How to teach an adult beginner how to drive?
May 19, 2012 5:26 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way for me to teach a beginner how to drive?

I've been giving lessons to an adult beginner driver. I'm not a professional instructor, though I have held my license for a while and consider myself an experienced and highly conscientious driver. He works at a university physics department, and comes from a country where car ownership is very uncommon. He has had little experience, and is quite nervous, though he is sensible.

He owns an automatic transmission car. So far we've had three lessons, the first two in a quiet patch of city streets, the third out in the countryside on long roads. Understandably, he's a bit nervous, and hasn't got the feel yet for smooth turning, holding the car at a steady speed, or slowing down and pulling over or making sharp turns. The driving lessons have been okay, although today on the open road (although I kept him at a very modest speed) I had to reach over a few times to correct his steering when he seemed to be failing to take a corner.

This has left me a little apprehensive. After all, many professional instructors teach with cars with double controls to prevent accidents. I am of course not interested in being involved in a crash. But I am otherwise enjoying teaching him and would like to continue if possible. What options do I have to help him and stay safe? Of course, referring him to a professional instructor is one possibility. Another thing I thought of, which I recommended to him, is that he borrows a Playstation off a friend and rents a driving wheel and Gran Turismo. I think some time with a driving game might actually help. Any other ideas? Looking for anything, from specific tips for helping someone learn to more general suggestions. Thanks in advance.
posted by schmichael to Grab Bag (31 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I would actually caution against driving games, unless they're specific simulators to teach you to drive -- a lot of those games require you to press the "gas" or "ignition" constantly to achieve any sort of speed. This of course not at all how acceleration works in real life, and I think one of the important parts of learning to drive is understanding how to use the gas pedal and brakes judiciously and effectively to maintain your speed, accelerate or decelerate.
posted by andrewesque at 5:31 PM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Can you take him to a large parking lot & have him practice there? Also, what about driving him 30 miles / 50 km from your town, & telling him that neither of you is getting home until he gets you there?
posted by AMSBoethius at 5:37 PM on May 19, 2012

Could you two go to someplace that has a big parking lot before it opens (the mall?) and have him practice turning up and down each aisle? There won't be anything to hit, and it'll give him a ton of opportunities to turn. (Make sure he gets the same amount of left turns and right turns so he doesn't get good at only one!)
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 5:38 PM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yeah, parking lot first. I was a pretty terrible driver at first and I was *not* comfortable on streets, even quiet ones. Let him figure out turning and how the car feels and responds at slow speeds in an open area before he goes out on the road. The more practice, the better.
posted by MadamM at 5:43 PM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I was taught to drive by my dad, who took me out to industrial parks and back roads on weekends so I could practice driving. Turning at stop signs, maintaining speed, all those things could be practiced on real roads with almost no one around. The few other cars we would see could just go around us with little hassle. Empty mall parking lots are also great, although I didn't utilize those myself.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 5:44 PM on May 19, 2012

You should find an empty parking lot and set up cones to mark boundaries for various types of turns.

It wouldn't be bad to get him started on parallel parking between two cones because parallel parking intimidates new drivers.

He should also practice backing up without veering to one side and 3-point turns.

When legally permitted, he should get a lot of driving time in on both highways and local roads.

He should also spend a fair amount of time practicing after dark to learn the nuances of doing that.

It also would not hurt to have him practice in a variety of different cars to develop a more intuitive grasp of acceleration, turning, cornering and braking abilities.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 5:48 PM on May 19, 2012

I learned to drive first in a train station parking lot on the weekend and then in a hospital parking lot at night. I had a weekly driving lesson at school in a dual control car. At first we went on little residential streets and then had to use bigger streets for lane changes and passing. But for the first month or two, my mom did the driving to the parking lots where I practiced. (Maybe I would have driven on the road sooner, but I did almost all my practicing at night after my mom got home from work.)

If you can find somewhere with massive parking lots (a hospital or a factory if you can get in) there are, naturally, roads connecting different lots, complete with stop signs and turns.
posted by hoyland at 5:49 PM on May 19, 2012

My Dad always took me to a cemetery when I was getting the hang of driving. There usually large enough to have several roads so you can practice turning and driving straight, but not so busy that you're constantly worried about running into other people. Plus, as my dad always said, "If you hit anyone, how much worse could it be? They're already dead."
posted by FakePalindrome at 5:51 PM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Honestly? The best way would be to help him find a professional driving school.

