Teaching Teens to Drive is Driving Me Crazy

As we write this we are teaching our youngest children to drive.  This is a path we have been down before, but as our impulse for self-preservation is undiminished, we still find it a bit frightening this last time. Learning to drive may be one of the great adolescent milestones but, for parents, it represents a major push back from our kids as they claim their independence from us. Truthfully, the whole process is driving us crazy.

Learning to Drive, inexperienced drivers, driving age

Mary Dell is teaching a daughter and Lisa is teaching a son, so in effect we are living on different planets. The one thing we share is the deep scary realization that we are placing a lethal weapon in the hands of children we love, but who we know to be only part way on their journey to maturity.

The adolescent brain craves risk in a way that it never will again and it is at this moment that we climb into the car, our nervous, or perhaps worse, over-confident teen behind the wheel and we say, “Daddy will be really angry if you get us killed, so let’s take it a step at a time.”

Driving with a daughter:

This is round two for me as our college aged son learned to drive at the same school, with an almost identical car, and same parents. How could the results have been so different?

“Honey, you need to speed up a bit” is a direction I can swear to you I never gave to our son but have heard myself saying, somewhat incredulously, since our daughter passed her road test a month ago.  Apparently, mastering the on-ramps of freeways is curriculum that Drivers’ Ed delegates to parents. Yikes!

Her cautious approach, while greatly appreciated by risk-averse parents, sometimes confuses other drivers.  I try to explain that fellow travelers expect behavior that is not perfectly polite. Behind the wheel is a time to be appropriately assertive.

Signs that there is a girl assuming possession of the family car? Hand sanitizer at the ready, multiple pair of sunglasses for accessorizing needs, pastel key fob dangling from the ignition. These greatly appeal to me, especially as the car was more of a traveling locker room when driven with son. Cleats, workout gear and multiple footballs infused the car with an incongruous scent of sweat and Axe body spray that endured even after our son left for college.

Driving with a son:

My youngest son is the fourth male in my family that I have helped learn to drive. My husband was, by far, the easiest.  At 28 he had a full-blown sense of his mortality and of our impending child. But now I am teaching a 16 year son to drive and this is just a sampling of what I have heard this week:

“When you are not in the car I am not going to drive like this, slowing down smoothly and speeding up smoothly, I am just trying to keep you from getting car sick.”

“How hard can it be, there are only two pedals and a steering wheel?”

After I pointed out that the oncoming traffic has the right of way when making a left hand turn and you cannot gun it and cut in front of them as he had just done, “Okay, I’ll give you that…”

“I am ready for the highway…come on, I have had my permit for three days and I have driven at 30 and 40 MPH, I am ready for the big time.”

“There is no way I am letting him pass me, getting passed is for wimps”

While I might joke about this on the page, as a parent we all have very big concerns about this monumental step that our adolescents take. Is this just young male bravado, or do I have real reason to worry?

Teen males are at higher risk of motor vehicle crashes. According to the CDC, the motor vehicle death rate for male drivers and passengers ages 15 to 19 was almost two times that of females.

In New York state 16 ½ year olds who have obtained their junior license are allowed a single non-family member in the car with them.  Nearby Connecticut allows no non-family members deeming them a distraction.  The facts however are very interesting.

When a male passenger was in the car, 25% of drivers (male & female) exceeded the speed limit by 15 mph or more, versus about 6-7% of drivers doing this when there were no passengers or a female passenger.

Are we having the typical experience?  Are boys really that much more daring and therefore a risk to themselves and others? Is their over confidence and fearlessness in the face of speed the huge danger that we think it is?

According to a 2012 study by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute: With peer passengers in the car, male teen drivers were almost six times more likely to perform an illegal maneuver and twice more likely to act aggressively before crashing than when driving alone. Conversely, female teen drivers rarely drove aggressively before crashing, regardless of the presence of peer passengers

The scariest moment isn’t when you first get behind the wheel with your newly permitted teen, or the time you have to shout, “you were not looking, you did not see that,” but rather the moment you watch them drive away. For them it is an unprecedented taste of freedom, only akin to learning to walk in its powers to liberate, but for parents it is the beginning of an unprecedented period of worry, and it turns out with good reason.

This is not to say that female teen drivers do not still face very large crash risks. The crash risk for both male and female teen drivers is highest for the first six to twelve months after they get their GDL restricted license, when they can start driving without parents in the car.





  1. says

    This is so true! I had to smile in recognition..I remember telling my daughter that she needed to speed up a bit, she was so cautious and her key fob was a pink cupcake. She is 20 and has never had an accident, my son had one the first week(minor).

    • says

      Love that Mary Dell has hand sanitizer in the car. If only clean hands were the biggest issue in sharing a car with a boy…

  2. says

    I was unusually calm about driving with my children – I have no idea why. I left the first freeway trip to their dad, though!

