For the past several years I’ve been fantasizing. Big-time. No, not about whatever lewd thing may have just popped into your head, but about driver’s ed.
Driver’s ed, you say? Bear with me—what if you could design a dream driver’s education program if time and money were no object? Not according to what parents are willing to pay for, what kids have time to learn, or the limitations of driver testing standards, but what drivers actually should know to safely navigate—and survive—today’s roads.
A revolutionary concept, indeed.
So here’s what my dream driver’s ed in America would include:
1. The system of car control. In the United States, most driver’s ed covers the barest basics of driving—knowledge of traffic signs, rules of the road, the death-defying parallel parking maneuver, and how to go forward and backward without hitting anything. Overall it’s safe to say that the level of hazard perception and risk assessment taught in the US is a mere fraction of the UK’s system of car control, with its tightly prescribed methodology of information, position, speed, gear, and acceleration.
2. How personality affects driving. One often overlooked aspect of driving is how people’s personalities affect their behavior on the road. It would be well worth an instructor’s time to interview their students and get a feel for their basic character traits before ever setting out behind the wheel. Are they confident and assertive, or more timid and insecure? Are they generally positive, or more negative? Do they feel entitled? What are their attitudes toward authority, sharing, courtesy, and cooperation? Do they have learning anxieties? Do they come from cultures significantly different from that in which they are getting their license? Regardless of the student’s age, such insight can reveal how a student might approach a risky situation or share the road with others—and help students and instructors alike recognize their potential strengths and weaknesses.
3. Reading other drivers and vehicles. Traffic is full of clues as to what might happen if we just pay attention. Every driver and vehicle has a body language that reveals their likely path of travel or action, and learning how to read these signals (or anticipate what might happen at any given moment) can be one of the most often-used skills behind the wheel.
4. The real story about distractions. Sure, we hear about not texting or talking on the cell phone all the time. And they should be banned, period, except when the vehicle’s safely pulled off the road and not moving. But there are also the distractions of eating, talking with passengers, fiddling with the radio, getting sleepy, gawking at accident scenes, and plain old daydreaming. It’s also not practical to tell students to not do any of these things—every driver will do them at some point regularly. It’s better to teach best practices on how to safely handle each of these distractions.
5. Stress reduction and relaxation techniques. Learning to drive can be extremely stressful. So is driving during bad weather conditions, in big cities and unfamiliar areas, and around unscrupulous motorists. Learning to ease mental and physical tension using deep breathing, relaxation, and even singing can be a surprising lifesaver—literally.
6. Night driving. Not every US driver’s ed program contains a night driving component. Reduced visibility is the obvious issue, but other challenges abound—increased animal activity, driver fatigue, intoxicated motorists and pedestrians, difficulty in detecting pedestrians and bicyclists, and a sometimes deadly sense of security triggered by miles of empty roads.
7. Highway driving. Highway driving in American driver’s ed is all about merging, keeping up with traffic, changing lanes, and exiting. Of course, mastering these skills is critical, but I would add that so are learning to read the rhythms of highway traffic, understanding traffic waves and how you can prevent congestion by maintaining adequate space cushions, lane discipline, watching for hazards presented by merge points, and constantly scanning for erratic drivers that can influence not only your path but the movements of everyone around you in turn.
8. Handling emergency situations. At some point in their driving career, regardless of how careful they may be, everyone is going to have to deal with a road emergency. It could be as simple as a flat tire or complex as a collision with another vehicle. It could be spinning out on a patch of black ice or being confronted by a tornado. Having some idea of what to do in these critical situations can be a matter of life or death.
9. Using driver-assist technologies. Not a single driving instructor I have ever talked to on either side of the pond has directly addressed the myriad driver-assist technologies coming on board into vehicles. And I’m not talking about antilock brakes (ABS) or regular cruise control, but more advanced tech like variable cruise control, automatic braking, lane-departure warning, night vision, automatic parking, drowsiness detection, hill descent control, blind spot detection, and automated precrash systems. Given their increasing prevalence in cars today and tomorrow, it’s a disservice to today’s drivers to not acknowledge these systems. Pretending they don't exist is like telling teens to practice safe sex by abstinence; better to openly acknowledge this topic and have a constructive discussion about their advantages and limitations.
10. Being a better pedestrian and bicyclist. Plenty of bad drivers abound, but many pedestrians don’t help themselves either, especially when they walk around texting, fail to look both ways before crossing the street, wear dark clothing, walk on the wrong side of the road, needlessly make themselves the focus of target fixation, wander in front of driveway and parking lot entrances without looking, and generally act like dorks. The same holds true for bicyclists, especially those who run red lights, slap cars in crosswalks, and generally treat vehicular traffic as adversaries. Sharing the road takes cooperation and respect from all users, not just drivers. And all drivers are pedestrians at some point.
11. Using GPS. Modern turn-by-turn navigation systems are a godsend, eliminating the need for very distracting paper map handling. But interacting with electronic navigation aids can be quite distracting in themselves, and there is no substitute for common sense. There is a time to follow what your GPS tells you—and not. And sometimes it’s easy to forget that driving your vehicle safely always takes precedence, no matter what.