(And no, a Playstation and games like Gran Turismo won't really help with real-world driving.)
posted by easily confused at 5:52 PM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

And no, a Playstation and games like Gran Turismo won't really help with real-world driving.

Well, no, but if you go through the Skip Barber driving course (not sure if it's on all versions), you'll learn oodles about turning! I'd been driving for years and it still really helped.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 6:04 PM on May 19, 2012

I asked this question last year. Short answer - leave it to the professionals.
posted by COD at 6:07 PM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Find him a professional driving school that actually teaches how to drive - not just a class that gives you the required materials and behind-the-wheel hours. I had the latter class, and started with no idea how to drive in practicality. The instructor made the assumption that everyone driving with him had driven before and knew the basics - which led to terrible, awkward misunderstandings and scolding. Not fun.

Once he's been professionally taught how to drive, take him to an empty parking lot or dirt lot to get used to his car's idiosyncracies. My dad drove me to a dirt lot, and had me play around with stopping quickly and skidding, and making precise maneuvers. Something as simple as stopping at a limit line or literally "stopping on a dime" takes practice.
posted by WasabiFlux at 6:44 PM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

nthing leave it to the pros; a good one will know the open spaces and backroads for that kind of basic stuff.
posted by holgate at 6:48 PM on May 19, 2012

An industrial park on the weekends is like a giant empty parking lot, but with streets and stop signs.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:58 PM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am a grownup person who got their driver's license six months ago. I took 4 or 5 professional lessons before going out more regularly with my husband, and then took one more lesson a week or two before my test to talk through a few things I wanted clarification on.

The reason this worked really well is that the professional driving instructors are VERY good at verbalizing things that experienced drivers may not have vocabulary for. When my husband said "You're going to hit the curb" 2/3 of the way into a parallel parking practice, he often couldn't describe why, or how to correct it, in spite of the fact that he was usually right. While I was doing exactly the same thing, the driving instructor could stop me 1/10th of the way into a parking job and point out the fact that the angle my car made with the road was just a little too sharp, and described exactly how to determine that and correct it.

On the other hand, driving with my husband under more "normal" conditions once I had the hang of it was great, because I could talk through the things I was noticing about my own driving and that of others. "Do people get annoyed if I'm going a little slower than the speed limit in this residential neighborhood that I know is chock full of blind driveways?" "Why did that guy just honk at me? I was right, right?" That's the sort of thing that having a friend and not a professional is nice for.

If he is insistent on you doing 100% of the instruction, I agree with other people: empty parking lots. The local public schools are good for this on evenings. Some parks have nice little scenic driving loops that are good. For reference, the first 40 minutes of my first lesson was in a quiet park, and then he had me leave the park and into the modestly busy campus area. The instructor didn't use the brake after ~halfway through the second lesson (though I tend towards going to slow rather than too fast). So after just one or two professional lessons I bet he'd be fine picking back up with you.
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:04 PM on May 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

We used this Driving Guide when my teenager was learning to drive. We completed every minute of the 40 hour log but by the time she finished the course even I was comfortable (well, I didn't have to be sedated) with my child driving in Atlanta traffic.
posted by firelizard at 7:22 PM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just being really good at something is in no way a guarantee of being really good at being able to teach it. Hook him up with a professional instructor. If everybody is into it, you could sit in the back seat and learn a bit about how professional instructors operate. I did this in the course of teaching Young Master Flabdablet how to drive, and I was mortified to find out just how poorly, relatively speaking, I'd been teaching him on my own.
posted by flabdablet at 8:23 PM on May 19, 2012

For what it's worth, I have put some thought into my attitude during the lesson. I limit the lessons to about 45 minutes of driving. I try to stay calm no matter what, and issue clear instructions - "ease up on the gas. You're edging too far towards the side of the road. Slow down for the intersection, brake more, that's it. You're turning left. Check if any cars are coming - no? Good. Indicate, now make the turn. Are there any cars behind us? What's that happening up ahead?" etc etc.

