An Open Letter to Drivers Ed. Instructors
By Kelly Cusick
Three years ago I was an ordinary Mom of four, busy with all the activities of an American family and a freelance career in video production. But a casual conversation with a co-worker led me into your world.
“When your kids get old enough, don’t just choose any Driver’s Ed program. Shop around & choose wisely. It’s important.”
I heard this comment from a fellow Mom in a corporate office in downtown Minneapolis. It was good advice, worth noting for all of you who operating driving schools or teach within the school system. Parents talk to each other, and a program that establishes credibility with the families of your students can create its own word-of-mouth advertising.
My co-worker recommended an instructor named Mike Pehl and I trusted her enough to sign up my oldest son, even though that required attending a night class halfway across town. Parents will not always choose the most convenient or cheapest driver’s ed program; if they are convinced of the value that your program offers, they will commit and invest, both in time and dollars.
Because of the inconvenient logistics, I stayed and listened to Mike’s first class session with my son. Mike has a policy that parents of his students must attend a Parent Meeting, so a week later I heard another two hour presentation. That was enough to plant the seeds of an idea. It seemed there might be an opportunity to create something worthwhile by joining Mike’s knowledge with my skills in video production.
Mike feels strongly that involving parents in the driver’s ed process is essential to making safer teenage drivers, so we formed a team called Drive Safe Ride Safe, and added Jayne Ubl, a veteran broadcast producer. We worked together for more than two years to create a DVD called “Roadworthy: A Parent’s Guide to Teaching Teens to Drive.” The DVD teaches parents how to oversee their teen’s practice time while they have their learner’s permit.
While working on this project, I’ve had a lot of conversations with experts and parents, and I hope some of these insights are helpful to those of you educating our young drivers.
Every parent I know reacts with some level of anxiety when talking about teaching their child to drive. Parents intuitively recognize that this is an important and risky stage in their lives. However, they do not realize just how risky.
Peter Kissinger, CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, says
“Most parents don’t seem to understand that the period of time while their teen is learning to drive, is actually a very SAFE period, which is then followed by a very high risk period.”
Teens driving with a permit are statistically safer than ordinary drivers. It’s after they get a license that their crash rates skyrocket. By explaining that risk accurately, you can encourage your customers to give their kids more practice time. Don’t let your parents be intimidated by the wrong thing so that they contribute less. Help them understand the right place to focus their anxiety: after their kids are driving without supervision.
Don Hoechst, Coordinator of the driver education licensing program in Minnesota, agrees that parents should be letting their permitted teens drive more, not less.
“The State of Minnesota requires at least 30 hours of practice while a teenager has their learner’s permit and that includes at least 10 hours at night. We’d hope that parents would double, triple, quadruple that amount.”
Bill Carpenter, Consumer Division Executive for DriveCam, has this perspective:
“Too many parents take the approach: ‘I paid for driving school, I’ve done my job, I’m finished. Here are the keys, be sweet, be safe.’ It’s kind of like flying a kite; if you let all the string out at once the kite falls to the ground. You have to let the string out a little at a time, and let them gradually become independent, responsible drivers.”
Bill recognizes the value of Lesson 12 of our DVD, which encourages parents to
“Start Early & Never Stop.”
DriveCam provides a technology-based tool so that parents can continue their coaching even after a teenager gets their license and drives away on their own. Its Exception-Based Video Feedback Program captures and returns only twelve seconds of video when sensors in the car recognize a risky driving maneuver, and professional driving risk analysts add their suggestions for improvement. Bill explains,
“the weekly report card that’s sent to the parents and teen keeps driving safety a regular topic of discussion. Not surprisingly, that really works – research studies show a 70% reduction in crashes.”
Gordy Pehrson, Traffic Safety Coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety and a former driving instructor, says there are three messages that need to be communicated to parents:
“I think the opportunity exists for both public and commercial drivers ed programs to incorporate parental involvement and have it be an effective mechanism to promote safe driving.”
Officer Steers from the California Highway Patrol agrees that parents’ lack of knowledge can be an obstacle which prevents them from being more involved in creating safer teenage drivers. At CHP’s StartSmart presentations, he sees many families who want to be involved but also sees parents who do not want to be involved and are there only because their teen’s school has required them to attend.
“They don’t realize until after sitting with us for two hours, how much they need to be involved. The trick is educating and finding what motivates each parent. Some parents are motivated by the risks of injury or death to their child or the thought of their child injuring someone else. Other parents are more affected by the thought of liabilities. A parent may be motivated more after hearing that their car might not be covered by insurance if their kid violates provisional license (or GDL) restrictions, than by frightening statistics of teen injury and death. Finding the right trigger for each parent is important in motivating them to become more involved.”
Mike’s parent-meeting presentations include a wide array of information. He explains the urgency in taking this phase of their child’s life seriously. He shares statistics and some tragic stories. He explains choices in defensive driving techniques. He warns parents about the extra risks of letting their teen drive a car that has poor crash-test ratings. And he reminds them:
“Kids practice football every day, they practice soccer every day, they practice their band instruments every day. Driving is something we’re going to do forever. We cannot be lazy on this. They need to get off the couch and drive. Experience, experience, experience.”
As moms, Jayne and I find this information compelling. Jayne’s two sons are in their early 20‘s now and she is startled to realize how much her perspective has changed. “I can’t tell you how much money we spent on hockey with our two sons when they were young, and how much time we spent going to matches and volunteering at fundraisers. But when it came time for driver’s ed, I thought it was like piano lessons: sign ‘em up, drop ‘em off, and let the professionals do the work.
“I honestly didn’t realize that I was supposed to participate in the process.”
Both of Jayne’s sons totaled cars within 6 weeks of each other and she realizes now how lucky they were. Their crashes were expensive, but not tragic. But that experience helped her recognize that creating “Roadworthy” was something she wanted to do.
“I’ve spent so many years working in corporate and broadcast communications, and now it’s great to have a chance to help create something that can keep families safer.”
Since my own sons are younger (19, 17, 15, 12), I’m still “in the trenches” as far as driver’s ed and parenting. From that perspective, I can tell you this:
1. What you do is important.
2. Most parents do not understand how much teen drivers are at risk, both as drivers & passengers.
3. Most parents do not know how to help coach their teen.
4. Making parents your allies and partners during the permit-phase gives you MANY advantages, such as reducing one of your biggest frustrations: wasting behind-the-wheel time with a teen who isn’t adequately prepared for their lesson.
As driving instructors, you are many things. You are educators, you are mentors, and some of you are business owners. You are also the caretakers of some of our most vulnerable and valuable national resources: teenagers. We’re glad to be a part of your community and hope to contribute to your efforts in as many ways as we can.
Drive Safe Ride Safe