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Defensive driving is one of the most difficult but important skills for a new teen driver to learn.
While new drivers might see a vehicle as the quickest way to get from point A to point B, defensive drivers prioritize making it to point B safely, even if that means adding a few minutes to the journey. This type of thinking typically comes with experience, but you can help your teen learn it much sooner.
First, your teen needs to understand that defensive driving involves expecting other drivers to make mistakes, poor decisions and unsafe maneuvers. This doesn’t mean your teen should judge everyone on the road as a ‘bad’ driver, it just means they should get behind the wheel knowing that something could go wrong and they will need to react accordingly.
This can include checking their blind spots before merging, scanning the road ahead, alongside and behind the vehicle to see what other drivers are doing and always being on the lookout for potential hazards. The recent tragedy in New Mexico, where a truck’s tire blew out and sent it across a median into a bus, killing several occupants, is an example of how road hazards can appear out of nowhere and why defensive driving is so important.
The other crucial element in defensive driving is patience. Picture an intersection with stop signs at all four sides and heavy traffic. A defensive driver who is paying close attention might see that other drivers are antsy to get through the intersection and are not always waiting for their turn. Even when you have the right-of-way, then, it is safest to wait and check each direction for oncoming cars, rather than pulling through just because it is your turn. A safe defensive driver would even let someone else go out of turn because they know that otherwise it could result in a crash.
This is a lesson that your teen has to learn to stay safe: though drivers may know what a stop sign means and how right of way works, we aren’t always in agreement about whose turn it is, who stopped first or other basics of traffic safety. This is where defensive driving comes in.
Your teen won’t master this skill immediately, but as he or she learns to drive you can help by asking them, what do you think the driver ahead of you will do next and what will you do if they behave differently? What if they decide to brake suddenly and turn without signaling? Are you giving yourself enough time to react? These sorts of questions can help your teen identify potential hazards and learn to drive safer.
Defensive driving requires patience, attention and the ability to make safe decisions, not exactly traits teens are well-known for. This is why it is so important for parents to stay involved and set a good example, even after their teen gets a license. Your teen won’t learn these skills the moment they get behind the wheel, they have to learn them from someone: make sure that someone is you.
DriveitHOME™ is an initiative of the National Safety Council, designed by and for parents of newly licensed teen drivers. DriveitHOME™ offers free resources parents can use to help their teen build experience to become safer drivers.