I'm sure I don't know everything that a professional instructor might, but I have also had lessons with instructors who were intimidating and unpleasant, so there's that.

One of the problems is that the car is supercharged. It's not a boyracer car but the engine surges and gets away on you very easily. Combined with his nervousness and obvious lack of assurance and control, it takes all of my energy to remain calm and keep my voice evenly modulated. Sheesh, after today's lesson my nerves feel like they've been through a wringer.

That said, I don't like giving up, and I'm not sure I'm as willing to quit and hand it over to the pros as some of the more cautious mefites recommend.
posted by schmichael at 8:38 PM on May 19, 2012

Nthing a big empty parking lot. Teaching someone to drive has 2 main steps: 1) teaching how to drive the car, 2) teaching how to deal with roads, rules, and other drivers.

The other thing my dad did very successfully was that he went through every action step-by-step as well as the reasons behind it. This started with the parts of the car, familiarizing me with each one. It was still scary when I actually got on the road, but I was much more prepared to deal with other cars when I knew how to operate one without that variable.
posted by DoubleLune at 8:41 PM on May 19, 2012

And I ask make him stop regularly, ask him how's he's feeling, discuss what's happened, etc. If he's feeling anxious I want him to tell me. Also my number one rule is: "if you are uncertain about how to deal with a situation, reduce your speed" (although this doesn't pertain to motorway driving).
posted by schmichael at 8:45 PM on May 19, 2012

Teaching a friend is difficult. Leave it to the pros if you can, but pick your pros well and make sure that at the end of the sequence your friend goes somewhere like Bondurant or Skip Barber. The money - not a small amount - for a performance school is worth 10x in confidence and alertness.

If you must teach your friend yourself, the most important lesson is situational awareness. Have your friend look as far down the road as he can see. Ask about what's happening at the limit of visibility. Ask who is pulling zoos in traffic, moving around suddenly, changing lanes fast. Ensure that person is watched. Have your friend look for patterns in traffic. Brake lights two miles ahead? Ensure he takes note and can describe how the pattern of brake lights is developing. The student should be talking most of the time, relaying impressions of what traffic is doing and whether anybody is behaving differently from the pack. Getting people to think about where they are and what they'd do about a rapidly-developing anomaly breeds aware drivers who understand why driving is a full-time activity.
posted by jet_silver at 9:20 PM on May 19, 2012

I am like tchemgrrl; I passed my basic driving test last year at 33 and have been driving for almost a year. I started out with my husband in big empty parking lots, but eventually took AMA instruction when we got to the point where learning from my husband was too stressful. We drove circles over and over in the parking lot until I could take a corner with ease.

It took me a long time to get the operation down through sheer memorization such as which way to turn the wheel when backing up.

I had a really lovely instructor. He gave short simple instructions such as "Brake. More. More. More. That's good." or "We are going to make a left hand lane change. Signal. Rear view. Side view. Shoulder check. Now go." or "Gas. More. More. More." He was a super calm man and that really helped.

My lessons were 2 hours a day and we drove from 3-5pm. What time of day are you guys driving? If it's in the evening, your friend might be too tired.

I have to discourage the driving wheel/game suggestion. My husband thought this would be a good idea too, but I found that the steering wheel just didn't allow me to practice hand over hand. I didn't learn how to modulate the break or gas pedal with it very well either.
posted by Calzephyr at 10:38 PM on May 19, 2012

I had to reach over a few times to correct his steering

Unless it's to prevent a crash/accident, you should NEVER grab the steering wheel from another person. If he's turning onto a 2-lane town street and he's not turning sharp enough and goes into the wrong lane, as long as there's not someone/something there, let him take the turn. Say, "that was a bit wide, wasn't it! Thank goodness no one was there!" But do not grab the wheel - especially during a turn - doing so can increase the risk that you'll pull it TOO much, causing a crash in the other direction.

IF you WERE avoiding a crash/accident, then sorry for the above, but it is not clear in your post.

But if you're just grabbing the wheel for technique's sake versus safety's sake, then that will make him more nervous, which won't help with the learning.

