Parents play a critical role in helping their teens learn the nuances and complexities of driving. Picture: Pixabay

Washington - It's been almost 35 years since I started driving, and I've gotten pretty good at it. But with a 16-year-old in the house, I realised we both have a lot to learn before he's ready to get behind the wheel on his own.

Parents play a critical role in helping their teens learn the nuances and complexities of driving. 

It's daunting to think about breaking down and explaining all of the judgment calls and assessments that go into everyday maneuvers such as merging or changing lanes. But I also know how important my role is in helping my son learn to drive, given the sobering statistics.

If your teen is learning to drive, here are some ways to make your time in the car together more effective.

Keep your emotions in check, and pay attention to theirs

Even if you think you're being calm, your teen may not see it that way. "In surveys asking teens what parents could do better, they say, 'Tell them not to yell at us,' " says Robert Foss, director emeritus of the Center for the Study of Young Drivers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He cites a study he co-authored that used in-vehicle video cameras to capture parent-teen interactions: Some teens later described their parents as yelling at them even when they hadn't raised their voices.

As with many other aspects of parenting teens, it's important to remember that what they're reacting to may have nothing to do with you.

For Corinne Peek-Asa, director of the Injury Prevention Research Center at the University of Iowa, timing was everything when sharing feedback with her two teenage daughters. "I had to be patient with their moods," she explains. "It might have been a good time for me, but it wasn't for them."

Supervising your teen's driving when you're feeling frustrated with each other can actually be counterproductive.

The best approach is one that strikes the right balance between support and control. 

But even researchers acknowledge that maintaining a positive, motivating tone all the time can be hard: Peek-Asa recalls one stressful incident when her younger daughter was pulling into the garage and hit the gas rather than the brake pedal. "It's just one of those mistakes that's going to happen," she adds, noting that it's better to have it happen during this stage, rather than later on.

Focus on a wide range of skills and driving environments

Learning the fundamentals of how to operate a car, such as parking, turning and braking, generally comes fairly quickly. But beyond the basics, teens need higher-order skills that develop with ongoing practice, including scanning for potential hazards and developing general situational awareness so they can anticipate and respond appropriately.

As the CDC notes in its "Parents Are the Key to Safe Drivers" outreach campaign, this includes driving at night, in different kinds of weather and on a variety of roads.

"We learn to drive by driving," Foss says. "Be sure your teens drive as much as they possibly can, in as wide a range of circumstances as they can, throughout the entire learner license period."

"A few drives in the country are not enough for city dwellers. A few hours in city traffic are not enough for rural residents. And a couple of long trips on an interstate are not enough for anyone," he says. He recommends that parents accompany their teens in the full range of conditions, building up over time to more challenging scenarios such as icy roads or rain.

Model and encourage good behavior

Your teen will probably be paying closer attention to your own driving now, so make sure you're setting a good example. Research has found that parents who are risky drivers foster the same behavior in their teens, whether it's driving aggressively, sending or reading texts while driving, or drinking before getting behind the wheel.

When it comes to cellphone use, parents may not realise they're contributing to bad driving behaviors by expecting teens to answer when they call. Instead, ask your teen to return your call after reaching their destination. (Many newer phones have an auto reply or "do not disturb" setting that's triggered when the car is moving.)

Prepare for your role

Remember, though, that what's required by law is only a baseline. The goal is to help teens develop what Foss calls "a more intuitive understanding of driving." This doesn't come from meeting a set number of hours of supervised driving, but instead develops over time.