advanced Car Control Techniques, the Melbourne, Fla.-based company that conducted 10 weekends of WKYC-TV-sponsored New Driver Car Control Clinics in the Cleveland Municipal Parking Lot last summer. "Not only should you take the responsibility of being in charge, but you ought to relish it."

Kathryn Wesolowski, manager of the Community Safety and Resource Center at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital, points out that the "permanent" Ohio driver's license minors receive is really a probationary license that, like the temporary license, can be surrendered to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles by the parent or guardian who co-signs for it at any time, for any reason.

"Kids can't just say, ‘I've got my driver's license — I can take off' or ‘I own my car — I can take off,'" she says. "It doesn't work like that under Ohio law."

Wesolowski encourages driving this very sobering point home to the teen by making it the subject of the first paragraph in a written driving contract, complete with penalties for breaking it, negotiated with the teen before he or she ever gets a temporary license. The language she recommends follows: "The privilege to drive is not a legal right. It is granted to me by my parents, who are under no obligation to do so and may withdraw the privilege at any time. Because I am a minor, my parents remain responsible for my behavior. I understand that I will only be allowed to drive when I am willing to abide by the rules and regulations established by my parents."

Those rules and regulations should include basics such as abiding by all speed limits and driving laws (including the all-important one about not drinking and driving); wearing a safety belt; and requiring passengers to buckle up as well.

Wesolowski urges parents to limit the number of passengers permitted in the vehicle. She goes so far as to suggest banishing them from the car until the teen is issued a "permanent" license and has proved his or her road-worthiness.

"Every study in the best work in this field shows that by increasing the number of passengers in a teen's car, we increase the risk of a crash," she says. "Passengers can be a distraction."

Guidelines regarding access to and financial responsibility for the car, maintaining grades and fulfilling family commitments will vary according to a family's values and economic situation. Some parents require their children to ask to use the car and, if their request is granted, to disclose where they're going and how they're going to get there. By pre-planning routes, Wesolowski explains, parents can help new drivers steer clear of high-hazard roads and dangerous intersections.

For parents whose kids attend high schools where a complete driver's education program is no longer offered — the majority, by Thompson's count — selecting a driving school can be a concern.

Smith was shocked when Cory told her that his driving instructor spent her students' time in the car talking about her recent breakup with her boyfriend. "In class, he said half the kids were sleeping, and the teacher would BS for maybe a half hour, tell them that they could do whatever they wanted," she recalls.

Before enrolling a teen in a driving school, Thompson recommends asking the institution for the names and phone numbers of five students who recently took its course, then calling their parents and asking them to share their experiences. If the school refuses to give those names because of privacy concerns, Wesolowski suggests asking to sit in on a class.

When it comes to a teen logging the state-required 50 hours of driving supervised by a licensed parent or guardian, Thompson says the calmer, more patient adult should definitely do the honors.

The key to maintaining that calmness and patience in the passenger seat — and making objective observations instead of constantly screaming, "Look out!" and "Slow down!" out of sheer white-knuckled terror — lies in carefully choosing where and when the teen will fulfill the obligation.

Thompson suggests beginning on a weekend afternoon in a vast, empty parking lot, where new drivers can practice basics such as braking and accelerating, and making left and right turns. He then suggests the adult in the passenger seat plan various exercises — for example, asking the teen to make a series of right or left turns around a large square created by lining up large boxes filled with sand. (Wesolowski suggests checking out the lesson plans and activities on the Ohio Department of Public Safety's Web site, www.ohiopublicsafety.com.)

"Make it clear what you're asking the driver to do, and then just let them do it," he advises. "You're trying to build a series of positive experiences based on following some instructions to reach an objective goal."

Once the teen has proven herself in the parking lot, parent and child can venture onto suburban side streets where traffic is light and speed limits range from 10 mph to 20 mph. When the parent feels the new driver has mastered tooling around side streets, Thompson suggests moving on to quiet country roads where the speed limits increase up to 40 mph, then suburban main streets during off-peak hours and, finally, the highway. (Smith suggests selecting areas that the teen knows well.)

Practicing in darkness, rain and snow should only be attempted after the teen is comfortable driving in all of the aforementioned areas on clear, dry days.

"If you push them too far too fast," Thompson says, "you're making trouble."

Although Ohio law only requires teens with temporary licenses to log 50 hours of supervised driving time, Wesolowski advises parents to extend their training to six or seven months, maybe even longer if the teen's lack of skill warrants it.

"If you're afraid to drive with your child," she says, "don't just succumb to the pressure to get that kid out and driving on his own."


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