    My son has no real depth perception due to strabismus, so learning to brake in time was a bit of a challenge for him…fun times!

    • says

      Impressed that you were calm! I think I am at the end of my rope doing this a third time…I hired a driving instructor.

  3. says

    If our boys were half as scared driving as we are teaching them, we’d all be a lot safer!

  4. says

    Oh, I feel for you. I taught three daughters (with only a smidgen of help from my hubby). For good measure, our first outings were practicing in our church parking lot. Figured grace would be on our side there. From there, we progressed to the large city cemetery to practice turns and blinkers and such. Figured they couldn’t kill anyone there. Good luck to you both!

    • says

      Girls…ahhhh. My boys wanted to practice on the interstate, parking lots were just not exciting enough!

  5. says

    My daughter is fifteen and has her driver’s permit. I don’t think that there is a single thing that stresses me out more than riding with her. But, I think you are right. It will be worse when she drives away on her own (or, even worse, with one of her siblings in the car). I don’t stress easily. I usually ask myself “What’s the worse that can happen?” But, when it comes to my child driving, I don’t like the answer.

    • says

      So many scary things, not the least of which is keeping them out of the car with other teens. I am so grateful for the GDL that makes it illegal to pile a bunch of teens into a car like we did when we were young. Thanks so much for commenting.

  6. says

    great post! I look forward to those differences when my 13 year old daughter gets her permit in a few years–hand sanitizer is already her staple in the backpack and our car. My 17 learned to drive easily because he’d been driving the golf cart for 3 years(I think this is a west coast thing?). Every single time my son leaves with the keys I say “don’t touch your phone or the radio.” It’s obessive :)

    • says

      For a long time I made them keep their phones in their backpacks and their backpacks in the trunk. So scary. Good luck going through it again and thanks for reading and commenting.

  7. says

    We only had to teach one daughter how to drive and that was enough but you are right – more scary than teaching her was watching her drive away by herself for the first time. She has had a few accidents (she has been driving by herself for 2.5 yrs now) mainly due to speeding and not paying attention. Luckily nobody was hurt. She paid the excess for the insurance but it was certainly inconvenient for A and I as we then needed to do the drop off pick up thing from uni and work as we aren’t on a very good bus route !!!!!
    Having said that she seems to have matured a bit and certainly doesnt’ speed like she used to – maybe she has learned her lesson ? I can only hope !!!!
    Have a great day !

    • says

      We have been there too. Middle son, deer, no undercarriage to the car, not a pretty picture. Letting our kids drive involves a lot of hoping, as you say. Let’s keep our collective fingers crossed. Thanks for reading.

  8. Crista says

    Colorado allows no non-family member passengers the first 6 months on a license, 1 after six months and no restrictions after 12 months. Kiddo is counting the days. Next week she is allowed one friend in the car with her. Heaven help me!! The only restriction after the first 12 months is no driving between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m. unless coming or going from school function or work. This lasts until age 18.

    While I have absolutely loved the retirement of the Mom Taxi, as she is our one and only child, the constant worry when she is out driving anywhere….can be suffocating.

    • says

      Such a relief to not have to do all the driving and such a worry. Colorado sounds like sensible rules. It seems that the states have found how well these Graduated Licenses are because New York tightened the rules between my older sons and younger one. Thanks for reading.

  9. says

    A mother older and wiser than me told me, when my kids were starting their teen years to buckle up, “because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.” She was right. A joy ride, a white knuckled ride, a trip, in general. But nothing prepared me for the literal buckling up I did when they learned to drive. Especially my oldest daughter and my oldest son. What’s with that? Ah well…..we all survived. And it was, in the end, a freedom of sorts for me from always having to be the taxi.

    • says

      I take a deep breath when I ride with one child whose gender will go unmentioned here but who would know who I am referring to if he/she read these comments!

  10. Emily says

    Wow, I have three boys and those statistics definitely scare me a bit. My oldest is about a year away from learning to drive and I am already dreading it. I may need to be medicated before I get in the car with him.:) This was a great post though. I particularly liked how you highlighted the differences between boys and girls first learning to drive. On my blog, I have started running a new series, “Comparing Notes” where myself or a guest blogger discusses gender differences regarding an aspect of parenting. If you would be interested in posting this piece on my blog, please contact me or if you have any future posts on gender differences, feel free to send them my way! In the meantime, I’m going to tweet this!

    • says

      Emily, thanks and we would love to be included on Oh Boy, Mom and, especially the new series. “Comparing Notes” is exactly what we do as moms and thank goodness for friends with whom you feel you can share with. Lots of blogging friends fall into that category, btw!

