How to teach your teen to drive
A traffic engineer’s Top 10 rules of the road
Driving is one of the most dangerous things most people will ever do in their lifetimes.
One in 77 of us will die in an automobile accident, so naturally a lot of us get nervous when our teenager starts asking about learning how to drive.
My dad didn’t, though. When my brother and I got to the age when we wanted to learn, he was ready. He knew everything there was to know about how roads work and how you can keep people safe on them.
That’s because he was a traffic engineer. He made his living designing and building safe streets.
There’s a good reason why many insurance companies offer engineers a discount when they buy auto insurance. Engineers are good at math and science, and they know how to calculate how risky something is. They can identify risks and design ways of avoiding them.
Just as an attorney knows the law or a chef knows how to prepare a meal, a traffic engineer knows how roads work. Traffic engineers know that automobiles in motion aren’t that different from molecules of water flowing in a pipe. They behave in certain ways that you can predict using physics.
My dad sometimes took me and my brother to his office at city hall. One day he showed us a computer system that tracked the city’s traffic in real time. A smiley face popped up on the screen every time a car passed over a detector in the road. It was way ahead of its time — years before the Internet — and he was very proud of it.
On his office wall was an enormous map of the city with pushpins scattered across it — yellow pins showing traffic accidents that caused property damage, red pins where accidents caused injury, and once in a while, a black pin would appear, marking the location of a fatal accident.
Most years went by without a black pin on the map. But when he had to reach for one, I know it bothered him terribly. My dad took safety seriously, and he took it personally when bad things happened despite his best efforts.
So when it came time to teach us how to drive, these were his Top 10 insider’s rules of the road.
- The road is hard. Telephone poles, walls, overpasses. Stay away from them. They have no give. When your car hits one, your car loses. Every time.
- You can’t afford to speed. Let’s say you drive 10,000 miles a year. If you consistently speed by 5 mph, you’re only going to save about 10 hours. But if you make an average income, you have to work at least that long just to pay for one speeding ticket.
- If it feels like you’re driving too fast, you are. Engineers design curves and cross-slopes to keep your car perfectly balanced when you’re driving the speed limit. When you drive faster, you have to fight gravity to stay on the road, so you have less control of your car.
- Get out of other people’s way. Just as there’s always someone smarter or richer, there’s always a faster driver. Leave faster lanes to faster drivers. Let them pay the ticket. Let them get in the wreck.
- Never follow a big truck. Some people think you can save mileage by drafting behind a semi. Don’t do it. They can’t see you. They can’t stop fast. When they blow out their tires — which happens all the time — the pieces can go flying into your windshield.
- Go with the flow. Traffic flows just like water in a pipe. Turbulent flow in a pipe and a wreck on the road are both forms of wasted energy. When water or traffic flow smoothly, their paths don’t cross. Engineers call that “laminar” flow. That’s nirvana. It’s safer and it saves energy, so pick a lane and stay in it.
- Middle lanes are twice as hard to drive in. Pick the slow lane or the fast lane. That way, you can concentrate on hazards on just one side instead of both sides.
- Don’t run with the pack. Even in light traffic, drivers get a strange psychological urge that makes them want to cluster together, leaving long stretches of empty road between them. Every other vehicle on the road is an accident waiting to happen, so find those gaps and stay in them.
- Green comes in different shades. As you approach a green light, look at the pedestrian signal, too. Is the “Don’t Walk” sign flashing? If so, expect a yellow light and get ready to brake.
- Roads get dandruff. Just as with people, it shows up on their shoulders. Never, ever drive on the shoulder. It’s full of rocks and shards of glass and trash that will damage your tires or your undercarriage.
My dad’s gone now. But I’m sure he’d be happy that his inside knowledge has helped keep me safe all these years. Apart from one low-speed fender-bender — not my fault, I promise — I’ve managed to notch 250,000 safe miles so far.
Engineers are designers.
Follow their lead. Don’t think of it as teaching your teen how to drive.
Think of it as designing a safe new driver.