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December 5, 2010 12:00 AM

Learning curve: One father's effort to help his teenager be a good driver


John Merrill has been teaching his son Kevin, foreground, to drive for about a year. (Courtesy of John Merrill)

As my car eased out into traffic, I gave an extra-careful look in both directions. My grip was tight and my breathing uneven.

And I was in the passenger seat.

Behind the wheel, my son Kevin was on one of his first outings after obtaining his instruction (or learner's) permit. At 15 years old, he was soon to begin his driver's education class, and I was giving him a crash course -- er, initial overview -- in the finer points of driving.

Kevin remembers those early days as being surprisingly challenging.


The author's son, Kevin, poses in his 1973 Chevrolet Nova. (John Merrill)

"At first I thought that driving would be easy, but it ended up being much harder than I anticipated," he says. "The general idea of driving seemed pretty simple: go with the gas, stop with the brake, steer with the wheel.

"It turned out that the first time I drove I had a very hard time controlling the car. I seemed to always be going too fast or too slow, and it was hard to get the hang of steering. I felt like the car was driving me, not like I was driving the car."

The parking lot of a Covington church was our starting point for the long trek that every young driver must make, from overwhelmed beginner to full-fledged vehicle operator.
It can be a harrowing trip for both driver and Dad. The perils of teen driving seem to be all over the news -- from the high frequency of texting while driving to the fact that teens lead all groups in the number of accidents.

Help for parents
    • Some resources for parents of teen drivers:
    • Teendriving.aaa.com is an interactive site that includes Keys2Drive, the AAA Guide to Teen Driver Safety.
    • Consumerreports.com does an annual analysis of the best cars for teen drivers based on reliability, safety and teen driving styles.
    • • Groups such as the non-profit Driver's Edge conduct free or inexpensive programs to continue young drivers' training. Check the schedule at driversedge.org.
    • • NWautos' recent article helps you find the safest first car for your new driver.

    With all this in mind, I found my instructions to Kevin were as much about what to think as how to act. We covered what to always do (take your time, pay attention) and what to never do (phones, friends and food) in hopes of keeping him from becoming one of those tragic statistics.

    From one weekend to the next, the roads Kevin and I traveled grew busier, the speed limits got higher and I began to breathe easier. He was getting better. He was also receiving classroom and real-world instruction in his driver's ed course.

    It's been about six months since Kevin's first drive, and the progress he's made is one of the many little miracles that parents witness on what seems like a daily basis.

    "I have become a much smarter and more skilled driver," he says. "I can now drive more confidently without worrying about the little things. I'm free to focus on the road and just drive naturally."

    Kevin definitely has the smarts and the decision-making skills to be a good driver. What I will continue to work with him on for as long as he'll let me -- and for a while longer after that -- is everything else.

    I'll remind him that there is more to safe driving than passing a test, and that sharing the road with others is not something you learn in a pamphlet. I'll do my best to set the right example by making smart choices, treating other drivers humanely and staying off the phone.

    As in life, the keys to being safe behind the wheel are found in the details: confidence, attentiveness, patience, personal responsibility. Those are the characteristics that will support young drivers beyond the day they get their licenses and toward a lifetime of safe driving.

    For Kevin, now 16 and ready to get his license, that journey is about to begin.

    John Merrill is an advertising publications editor at The Seattle Times.