3 critical skills your teen driver lacks

A newly licensed teen driver is probably more familiar with the rules of the road than you are. After all, he or she just took the test.

But many driving schools use a curriculum that has not been updated since the 1950s and requires only six to 10 hours of behind-the-wheel experience with an instructor. While graduated licensing programs have increased the number of supervised hours teens are driving, most of those hours are spent with parents, not a professional.

So what happens when your book-smart teen confronts real-world hazards? Car accidents.

Teens are four times more likely than adults to be involved in a car accident, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says. And the newer the driver, the worse the odds: The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reported in 2011 the likelihood of a crash is 50 percent greater in the first month of licensed driving than after a year on the roads. The National Institutes of Health says the odds are even higher than that. (See "Why teen car insurance is expensive: They're bad drivers.")

Our newest drivers emerge from the DMV not fully aware of the risks of distracted driving, or unable to recognize potential hazards. They may also be unprepared to handle an emergency when those hazards become real.

Some schools emphasize these additional skills, but parental influence has its place as well.

A real appreciation of distracted driving

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), teens are much more likely to be involved in a fatal crash where distraction is a key factor. In 2009, 16 percent of teen drivers were killed in car crashes caused by distraction.

Despite that sobering statistic, distracted-driving education is often limited to a short speech. In 2010, distracted driving was a component of driver education in only 18 states and Washington, D.C., according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Anne Marie Hayes, author of "3 Keys to Keeping Your Teen Alive," enrolled her daughter Emily in a driver education course that cost more than $1,200. Distracted driving was covered only in the classroom. "There was not a lot of emphasis put on it," Emily Hayes says. "Basically we were told not to do it."

Contrast that with the Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy in Los Angeles, an automaker-sponsored effort to raise the bar on driver training.

"Drivers are sent down a coned practice course where we expose them to a variety of distractions," says Carolyn Duchene, director of the program. Distractions range from texting and cellphone calls to asking the students to do math problems in their heads. In other cases, a backseat passenger might suddenly yell.

"The point is to make teens aware that distractions are all around them, and being in the moment and focused on driving is of the upmost importance," Duchene says.

Looking ahead and talking it out

"Situational awareness" refers to constantly searching for and identifying all potential hazards on the road. While some driving schools touch on this skill, most don't emphasize its importance.

According to the CDC, teens are more likely than older drivers to underestimate dangerous situations or are often unable to recognize hazardous situations. Driver education programs that stress situational awareness teach teens to scan five to 10 seconds down the road, identifying hazards and anticipating evasive actions they might have to take.

A technique called commentary driving requires teens to constantly scan the road while simultaneously describing the hazards they identify and verbalizing potential escape routes to their instructors or parents.

In addition to hazards on the road, weather, temperature and how these affect road conditions should also be considered. (Here's a video sample of the technique.)

Skids and panic stops

Studies show that taking an advanced or performance driving course -- tackling skills such as winter driving and accident avoidance -- does not reduce crash rates and in some cases actually raises them. Many speculate that overconfidence on the part of drivers and eagerness to demonstrate new skills may be the reason.

Yet many parents sleep better if their teen understands the conditions that will put a vehicle into a skid and how to recover when that happens. Advanced-driving courses are conducted in a controlled environment and teach students to handle everything from panic stops to skid recovery on a wet road. Professional instructors provide instant feedback on how to improve and note where these conditions might be experienced in a real-world situation.

Rob Schermerhorn of Hooked on Driving, a performance driving school in Michigan, has taught thousands of teens and he strongly recommends that teens learn about hard braking and brake-turn maneuvers. According to Schermerhorn, teens rarely step on the brake hard enough in emergency situations and are not being taught how to control a turn under hard-braking conditions.

Some insurance companies may give you a break on your insurance rates once you complete the course. But the courses are more likely to simply save you some worry. Your teen's first use of emergency driving skills shouldn't come on a crowded highway.

Coaching for parents, coaching by parents

At many schools, parental involvement ends when Mom or Dad hands over the check.

A 2008 study surveyed 321 parents who had a teenager enrolled in a driver education course and found that while most of the parents were not very involved at all with their teen's training, 76 percent felt that parental involvement should be required.

Indeed, NHTSA in 2011 released driver education standards that recommended all states require a parent to attend a seminar before his or her teen's driver education course as well as a debriefing at the end.

But those standards are merely recommendations, and only some states abide by them.

The Mercedes-Benz school requires parents to spend two hours in the vehicle observing the coaching process and seeing which skills their teen needs to work on. The parents are briefed after each lesson and are given feedback after the final assessment is done.

Hayes was disappointed by the lack of communication with her daughter's instructor and would like to see a coaching session that helps parents both correct their own bad driving habits, and learn skills that will help them coach their kids. Her daughter Emily agrees, saying she feels there is a huge disconnect between what parents are doing in the car and what she was learning in class. (See "What young drivers need to know.")

The original article can be found at CarInsurance.com:3 critical skills driver's ed doesn't teach