Is Your Teen Driver Learning Defensive Driving Skills?

Is Your Teen Driver Learning Defensive Driving Skills?

Experienced drivers know it's foolish to assume others will follow the rules at all times.

Deborah A.P. Hersman is president and CEO of the National Safety Council

Blog – Imagine this scenario: A teen driver is on a through road as a straight truck approaches the roadway from an industrial park. The teen driver spots the truck but believes he's got the right-of-way since he is on a through road. Does he slow down or not? And what is dad doing meanwhile in the passenger seat?

Someone just learning to drive learns a lot about rules of the road. Those first 1,000 miles are perilous and full of unexpected twists and turns. Novice drivers may think that others will yield right-of-way as they were taught to do, but while the idea of the right-of-way helps drivers navigate the road safely, it serves more as a courtesy than a rule.

The reality is that on the road, expecting everyone to behave rationally and comply 100% of the time with laws, rules and customs, could be dangerous. Until we have completely automated vehicles, humans will continue to make errors behind the wheel – in fact 94% of crashes are the result of human error.

My son Taylor got his license last year, but he's still getting comfortable on the road. In the scenario I just described, he was the driver, and because he was driving in his lane, going at or below the 25 mph speed limit and complying with the rules, he simply did not expect the truck to violate his right-of-way and turn right into him. Of course, defensive driving Dad, saw the whole thing developing in slo-mo and was stomping on his imaginary brake and yelling brake/honk and generally confusing Taylor, who tried to avoid the collision at the last minute.

Rookie mistake – it was about inexperience. He was counting on the other driver to do the right thing, until the very last second. Experienced drivers with years of experience know to anticipate risk. If Dad was behind the wheel, he would have instinctively responded in a defensive driving way, and that crash wouldn't have occurred.

This is why young drivers are so risky. Young drivers have tunnel vision. It takes time to develop those skills. It takes practice. Our son got lucky that day – the other driver took complete responsibility for the accident, and instead of a full on crash it was just a glancing blow at low speed, but at the end of the day our car was in the shop for a couple of weeks.

In teaching teens to drive, one of the most important lessons we should focus on is the art of defensive driving. Experienced drivers know it's foolish to assume others will follow the rules at all times. In fact, more often than not others will speed, use handheld devices, operate a vehicle impaired and drive as if their vehicles are invincible, even against much larger commercial trucks. The difference between an experienced and a novice driver is that experienced drivers have honed reactive instincts while novice drivers have to contend with getting comfortable with the actual operation of the moving vehicle. They require much more concentration on the actual act of driving than we may realize.

This is why graduated driver license rules and defensive driving training are so important at keeping teen drivers safe on the road. GDLs provide extra time to get acclimated to driving in a variety of conditions before adding in greater risks like extra passengers or night driving. Defensive driving encourages drivers to think about the "what ifs" – what if that truck pulls out even if I have the right-of-way? It doesn't allow drivers to make automatic assumptions about how others will behave on the road. It's about staying vigilant to the constantly changing conditions and maneuvers of those around us.

The first year of driving in a teen's life is already the most dangerous. And learning doesn't stop when a teen gets their license. It's crucial for parents to continue coaching, give them additional hours of supervision, to help them develop those defensive driving and situational awareness skills. Ride along with them once a week or so, especially in inclement weather and new environments. Online training can help fill in the gaps as well.

Taylor learned an important lesson that day about making assumptions about right-of-way. Make sure your teen driver doesn't have to learn it the hard way. A little fear and trepidation out on the road is a good thing. It didn't result in a fatality or an injury, and for that I'm really grateful. It was a tremendous learning opportunity for my son. I doubt he'll make the same mistake again.

Learning defensive driving skills are especially important in order to get them home safely, every day.

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