  11. Grace Hodgin says

    I will never forget the experience of teaching my children to drive. Both took drivers training but my time with them in the passenger side will be embedded in my memory for every. When my daughter started driving I felt like I was always in the fetal position as I did not know it was humanly possible to drive so close to the edge of the road and not take out mail boxes on the way. She also was slow driver and I often felt if I opened the passenger door and stuck my foot out to ‘in the Fred Flintstones fashion’ we may get there a tad bit earlier. My son was completely different and often felt like wearing a helmet and having a brake on my side may be something to consider. Sympathy cards should be sent to all parents that take on driving with their teens.

  12. says

    This is funny to me, because my 17 yo son isn’t reckless and a fast driver at all. He’s so cautious I wasn’t nervous to hand him the keys and say that he could drive us home right after he got his license. He says that he sets his cruise control so that he doesn’t go over the speed limit…BUT, I’ll add that he’s been working on his pilot’s license for the last couple of years, so he had a pretty good idea of how to park a plane before he even got in a car to drive. I think taht the experience of watching your child take off in a plane takes the edge off of teaching them how to drive. He does say that driving is much worse than flying, though, because there are a heck of a lot more idiots on the road than in the air.

    • says

      Oh, my goodness, seeing your child up in a plane would be much scarier! Puts driving into perspective.

  13. says

    We our currently teaching our second child to drive (she is 16). I shouldn’t really say “we” because I just can’t do it. I’m such a control freak and nervous back-seat driver; I’m not really a good teacher for a beginning driver. I will take her driving in parking lots but not on the road. I have to say that teen driving has been one of the most difficult and scary parts of parenting for me. I worry so much!

  14. says

    I’m so glad I have a good while before my kids get behind the wheel.I can imagine how desperately I’lll be praying!!

  15. says

    Yes, I am quite scared about this journey! My oldest is only 8 years away from getting his license. I’m terrified. I’ve already told the husband that HE will be teaching them how to drive. I think I would be too much like my mother and so panicky that i would make them over nervous and not safe.

    • says

      If your oldest is only 8 (right, 8 years away?) you have time to put your fears aside. Believe us, there will be plenty of time for concern once they get behind the wheel!

  16. Joyce@MommyTalkShow says

    You’ve got me projecting 14 years into the future when my 2 year old will want to drive.
    Maybe by then he’ll need a jet pack 😉

    • says

      Love that idea – those always looked so cool on the Jetsons. Please, don’t start worrying about teen stuff too soon – you will have nothing left for when you really need at 13, 14, 15,16, etc.

  17. says

    I was very nervous when our oldest started to drive but now that he’s at college I miss my designated driver so very much. With the younger two involved in evening activities — I now have to stop and think who do I have to pick up tonight before I have a glass of wine.

    • says

      Understand that feeling. It is very helpful to have a designated driver with our older kids and we get used to the extra set of hands – and keys – when there are younger siblings.

  18. says

    I have no clue how to deal with this as my son lives in Nebraska and I haven’t seen him since he was 4. From what I hear he drives pretty well. In about 13 years I get to go through this with Monster but he’s already learning how to steer the lawnmower (commercial). I never really learned how to drive, I just got behind the wheel and started driving. I read the book once for the test and passed with flying colors.

  19. says

    the only time i was sorry i was divorced was teaching my kids to drive. we spend our whole lives trying to keep them safe only to find ourselves in a large metal box with wheels fearing for our lives. i experienced the ultimate teenage irony. on the day my son was inducted in to the National Honor Society, he totalled my car, going 30 mph. There is no appropriate reaction to that except to shrug your shoulders. i will say this though, when i drive to work, it is the more often young girls who cut off other drivers, who drift in to other lanes and who gesture aggressively. So I don’t know if I think girls are better drivers just because in my family they were.

  20. says

    A good Professional Driving School may be able to help with some of the woes from which you are suffering. Keep in mind that not all driving schools are the same, look for a school that focuses on collision-preventing skills, not just how to pass a minimum standard test. The real road is much more unforgiving than any Road Skills Test in any state. A good starting point is to go to the only Professional Association of Driving Schools http://www.thedsaa.org and start asking questions. Treat the vetting of a driving schools much like you would of that of a college for your child. In many ways it will be the most important course your teen will take in their young life.

  21. Carpool Goddess says

    We hired an instructor for both kids. I tend to scream (for dear life!) and that wasn’t helping anybody.

  22. says

    The best strategy is to use professional driving instruction alongside private practice. There are many skills a professional driving instructor has besides just being able to drive and different teaching techniques all make a difference.

  23. says

    Lisa, I have a son and yes, terrifying as they seem to just flaw it! I would had been more comfortable if I had duel controls, and not allow wheels; needless to say, they got a bit skuffed first time out.

  24. says

    haha, it’s normal to go ‘crazy’ teaching teenagers how to drive! That is why I noticed many instructors are usually not in a great mood. xD


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