You can do this, though. The car I learned on (from a professional driver's school) did not have dual controls. It was just a regular car. It is not a problem as long as you verbally tell the driver what to do. Unless the driver is just a complete idiot who doesn't know to stop when there's a kid in the road, dual control can make things even worse, because they think they're doing something to the car, but it's not responding.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 1:06 AM on May 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Another person who learned to drive as an adult here... I mentally started to cluck "Oh, no, no" at your question. Of course he's terrified; you've put him straight on the roads! (And who knows how to keep the car at a steady speed that soon?) Nth the parking lots.

Also seconding not grabbing the wheel unless it's vital. Once somebody adjusted my rear-view mirror and I can't tell you how much that rattled me. Hard to explain but one needs to be in control of the environment when one is a nervous newbie. Surprises are bad. Don't fiddle with the radio or anything like that -- sit back, stay calm.

I had some professional lessons around the usual learn-to-drive age and got nowhere; I was taught by a friend in my thirties and now I'm a good driver who loves to drive. But the critical thing was just doing it over and over and over. You would be doing him a service if you could engage others in committing an evening to the parking lot here and there, as nothing teaches how to handle a car as well as handling a car.

Parking lot --> deserted roads (industrial parks? deeb suburbia?) --> fairly straight single-lane highways --> calm single-lane traffic --> Hard Stuff is a good progression

what about driving him 30 miles / 50 km from your town, & telling him that neither of you is getting home until he gets you there? is not a great idea at this stage; wait until he wants to do that. One thing you want him to be comfortable with is saying "I am not comfortable with this yet." On one of my first long drives (2h to a nearby city) I was fine on the smallish highway at dusk, but then we got close to the city and the sun set and it wasn't fine, so I pulled over and changed seats with relief. Not useful to force things.

"It took me a long time to get the operation down through sheer memorization such as which way to turn the wheel when backing up" is useful information to you. Possibly you will end up frustrated when you have explained a particular way to do things to the car so the car will do X over and over and over and he doesn't seem to get it -- but for so much of driving things have to be repeated, discovered for oneself, turned into part of the "muscle memory." I did not, for example, bother "learning" how to parallel park. I just kept driving until I was very at ease with how my car works, and then started to try to parallel park, ignoring every bit of advice I had ever heard on the topic. Going on the then-intuitive knowledge that the car does X when I do X made it easy-peasy.

Do teach him how to navigate all the various sorts of filling stations, and assume he knows NOTHING about getting gas. Also: sirens, what to do in various conditions; rules about school buses and school districts; etiquette; pedestrians -- all of these sorts of things will be new to him.

All critique of method aside, good job for doing this!
posted by kmennie at 3:29 AM on May 20, 2012

I have taught several people to drive.

Start in a big parking lot that is empty. Start with small controlled movements. Low speeds. Turning, parking, backing up.

Make them master the slow control moves before taking them out on the street.
posted by Flood at 6:42 AM on May 20, 2012

Thank you kmennie! I think "muscle memory" was what I was trying to think of last night, but couldn't recall it. It was a friend of mine who was very committed to my success that put the polish on my driving skill. We found a big church parking lot and practiced reversing and paralell parking until I could do it.

I think it's awesome schmichael that you are teaching your friend to drive btw! A lot of adult drivers would not have patience for this. When someone has been a passenger for most of their life, driving can be a very abstract construct (don't be surprised if you friend doesn't "know" how to get to a place he "knows" how to get to). There is a lot that seems simple or obvious to experienced drivers but completely new to others. I'm really glad you want to help your friend.
posted by Calzephyr at 8:15 AM on May 20, 2012

I'm a licensed driving instructor and I would agree using a large paved parking lot would be best.

It's challenging teaching adults (versus teenagers), as they have a better understanding of the risks involved. Check your local driving licensing office for their teaching manual – you should know what’s expected in your area. Sometimes they will have a manual for parents teaching their kids. Might be good tips inside.

Most important - you need to be comfortable and in control. Nothing is worse for a new driver than having a nervous passenger. Keep your body posture and voice calm. If you must touch the wheel, do so at the bottom of the wheel and gently guide it. Do not suddenly grab the wheel. You can buy small mirrors that suction cup on the window that will allow you to see behind and at the side of the car (might reassure you!).

