Teaching your teen to drive

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You thought letting your child ride her bike on the street was scary, just wait until she gets behind the wheel of a car! Getting a driving licence in Rarotonga in 1974 was easy. I asked the police sergeant and he gave one to me. The only test was answering questions about the well-being of my various Cook Island cousins. Getting a New Zealand drivers’ licence was harder, compounded by the fact that I was an appalling driver. In three separate incidents I flattened a peach tree, gouged a groove in the side panels of mum’s car and nearly crushed my father against the incinerator.

Considering these mishaps all happened on (or off!) our own driveway, it is no wonder my parents abandoned hope of teaching me and passed me over to a professional driving instructor. He had nerves of valiumcoated steel – he clenched his pipe stem and patiently instilled the basics and, to his credit more than mine, I passed. I have now taught all my own children to drive, and I rate it as one of the best times I have had as a dad in recent years.

Drivers’ licences are granted in three stages. The Land Transport Agency website (ltsa.govt.nz) has all the details, including very useful fact sheets. The first step is passing a theory test (based on the Road Code, that costs about $25) to get a learner licence. Being able to quiz the kids and clarifying some of the tricky issues around the right hand rule was fun. The hardest part was trying to conceal (unsuccessfully) that I didn’t have a clue about a lot of stuff in the Road Code! “This wasn’t in here when I learned to drive!” I’m sure they think that when I learned to drive you still had to give way to dinosaurs.

Once they have their learners, you can take them out on the road. A word of warning – accidents can happen, so how does your insurance policy cover you when your children are driving? We gasped – the excess was huge! For considerably less, we were able to buy a far-from-flash old Nissan for which we just purchased third party cover.

Two of my kids learned to drive in cars with manual transmissions. By sitting the test in a manual, it means they can drive manuals or automatics with their restricted licence. As my youngest has discovered, if you sit the test in an automatic, you are not licenced to drive a manual, which has proved to be a real inconvenience. We were able to find huge car parks that were empty in the weekends, and we drove around them for hours. Stop. Start. Faster. Slower. Change up. Change down. Back up. Turn around. Let me out to throw up. To be honest, the process rendered me very unwell!

The mistake I made with each of them was to move from this stage to driving on the road too quickly. It is one thing to drive confidently in a huge car park with no other cars (apart from other learner drivers, which was a bit scary) and it is quite another thing to drive on the road with other cars. There were some genuinely scary times, especially during the brake/accelerator confusion stage. Yes, we hurtled up to some corners under full acceleration rather than braking. I must say that I have been very impressed at the ability of my wife’s little Toyota Echo to do tyre-smoking, four-wheel-drifts around corners without flipping over.

Teenage confidence was a tricky thing. Endlessly the speedo would creep up and up. “Slow down. Slow down. Slow down!” They really did try my patience, especially when they would want to argue the point when there was no time to. Once my daughter stalled at a ‘T’ intersection, but while she was trying to restart, she carried on rolling out into the road so the traffic had to swerve around us. I started shouting, “Turn the wheel, turn it down hill so we can roll out of the way!” When we got going again, she said, “Would you please speak to me a bit more gently.” I said, “I’m sorry but I thought we were about to die!” and she came back with, “Well if I’m going to die, I want to do it with more encouraging words in my ears!”

I so wanted these times on the road together to be characterised with fun and bonhomie but, as has so often been the case in my parenting, my anger stunk up the situation. To be fair, there was provocation (imminent death has always been provocative), and to be extra fair, driving is one of the most serious and potentially lethal activities our children will ever do, and so they do need to be jarred from immature complacency about it. So I needed at times to be stern, but I don’t do stern well. It always seems to tip over into cranky, and I don’t think that really gets across the serious messages I wanted them to get.

And then, it all seemed to come right. The steep part of the learning curve was conquered, and with each of my kids I really did enjoy a lovely stage where each lesson was just a long joy ride. With my oldest boy we drove miles around the back roads of Riverhead and Woodhill, chatting and relaxing together. With my daughter – always keen to get things completely mastered – every morning before school we would go out driving and endlessly practise parallel parking and backing around curves and corners. And with my youngest, we had a fantastic road trip. We collected a car (a gift for the kids from their grandfather) from Dunedin, and over three days he drove 1450km, with me as a passenger, home to Auckland.

Each of them had just one lesson with a professional driving tutor just to pick up any deficits before their tests, and they all passed. Hooray! And they are now off driving themselves.