- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 16, 2006

Teaching your child to drive is an important way of supporting his or her growth into responsible adulthood. In our family, learning to drive has been something of a group activity. Everyone supports the person learning, so he or she gets not one, but several teachers.

It’s good to start discussing driving skills several years before the young person is old enough to get a permit. When our children asked questions — What does that sign mean? Why are the lines sometimes broken and sometimes solid? What does a flashing red light mean? — we used that as pre-driving instruction time.

I would explain why we should allow one car length of distance between cars for each 10 miles per hour of speed, or that slower traffic should keep to the right lane of a highway, with the left lanes for the faster traffic or passing. On long trips, we would have the children watch the road signs and compute our arrival time using the speed limit.

My husband taught them about regular car maintenance, showing them how to check the oil and antifreeze and to change the tires. He also taught them how to parallel park — a task that gives me trouble. I taught driving skills, from simpler ones to the more complex, building gradually on previous lessons so they were confident in one before they began the next.

In our experience, it’s better to teach many short lessons rather than a few long ones. It lets the brain digest and absorb the skills more easily. From 15- or 20-minute lessons in a parking lot or a side street, you can work up gradually to moving onto a busier road, doing short errands or learning more complicated maneuvers.

Learning on a car with an automatic transmission is a lot less stressful for a teen than introducing the busy movements of manual shifting while he or she is trying to master checking the mirrors and signaling for a lane change. In fact, we didn’t teach our children how to drive with a manual transmission until after they had passed their driving tests on the automatic and were pretty comfortable with driving.

Driving is a privilege and a serious responsibility. Our family policy has been that even after the license is attained, several more steps must be passed: driving with experienced family members, then driving alone for short hops such as to do errands, learning to put gas in the car, observing any problems and reporting them, and contributing money for insurance.

It was several years before we allowed our oldest to drive with a group of friends for a several-hour trip. We reserve the right to veto driving in unsafe conditions — snow, thunderstorms, icy roads. We also expect our children to participate in tasks such as taking the cars for oil changes or to the repair shop.

Because no one in the family drinks or uses drugs, the message about driving under the influence is clear before the first driving lesson. These things are not simply against the law, they endanger lives. Our children know that any action of this type would cause their driving privileges to be withdrawn for a very long time. In this case, I think the bar should be set extremely high, and without pity. The young driver should know that if there is even a whiff of suspicion, his or her driver’s license will be forfeited for one or two years. The threat of losing the mobility, once attained, is a strong deterrent against flirting with danger.

My personal bias is against giving a child his or her own car; I think it’s better for youngsters to share the family cars. A shared vehicle carries more responsibility and involves ongoing discussion about timetables and need. Shared vehicles are easier to insure, and drivers hold each other accountable for an empty gas tank or messy interior.

Enrolling all your drivers in a program such as AAA helps ensure that they will not be stranded if there is a breakdown. Equipping drivers with a cell phone for emergencies but also for calling in and letting others know where they are, whom they are with and when they will return is a good idea.

Young drivers should be trained in what to do if stopped by police, how to guard themselves from attack and how to proceed in case of an accident. They should know where the registration and insurance information is kept, and they should be able to remember a license number if they witness a situation that should be reported.

Home education is an ideal opportunity to transfer vital skills that equip our children for adulthood.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a freelance writer who lives in Maryland.

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