Most people who accelerate and brake suddenly do not have their heel on the floor (common error and the fault of many accidents). Students should pivot their heel from the accerleration to brake and back. Check the student’s feet constantly in beginning and remind them: “heel on floor”. In Amercia, left foot should be on the left side of the driver’s area (most cars have a rest area for this foot). I have to constantly remind students: "get your left foot out of the way...".

*Sorry* - the fast acceleration is not the car!.

Sitting position: ensure the driver is sitting correctly. Knees slightly bent but the full foot can reach the petals. Can see around all areas of car.
Mirrors: proper setting the mirrors and knowing how to use your mirrors are essential to good driving.
Steering wheel: at least 25 cm away from the wheel. Hands at 10am-2pm. Hand over hand steering (best to learn with)**. Hands NEVER leave the wheel!.
Gas pedal skills: Practice gentle gas pedal techniques till the student has a grasp of the car’s ability. “Little more” or “little less” are reminders to give. Start combining this with braking:
Brake practice: heel on the floor!. Press gentle. Have the student accelerate slowly and then practice braking. Put a stuffed toy on dash – it should not fall over if proper braking is applied. Or sometimes I have put a plastic cup full of water on the hood – it should not fall over.
Eye position: the most common error in driving is poor eye position. All drivers should be looking up and ahead. Most new drivers look down – at the hood of the car, the line on the road, the sidewalk on the corner. We steer where we look. Eyes must be up and ahead (in traffic, I tell students look 2 – 3 cars ahead). Trust your peripheral vision. This is the toughest lesson for most students.
Turns: I’m constantly telling students “eyes up!”. If you look down at the curb or at the people at the curb – you will drive in to them. A good driver looks up and into the turn (where you want the car to go). Another error is poor hand-wheel technique. Always: “Ease in to a turn – accelerate out”. Practice “8” turns in parking lot – hand over hand, eyes up…till you are comfortable the student can handle the car.

My first lesson is generally in the parking lot, just setting up the car up for the student, doing mirror and seat adjustments, doing vision demonstrations etc… Don't underestimate how important this is!. This is a potential killing machine - and it must be used correctly.

When you get on the road – then you introduce scans, shoulder checks and mirror checks and defensive driving techniques.

** I see that you are in New Zealand - and I am not familiar with the driving requirements there. All the more - check your local licensing office and see what steering techniques they recommend. In North America - it's generally hand over hand.
posted by what's her name at 8:44 AM on May 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

You can always practice more in a parking lot. It might seem boring, but parking is probably the most nerve-wracking part of driving for beginners, and the part they feel most judged on when they have passengers in the car. Practicing parking in different spots will give your friend a much better idea of how a car turns.

It also has the added benefit of being really easy to stop driving in, so that your friend can calm down, figure out what he did wrong or right, and put the pieces together. This is when you should ask questions like "how did that feel?" and go over different parts of the experience. NOT WHILE HE IS DRIVING. No seriously, I can't overstate this: DO NOT ASK QUESTIONS WHILE HE'S DRIVING. He can't answer you. I was taught to drive as an adult by friends and the worst thing about it was that they wanted me to engage in conversation with them and answer questions. It was months before I could split my attention between driving and other people in the car. It's great to keep up a running commentary, and give constant instructions, but please don't expect your friend to respond - and don't turn on the music!

Also, another thing beginner drivers suck at: knowing where they are going. You might think your friend recognizes what street he's on and should know where to turn next, but there's a good chance he is so focused on the cars around him that he has no idea he's a block from his house. Don't expect him to do any navigating at first.
posted by ke rose ne at 9:04 AM on May 20, 2012

When it's time to go on regular streets, go at 7 am on Saturday morning or some time that's mostly empty. Go on the routes he'll be going on, so that he doesn't have to think about it once he's actually driving during regular hours.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:11 AM on May 20, 2012

Also, I don't know anyone who was a GOOD driver by the time they got their license. They got their license and then learned the rest of the real-life stuff.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:11 AM on May 20, 2012

Thanks everyone. Great advice all round. One thing I thought I should mention is that I haven't managed to think of any good parking lots near to use. Where I live there aren't any strip malls or many places with large, empty parking lots. There are some small ones, but nothing on an American scale. Just the way it is. Also, I did only grab the wheel to prevent a potential accident, not to correct him in an otherwise okay situation.
posted by schmichael at 9:29 PM on May 20, 2012

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