THINK OF IT AS GAINING a free chauffeur. The prospect of your child acquiring his or her driver’s license is alarming, yes, but it’s also inevitable. Just as little Sissy will get her first job and young Bubba will suffer his first heartbreak, so too will they soon be piloting a large piece of metal down crowded roads at high speed.
One thing can make it easier for Mom or Dad to accept: Teach them yourself—that way you maximize the chance they’ll hit the road safely and minimize the chance they’ll hit anything else. The one-on-one instruction of parent-taught driver’s education means kids learn more and learn faster, and you, the teacher, will know when they’re really ready to go it alone. National studies have shown that teenage drivers who are parent-taught have far fewer accidents than do those who take good ol’ driver’s ed in school or at a private facility. By teaching your own teen to drive, you also can rack up some points in the family-togetherness department, and—let’s face it—most longtime drivers can use a refresher course. To that end, I offer a few tips to help both instructor and student get up to speed on driver’s ed in Texas.
1. Register with the DPS. To insure your child actually receives that coveted learner’s permit, you must obtain the Department of Public Safety’s Parent-Taught Driver Education Packet. (For details, call your local DPS office, or refer to the agency’s easy-to-navigate Web site, txdps.state.tx.us.) You have to write off by snail mail for this information—no exceptions, y’all—and wait as much as a month for it to arrive. The packet costs $20, explains different options available, and contains essential forms such as a driver’s license application. The DPS packet also includes the all-important driver’s handbook, a mini-textbook that teens must pore over to learn things like what that squiggly black arrow means and how fast can you drive on the beach.
2. Acquire a textbook. The DPS material offers plenty of yeses and nos and do’s and don’t’s, but to dive into the thrilling details of topics such as “Automobile Maintenance” or “Accident Avoidance,” you also must acquire one of two state-approved driver’s ed textbooks, either Responsible Driving or Drive Right. Many public libraries have copies of both available for check-out, but if you can afford to buy a copy, do so; you’re going to spend a minimum of 32 hours with this book, so it’s easier to simply have one on hand, especially if you have another teenager headed down the (turn)pike.
3. Start early. New regulations that took effect this past January require wannabe drivers who have passed their fifteenth birthday to acquire their learner’s permit and hold it for six months before they can apply for a real driver’s license. The more experienced the driver, the safer he is. My older son, Philip, zipped through driver’s ed in a relatively short four months and was delighted to get his license on his actual birthday. Later, though, he encouraged his brother, Parker, to obtain his learner’s permit as soon as possible after he turned fifteen, noting that he himself would have felt more comfortable at the wheel with a few more hours under his seatbelt. By the time Parker gets his real license next February, he will have had about ten months of on-the-road practice—good for both his confidence level and his mom’s.
4. Establish a routine. Since you and your progeny-pupil have a minimum of 46 hours of work ahead of you—32 classroom hours and 14 more behind the wheel—you’ll benefit from plotting out a schedule, just like you did with T-ball or dance classes back when your kid was still pint-size. Work it around your family’s routine—say, half an hour on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and two hours on Saturdays. Then stick with the program. Don’t traffic in excuses as to why you can postpone study or practice until the following week.
5. Study hard. It’s one more daily duty to remember, but you must keep track of how long you and your child discussed different chapters or practiced various maneuvers. The DPS checks your list when you appear with your child to apply for the actual license. Put in all the required hours—or more. And remember, your teen has been watching you drive for at least fifteen years—odds are he or she already knows a lot, including your bad habits. (I have one colleague who told me that when her son was a pre-schooler, he had a friend who thought the word “idiot” meant a bad driver.) If there were such a thing as a driver’s ed GED, many kids could ace it just from their hundreds of hours of having witnessed traffic flow, whether rural or urban.
