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Who Taught you to drive?

Guide for parents offers new spin on safety at the wheel

I had a strange realization recently: I drive the wrong way.

My hands instinctively go to the “10 o’clock” and “2 o’clock” positions on the wheel, as they’ve been trained to do since I was taught to drive 25 years ago. But that’s not what new drivers learn.

Jeff Larson is president of the Safe Roads Alliance.

Jeff Larson is president of the Safe Roads Alliance.

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They are instructed to place hands farther apart when driving, at the “9 o’clock” and “3 o’clock” positions, so that their elbows aren’t draped in front of the wheel should an air bag deploy.

“Since air bags literally explode out of the wheel on impact, it’s important to keep your hands and arms clear of that explosion to avoid injury,” states the current recommendation.

For most of us, the question I pose each week — Who taught YOU to drive? — has a common answer: our parents. So much of our driving identity comes from them: their habits, their degree of aggressiveness, sometimes even their car preference.

But teaching someone to drive isn’t easy. It requires patience and salient instruction; a strong knowledge of road rules; and, let’s face it, a degree of self-censorship so that you don’t pass along your own bad tendencies. Beyond that, how do you know whether the tips or techniques you were taught long ago as a teenager (and live by) still apply to today’s driving environment?

The answers, for parents of today’s 16-year-olds, can be found in the pages of a free, 51-page booklet handed out by the Registry of Motor Vehicles, “The Parent’s Supervised Driving Program.” Available since January 2012, it’s essentially crib notes for parents who need to teach their teens to drive but have no idea where to begin.

Unlike the Registry’s rule book that students study for the test, the parent’s guide is all about coaching. What should you say to someone who’s making a left turn or parallel parking for the first time, and how should you say it?

“Don’t bring up touchy subjects such as grades, homework, boyfriends/girlfriends that might distract either of you,” cautions Page 2.

“Coach your teen to describe their actions, thoughts, and observations out loud as they drive, similar to a sports commentator,” instructs Page 4.

“As your teen’s skills improve,” reads Page 44, “try to focus on ‘higher order’ instruction, such as scanning ahead and anticipating other drivers’ behavior.”

The booklet is largely the handiwork of Jeff Larson, a former Channel 5 traffic reporter who is now president of the Safe Roads Alliance, a nonprofit group aimed at improving people’s driving skills. After a career of reporting on teens dying in car accidents, Larson felt a personal need to try to prevent them.

For teens to become better drivers, they had to have better teachers, he reasoned. Starting with Mom and Dad.

“The whole purpose of the booklet is to give parents something they can use,” said Larson, who lives in Arlington. “Often, parents did not learn on the same cars as their kids. Did they have airbags? Did they have ABS brakes? I learned on a 1972 Ford Pinto, which didn’t even have a cross-body seat belt. All this affects the way you drive, and the way you teach someone how to drive.”

The booklet, which Larson wrote, is published by the Safe Roads Alliance, endorsed and distributed by the Registry, and funded by Safety Insurance and Ford Motor Co. More than 55,000 copies have been given to Massachusetts families with a teen applying for their learner’s permit. It’s available to parents in 13 states and eventually, Larson hopes, it will go nationwide.

The Safe Roads Alliance has also launched a free smartphone app to coincide with National Teen Driver Safety Week, which begins next Sunday. The “RoadReady” app lets parents record the location, time of day, type of road (city, highway, suburb, etc.), and weather when they are on a driving lesson with their teen. The Registry now requires parents to certify that they have spent between 30 and 40 hours directly supervising a teen’s driving before their child can get a license.

What did I learn from Larson’s booklet?

A few things, actually, starting with my improper hand positioning on the steering wheel. (The “hand-over-hand” turning method is also passe, again, to avoid a potential injury from an exploding air bag.)

As a teen, I was taught to rely on my mirrors before switching lanes. Instead, I should be physically turning back to check blind spots. As a refresher course, the booklet, which takes maybe an hour to absorb, might help you spot a bad habit or two as well.

Unfortunately, Larson doesn’t have any data showing that the booklet is making parents better driving instructors. But perusing its pages, I kept thinking to myself how great a benefit it would have been to mine.

My parents didn’t know about “commentary driving,” where both teacher and student talk aloud about everything they see, sense, or think of while on the road. I can’t remember ever leaving quaint, suburban Lynnfield while on a driving lesson. Parents are now encouraged to conduct lessons on roads of every traffic level, in all varieties of weather, and at various times of day and night.

As for positive feedback — “When your teen makes a mistake, do not criticize,” says the parent’s guide — I certainly wish I’d had more. I love my parents, but our drill-sergeant-style driving lessons together were 100 percent stress.

Larson’s booklet can’t stop teens from texting while driving, or from making foolish driving decisions. But if it can make learning to drive more palatable for both teens and their parents, that has to be an improvement.

“Actually, when you leave the hospital as a baby, driver’s ed starts that moment,” Larson said. “You pick up everything by osmosis every minute you are in the car with your parents. We need to change parents’ mind-sets to start thinking that way.”

Peter DeMarco can be reached at peter.demarco@globe.com. His Facebook page is “Who Taught You to Drive?”and on Twitter @whotaughtU2driv.
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