12. Basics of wayfinding, including how to read a map. No one loves turn-by-turn GPS more than I, and they are very helpful in navigating unfamiliar terrain more safely. But I also believe that we’re slowly becoming sheep, content to be blindly led while never having to really pay attention to where we’re going. In the process, we’re slowly losing (or perhaps the younger among us never really developed) our sense of direction. How many of us, bereft of our Tom-Tom or in-car GPS, could read a paper map? Could we figure out where we are, take note of the landmarks surrounding us, and have some sense of where to go unaided? Even with electronic systems, the ability to read a map on the screen in real-time and use it to figure out alternate routes in times of congestion or hazardous conditions is a terrific skill.
13. Consequences of a collision. If learner drivers really knew the consequences of getting into a collision, they might be more careful. Most of us think that we will never get into a collision (and I deliberately use that term instead of “accident” as 95 percent of collisions are completely preventable), but the aftermath is well worth considering: the expense and inconvenience of getting your own and the other person’s vehicle (or vehicles) repaired, hiked-up insurance rates, penalties on your driving record, and possibly the worst yet, lifelong shame and guilt of possibly injuring—or even killing—someone else. Consider inviting law enforcement, emergency personnel, and even trauma physicians to speak—these are the people who witness and clean up the aftermath of such collisions every day.
14. The road as seen by bicyclists, motorcyclists, and pedestrians. Have you ever noticed that when you’re behind the wheel, everyone else who is not seems out to get you? And when you’re not, it’s those damn drivers who are at fault—every one of ‘em! Switching the experience could go a long way in building empathy.
15. Sharing the road with big trucks. Speaking of empathy, every driver should climb behind the wheel of a big rig and see for themselves their unique limitations, especially in braking and visibility. Some American driving schools invite semi-truck drivers to speak to students or even have a big-rig on hand for demos.
16. Urban driving. Driving in a big city poses unique situations not encountered anywhere else. There are count-down lights, hordes of pedestrians, intense congestion, more stimuli than you ever imagined, an increased need for communication between drivers and other road users, maneuvering in tighter areas, distracting sights, and the unique hazards of double-parked vehicles and buses, to name a few. It’s enough to make a driver pull out their hair—or at least want to avoid the city altogether. It needn’t be that way—provided that the subject is broached constructively.
17. Driving and parking in tight spaces. Some drivers I’ve talked to describe bursting into tears after frustrating bouts in impossibly tight parking garages (often in big cities). And sometimes you find yourself in a tight squeeze, and you simply have no other choice. Learning to reverse and maneuver confidently in very close spaces (and yes, without rubbing or bumping into other vehicles) can pay off big dividends in self-confidence.
18. Driving in adverse weather conditions (snow, ice, rain, windstorms, tornadoes, flooding). This is one case where really high-end driving simulators are extraordinarily useful. Few instructors would want to take students out after a fresh snow or during high winds (and rightly so), but having students get a feel for how these conditions affect vehicle dynamics and physics—and correctly handling them—can be well worth it. If you do not have access to a simulator, at least build some good discussions around these situations.
19. Getting to know your vehicle. How many of us really know what our vehicles can (and can’t) do until we get in an emergency situation? Taking the time to drive in an empty parking lot on sunny, rainy, and even snowy days and practicing emergency braking, steering sharply, even doing donuts is a great way to become more familiar with your vehicle’s capabilities and limits.
20. Driving green. With all the attention on hybrids, electrics, and diesels these days, an often-overlooked fact is that any vehicle can become a greener one simply by driving it better. Driving for fuel efficiency—less brake, less throttle, smoother turns, more speed modulation, and rolling up to stops—all happily translate to better driving anyhow.
21. How to take care of your vehicle. When I attend tech sessions, I’m always astonished by how little people know about basic vehicle maintenance. And it’s not just women either … every driver should know how to check oil, transmission fluid, wiper fluid, and coolant levels; properly monitor their tire pressures; change wiper blades; jump batteries; how to change tires (or fix them if they’re run-flats); and safely charge electric vehicles.
22. How being a better driver makes you better in life. At first glance, this may sound funny. But think about it … looking up farther ahead, anticipating hazards, staying focused on the positive rather than the negative, not weaving about but staying on an even course, paying attention to your environment rather than your electronic device, and generally being a better observer of everything around you … what’s not to be gained when applied to your personal, professional, even financial life?
23. Road-tripping and traveling with children. One of the great joys in life is going on road trips. But there is an art to it, including packing, preparing the vehicle, dealing with roadside emergencies, staying alert while driving for very long stretches, and even napping in the car safely. Traveling comfortably with children, as well as properly installing and using car seats and other child restraint systems, are subjects unto themselves, perhaps not so interesting to younger learner drivers but surely useful for parents, babysitters, and caregivers.
24. First-aid basics. In some European countries, such as Germany, learning first-aid (including CPR) is a mandatory part of driver training. It’s just a good idea—you never know when you—or someone else—might need it.
25. Getting parents involved. Last but not least, parents of learner and novice drivers should be required to attend at least one session devoted to what they can do to help their children—and themselves—be better citizens of the road. I cannot stress enough that parents are role models for their genetic units, and most of them are quite unaware of just how strong their influence is.
If this all sounds like a lot, it’s because it is. But I also believe that if drivers were given a better-rounded picture of what driving actually involves, and taught in fun, engaging ways, it would go a long way toward changing our traffic safety culture over time. It also brings me to another topic that I’ll tackle next—that driving should be a lifelong learning experience, not just a one-time event in our adolescent years.
What are your thoughts? Do you teach any of these topics? And how? What would you like to see tackled in drivers ed? I would love to hear from you. Let me know by commenting below, or email me privately at firstname.lastname@example.org.