6. Draw lots. When you’re ready to let your teen actually take the wheel, pick the closest thing to wide-open spaces that most Texas towns can offer—a parking lot. Make that a government parking lot; steer clear of private ones. I recommend a state or federal lot (after all, you’re one of the owners). Fortunately, most cities and towns have at least one public agency that in turn has at least one paved parking area, and it’s most likely reassuringly empty on weekends (plus, it probably comes customized with marked parking spaces). Make sure the lot is big enough to allow for speeding up and slowing down, with room to spare. Remember, you can’t let your teenager in the driver’s seat on an actual street or highway until he or she has put in a certain number of hours (depending on which of the two DPS curricula you decide to follow) and has acquired the actual learner’s permit.
7. Take it slow. Given the DPS paperwork, the driver’s handbook, and the textbook you purchased, there’s a lot of ground to cover. You’ll be balancing stay-at-home perusing with at-the-wheel cruising. The text is simple to follow, but the actual driving is up to you. Philip and I started off with accelerating, braking, and turning in our adopted state parking lot, then practiced backing up, parking, and more. Eventually—permit permitting—you’ll move on to real streets and real traffic, and all the signs, rules, and warnings your teenager has read about suddenly take on new meaning, even if he has seen them a million times before.
8. Be patient. Expect a few dozen neck-jerking, brake-squealing stops. Plan to witness a curb-scraping or two (or ten). Know that the hardest part of teaching your child to drive is having to point out his or her mistakes: “Wait your turn at a four-way stop.” “You didn’t check the rear-view mirror.” Parental correction is liable to make even the most even-tempered teenager bristle. Count to ten, take a deep breath, and hang in there.
Driving is a serious subject, but loosen up all you can. Try to reassure while reassessing: “Well, now we know for sure the brakes are good!” “Not that left—the other left!” And when you’re at the wheel, point out the idiocies of other drivers. Like most of us, I keep a running commentary while driving, as if the offending operators of other cars can actually hear me: “Pick a lane, ma’am, any lane.” “And what exactly does `one way’ mean to you?” “Excuse me, sir—are you from England?” I have learned that this type of commentary is a good way to point out to fledgling drivers the perils of traffic without ruffling their feathers. You’ll find too that teaching driver’s ed makes you suddenly aware of your own shortcomings at the wheel. I, for example, tend to roll through stop signs if no other moving vehicle is in sight, and to turn left when the oncoming traffic is perhaps a little too close. Your child is watching, so it’s a case of “monkey see, monkey do”—or, even worse, “monkey know better.”
9. Ring in the new. Since 1995, the Texas Legislature has worked to make streets safer for everyone by passing laws designed to reduce teenager-caused collisions and fatalities. To that end, another law that recently took effect mandates that the license a driver’s ed graduate obtains on his sixteenth birthday is a provisional license. Yes, that’s six more months, since the teenager must already have held his learner’s permit for six months. Once the student has graduated from driver’s ed and turned 16, he still faces two restrictions on his DPS license: He may chauffeur no more than one passenger who is under the age of 21 (not counting family members), and he cannot drive between midnight and five in the morning except for job requirements, school-related events, or medical emergencies. My older son got his license last spring, thus avoiding these extra rules, a fact that allows him to indulge in fraternal gloating. Parker obligingly grouses about it, but I offer him ammunition for reciprocal gloating by pointing out (optimistically) that the new requirements mean he’ll be an even safer driver at age 16 and a half than Philip ever was. To check for up-to-date details about laws affecting teenagers with learning permits and provisional licenses, check the DPS Web site.
10. Let them drive! Once your teenager has his permit and later his provisional license, by all means, let him sit in the driver’s seat. When your family is headed to church or to Grandma’s or to the mall, let your learner be in charge. It’s faster and easier (and far less scary) to take the path of least resistance—to just hop in the car yourself and dash off to the store for milk—but every little outing increases self-assurance and skill. Don’t dread the day he hits sixteen and a half and can head out solo; dream of it as a time when his ability will free you of domestic responsibilities (well, at least a little). Pretty soon what concerns you won’t be wading through all that driver’s ed material; it’s the absence of your car when you want it that will start to drive you crazy.
Bottom line for both parents and kids: Buckle down, then buckle up—and remember: The family that drives together thrives together.