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What parents should look for in a drivers-ed school

Tips for finding a high-quality program, which includes involving parents in driving practice.

Many hours of parent-supervised driving practice is key to preventing teen crashes,  the No. 1 cause of death for adolescents in the United States.
Many hours of parent-supervised driving practice is key to preventing teen crashes, the No. 1 cause of death for adolescents in the United States.Read moreiStockphoto

As summer winds down, many families have been using their teens' extra hours of free time to get in lots of practice driving. Parents often ask me year-round what to look for in a driving school and how to support their teens' practice driving. I tell them that high-quality driver's ed and effective parent-supervised driving practice are key to preventing teen crashes, the No. 1 cause of death for adolescents in the United States.

Choose a driving school with care, equipped with knowledge. Many states require drivers to complete specific driver-education training courses and behind-the-wheel driving before they can get an intermediate license. Make sure the driving-school curriculum matches or exceeds your state's requirements.

The best driver-education programs not only teach driving skills, but also supervise parents in practicing those skills. These schools promote deliberate interaction between their licensed, certified driver-education instructors and parents to ensure that new skills are assessed at each stage and mastered before the teen takes the behind-the-wheel test at the DMV. If you have a teen with special needs who wants to drive, the Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists offers a directory to help you find a professional in your area.

What else should you look for in a driving school? Here are some helpful tips:

  1. Visit the facility. Ask what the program entails, and get information about on-road practice and conditions, the instructor's credentials, the program's accreditation status, and how much liability the school carries.

  2. Choose a school that explicitly involves parents and other adults in practice driving. Learning to drive takes hundreds, if not thousands, of hours until a new driver achieves an adequate level of mastery. The school you choose should recognize this and explicitly include: a partnership between the school (which provides the high-quality training) and the parents/adults (who provide the supervised practice that reinforces this training), as well as communication, with the school providing students and their families with areas in need of deliberate practice, and students and their families providing the school with information on challenges and progress made.

  3. Look for a school that doesn't rush the learning process. Although the classroom portion of the program is important, behind-the-wheel training is critical. Not all drivers are the same, and some will need practice in certain areas. Make sure the school will teach at your teen's particular pace.

  4. Make sure the behind-the-wheel training is thorough. If a driving lesson is less than one hour, it's not enough. Lessons should be planned based on the teen driver's experience to date. The instructor should choose routes that are appropriate for each teen and also provide challenges in new driving environments.

  5. Steer clear of programs with emergency-driving maneuvers training, such as skid control or other  maneuvers. These programs have been found to increase crashes, particularly among novice drivers.

  6. Check to see whether your school is in good standing. Check with the Better Business Bureau to ensure that the school has not received any disciplinary actions for violating licensing laws or rules.

  7. Contact your insurance company. If the driving class is being taken to receive a discount on insurance, be sure to check directly with your provider rather than take the school's word for it.

Whether you choose to use a driving school or not, be sure to log plenty of parent-supervised practice-driving hours. Use an evidence-based program, such as the TeenDrivingPlan Practice Guide created by the Teen Driver Safety Research team at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Keep in mind that safe driving requires situation awareness and appropriate response. To avoid a crash, a skilled driver perceives the environment, shifts attention dynamically to the most relevant road elements, comprehends potential hazards, predicts changes in the traffic environment and actions of other road users, and draws from memory to avoid crashes.

When your teen is ready to get licensed, make it clear that you will be monitoring the driving  over the next year, and draft a parent-teen driving agreement. You should also consider controlling the keys for that first year of driving. For safety, CHOP research shows, it's best to put off giving your teen full access to a car. Finally, another important way to help your teen is to lead by example. Always wear a seat belt. Don't talk on a cellphone or text while driving. Don't speed. Follow the rules of the road.