Safe Driving Tips from Professional Racers You Can Teach Your Teens (and Use Yourself)
When I was 15, a driver’s education class consisted of a handful of Ford Tempos in a school parking lot, learning how to steer, turn, and stop safely. Believe it or not, in some states a teenager can take an online class and rack up hours driving with an adult before getting their license; but no physical driver’s education course is required. In my case, my classmates and I learned the rules, but we didn’t learn how to handle a car in an emergency situation or what to do to become smarter and safer drivers. Or, most importantly, defensive driving.
So, what is defensive driving and why should teen drivers learn it?
I know it sounds extreme, but the key to safe driving is to always assume the worst. By teaching teens about defensive driving at the beginning of their driving career, they’re learning how to consciously reduce the dangers associated with driving. Good defensive driving techniques reduce the likelihood of a collision. If a new driver learns to constantly scan the road for escape options and anticipate potential missteps other drivers might take, they will be more prepared than a driver who assumes that following the rules alone will keep them safe.
“According to a study by Florida’s Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, graduates from a teen defensive driving school possessed cumulative crash rates 77% lower than the general 15-to-19-year-old population.” – TeenSafe.com
Safe Driving skills for teens (and adults)
I had a chance to experience a Skip Barber racing school last month with Fiat, which is a great way to brush up on your driving skills. The lead instructor, Jean-Sebastien Sauriol, has over 30 years of racing experience and after riding with him in “hot laps” – high-speed laps around a track – I can tell you he knows what he’s doing. Sauriol schooled our class on some key points for all drivers, whether you are a racecar driver or just navigating the highways with your family.
For the last 30 years, the Skip Barber Racing School has taught over 300,000 people how to drive all over the country. As a program, this school has trained more winning racers in NASCAR, INDYCAR, SCCA, World Challenge, and IMSA than any other. (Hello, Danica Patrick, class of 2002!). But they also team up with Hagerty, an insurance company that specializes in classic cars, to provide a foundation of safe driving skills for teens with the Hagerty Driving Academy.
It might seem that teaching your kids how to operate a car like race car driver is antithetical to safe driving, but – like anything else you teach your kids – knowledge is power. Mastering driving techniques will make them a stronger, more confident driver and will help them understand how others drive, as well.
In a typical driver’s education class your teen (and maybe even you) won’t learn about panic braking, emergency lane changes, and skid correction. And yet, these are exactly the things they’ll need to know to avoid a crash.
Here are some tips that I learned that all drivers (teens AND adults) should know to help them improve their skills:
1. Start with the pedals: the driver should be able to fully press down on the brake without locking their knees. It’s not cool to lean all the way back if you can’t brake in time to avoid a crash.
2. Place your hands at the “9” and “3” position as if on a clock, with your thumbs inside. If you, like me, were taught to place your hands at the 10 and 2 when you learned how to drive, forget that. The best position for your hands is more toward the sides of the steering wheel in case of airbag deployment – if they’re at 10 and 2 you’re going to end up punching yourself in the face. If they’re at 9 and 3, they’ll splay outward when an airbag inflates at 200 miles per hour.
3. Your back should remain flat to the seat to maintain the sensation of the car and keep control.
4. Whether you have a manual transmission or automatic, rest your left foot on the “dead pedal” – the non-functioning flat space to the left of the clutch and brake – when you’re not using that foot to help you handle the G-forces of any turn. It will ground you to the vehicle and help you maintain your balance.
5. The eyes guide the hands, just like in sports. Kids understand how to track a ball, and in the car, the ball is the track. If you are playing tennis, you track the ball’s path with your eyes. It’s the same with a car on the highway; fix your gaze a little higher to look two or three cars ahead and anticipate to avoid any surprises.
Driving academies teach the skills needed to safely handle challenging road conditions, and everyone in the family can benefit. Other driving academies like Ford’s Driving Skills for Life or Tire Rack’s Street Survival course (available all over the country) are also highly recommended. We all win by learning safer driving skills from professionals.