I’ve got two more years. My eldest son has just turned 15, and while he’s in no way a petrolhead (that role has been taken up by his younger brother, currently 11), he’s keen to get learning how to drive. This, needless to say, terrifies me. Not merely the prospect of how impatient and ogre-like I might end up when teaching him, but also - of course - at the thought of him being less than safe behind the wheel. Having been thinking about this a LOT over the past while, I’ve been researching and figured I’d share a few of my findings with you. Maybe we can save each other from the worst ravages of teaching our teens to drive.
1. Start ‘em young
This I firmly believe. Getting kids behind the wheel (not necessarily of an actual car) from a young age is imperative. If they start that first driving lesson not knowing what a clutch is, nor how to hold and turn a steering wheel, then they’re already going to be ten steps behind. I first drove a car at the age of 11 - my dad’s Fiat Ritmo, on a quiet and empty building site - and such informal introductions, if carried out safely, can still be useful. Better still, get them into a go-kart for some sessions. True, they won’t learn much about clutches and gearchanges, but they will learn about steering, about braking, and about sliding. Given how slippery Irish roads can be, I think that learning how a car (or kart) reacts when there’s no grip is vital. Finally, there are some terrific pre-17 driving courses that kids as young as 11 can take - Rally School Ireland’s is a really good one, and Mondello Park runs a good course for Transition Year students. While they won’t come out of it as the new Lewis Hamilton, they will get a feel for the basics of starting, manoeuvring and controlling a car.
2. Be patient
When you or I get into a car, we usually do so forgetfully. We know where the steering, gearshift, mirrors etc are, and so we don’t have to think about any of that. We just get in, twist the key, and leave. A first-time driver can’t do that. Even if they have some idea of the basics, they’re going to be treating each drive almost like a shopping list, or even a stream of computer code, taking one movement, one instruction at a time, and having to consciously think about doing each one. This can be frustrating, especially if you’re causing a queue of traffic behind you, but patience is the only virtue here. You’ve got to let them start slow and build up, otherwise they’ll over-run their skill level and that’s when it could all go wrong. So, deep breath, ignore the honks from behind, and let them find their way with only gentle guidance from you.
3. Be clear
As well as being patient, make sure you give clear, complete instructions. Don’t just say “take the next left” and assume that they’ve heard you and they know where the next left is. Give a steady countdown of commands for each manoeuvre, albeit not so much that you don’t give them time to think. Again, be gentle, be patient, but be precise. Oh, and always make sure that those early lessons take place on quiet roads, with little traffic (preferably none, if you can time it right) and on routes that you know yourself and can therefore warn of tricky corners or awkward junctions coming up.
4. Don’t contradict the instructor
I hated my ‘proper’ driving lessons. Back in my day, mandatory lessons weren’t a thing, but I took a few as I figured they’d help me hit the right marks for the driving test. Sadly, I ended up with a grumpy instructor who used to reach over and tug at the wheel of the car as I drove, which I burningly resented. While that experience soured me, I can’t - and you shouldn’t - let that carry forward. Talk to your kids’ driving instructor, and make sure you’re working hand-in-glove with them. Whatever you do, don’t contradict what they’ve been saying when you’re in the car with your offspring - keep your own lessons consistent with the instructor’s, and don’t try to push your own preconceptions or bad habits. Safety really comes first here, above all else, and that’s going to be the primary concern of the instructor. Not a bad idea to brush yourself up on the current rules of the road, and what the driving test entails these days – it has changed since our day...
5. Show them the basics
Don’t focus, to the avoidance of all else, on just driving the car. Make sure you young ‘un knows how to do simple motoring tasks such as changing a wheel, filling up the windscreen washers, putting fuel in the tank, checking tyre pressures and topping up oil. You’d be amazed, even appalled, at how many experienced drivers can’t do these simple things, so get your kid off on the right foot. Learning a bit of how the car works will breed at least a little bit of mechanical sympathy, which will not only help to keep them safe, but also reduce wear and tear on your own car while they’re using it to learn. Don’t forget to teach them not only to pay attention to their mirrors, but to get used to setting those mirrors slightly off-line for themselves, so that an instructor or tester can see that they’re looking in the mirror, rather than just glancing with a movement of the eye.
6. Get the basics right yourself
Whether they are indeed using your car, or if you’ve lashed out a few quid on buying them a cheap old nail to learn with, make sure that the car is safe for them and for you. Make sure, just as you’re teaching them, that you’re also checking the health and pressure of the tyres, making sure the lights and indicators are all working properly, making sure that the car is in good mechanical order. Teach them to do it, but don’t leave it up to them. You’re the responsible one here (and that goes equally for L-plates, N-plates, tax, NCT, insurance etc - don’t let them out in a car that’s not legally and mechanically well above board).
7. Get the car right?
I’m kind of in two minds about this. Maybe even three. The car I learned to drive in was a 1988 Ford Sierra 1.6 LX. Barely 100hp on a good day. No anti-lock brakes, no power steering and a five-speed manual gearbox. A big car for its day, I’m convinced that my current ability to hop into anything and not be put off by size nor complexity is because I learned on a big, simple car. That seems to me, at any rate, to be self-evident. Obviously, the likes of a Micra, a Yaris, a MINI, a Corsa or similar are popular cars with learners because they’re cheap and reliable, but they’re also small and I worry that if you learn in a small car, you never learn to properly judge the size of your vehicle, and can get intimidated later in life by larger cars (both when driving and when a pedestrian). I can’t quite claim it as a valid recommendation, but my gut feeling is that if you learn on a big, heavy, mechanical car, then even in an age of electric motoring you’re going to be a better driver. A Series 1 Land Rover Discovery sounds about right...
8. Tackle the insurance minefield
This will be the toughest and most expensive part, and you’ll see your nice, cosy renewal figure jump up way into four figures once you start adding a teenager to your policy. Grit your teeth and do it anyway - your parents did the same for you - but do get hold of a good local insurance broker who may be able to help you find a better price. Some insurers recommend fitting a telematics ‘black box’ to bring down the quote, but there are data privacy concerns to be aware of with those, so go in with your eyes open.
9. I am speed
Sadly, keeping within the speed limit is generally placed above actual driving skill and attention in terms of importance, but you will need to make sure that your young ‘un keeps an eye on the limit, and is aware of any limit changes that they go past. It’s a good idea to suss out the route that your local driving test centre uses, and make sure that they’re familiar not just with where the road goes, but where the limits are set and where they change. Nothing will get you a fail, faster, than breaking the speed limit.
I’m not a religious person, but when it finally comes to it, that’s all we can really do. Hope and pray that the lessons have sunk in, that they’ve taken the benefit of your experience without picking up your own bad habits, and that they’re as safe and as skilled as they can be when they start their own driving adventure. Time to let them do it themselves, now...