Driver's Ed 101
A Parents Guide to Teaching Your Teen

By Sharon Harrigan

Originally appeared in October 2011

I grew up in Detroit, where the rite of passage to adulthood was not graduating from high school or getting your first job. It was, in Motor City as in most of America, getting your drivers license as soon as you turned 16  then driving at all hours with as many friends as possible.

Times have changed. Laws for teen drivers have become more restrictive, in the name of safety. Cars and driving philosophies have been updated, too. Now Im the one in the passenger seat  hand hovering over the emergency brake  teaching my son to drive. Unlike when I was a kid, these days the bulk of the responsibility for teaching teens is on parents. The process is not as mysterious as it first seemed to me, browsing the dizzying number of documents on the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) website.

Laws vary state by state, so even though you can purchase excellent books on drivers training, it is helpful to have instructions that are specific to Virginia. Just follow the five steps in this article and soon you will be a chauffeur no longer. Youll find that you have not lost a child but rather gained another relief driver for long-distance road trips. Think of all that time together in an enclosed space without electronic distractions as an opportunity for some awesome parent-teen bonding.


Lets talk timing. Your teen can receive a learners permit when she is 15 years, 9 months old. To prepare, go to the DMV office and request the Virginia Drivers Manual, a booklet that covers all the material that will be found on the learners permit test: signals, signs and pavement markings; safe-driving techniques; seat belts, airbags and child safety seats, penalties and license types.

The test is in two parts, and if she incorrectly answers any of the questions on the first part, she will not be allowed to take the second part. After failing, teens must wait two weeks before taking the test again, and after three failures must take a class before trying again. Given these stakes, your teen should study this booklet the way she would study for a biology test: Memorize it. It is a good idea to do some practice tests online, available at

A parent or guardian must accompany the teen to the DMV test site and sign a document giving permission. (I have seen unaccompanied teens wait in line for an hour, only to be told they have to return with a parent.) The teens birth certificate or passport, as well as Social Security Number, is also required. The teen will be given a vision test, as well, so corrective lenses or contacts, if used, should be worn to the test.

If your teen passes the test, she will be given a temporary learners permit and may start driving, accompanied, immediately  even if she has not yet had any classroom instruction. While you are at the DMV, dont forget to ask for your driving log, a booklet called 45-Hour Parent/Teen Driving Guide: With Freedom Comes Great Responsibility. I did forget and had to return and wait in line again to get one. Not only is this booklet necessary for logging hours, it includes invaluable step-by-step lessons and checklists for you to use with your teen.


This could be the first step, but it doesnt have to be. Confused? I was, too, so Ill explain. It is possible to take the classroom portion of drivers ed before applying for a learners permit. The advantage is that much of the material on the test is covered in the class. But, since most teens take the classroom portion in the fall of tenth grade, they may not want to wait until the class is over to get their learners permit, especially since it is necessary to hold a learners permit for nine months before obtaining a license.

The 30-hour class is required of drivers under the age of 19. It is offered at all of the public high schools during the school year. In addition to classes during the school day, Albemarle High School offers evening and summer classes to its own students and students who are from other high schools, or to those who are home schooled. Green Light Driving School, in Charlottesville, runs classes during the summer and on school breaks. Albemarle High School has a driving simulation program, but none of the others do. They all teach some aspect of car maintenance, even though it is not covered on test for the learners permit or the license. Sheila Jones, co-owner of Green Light with her husband Mike Jones, says that they go beyond what is required and give hands-on instruction on changing a tire and other basic car care.


Now your teen has the legal right to rev up the engine and get on the road. Heres the fun part. The first tip in the DMVs driving guide is Enjoy your time together. Focus on the driving task and leave family issues at home. This is probably not a good time to mention how much you want your son to get a haircut or criticize your daughters outfit.

Since schools offer no actual driving experience, it is up to parents to teach their teens to drive. When I realized this rude fact, I called Sheila Jones at Green Light and said, What now? She told me that drivers ed puts a lot of responsibility on the parent and recommended Crash-Proof Your Kids Make Your Teen a Safer, Smarter Driver by Timothy C. Smith (an excellent guide). If I hadnt forgotten to ask for the 45-Hour Parent-Teen Guide at the DMV, that would have been useful, too. These resources break down instruction into clear, 30-minute lessons. I took my son to the Charlottesville High School parking lot on a quiet Sunday and managed not to get whiplash. Then the next day, I called Green Light Driving School and arranged for my son to take a couple private lessons with Mike Jones before I felt comfortable taking my son on the road myself.

Whats different? Transmissions, for one thing. Nobody learns on standard transmissions anymore, Jones says. You may also be surprised by some unfamiliar techniques. Teens today are instructed to position their hands on the lower part of the steering wheel, at 8 oclock and 4 oclock, instead of at 10 and 2, as I was instructed as a teen. They are also asked to use the push-pull-slide form of steering instead of hand-over-hand. This way, the hands never leave the steering wheel, and there is no way for them to get knotted up.

The drivers ed cars I remember from my high school were equipped with passenger-side brakes and an extra steering wheel. In a regular car, you will need to be ready to pull the emergency brake (if it is accessible), to switch the gears to neutral to slow down if your teen panics and accelerates too much, and to take over steering if necessary, to swerve out of the way of an obstacle. Jones suggests practicing these skills with another adults before trying them with your teen. Its not a bad idea to practice grabbing the steering wheel with your spouse, she says, so you can get a feel for how to do it. Go to a parking lot, ask your husband to pretend to drive erratically, then practice steering with your left hand from the passenger seat.

How much practice is enough? For drivers under the age of 19, Virginia law requires that parents keep a driving log, which documents at least 45 hours of accompanied driving, 15 of which should be after dark. This is the minimum. Sheila Jones says she tells parents that they should gauge their teens readiness this way: When you are prepared to fall asleep in the car with your teen driving, at night, on the highway, then shes ready. Parents sometimes want their teens to get a license before theyre ready, Jones says. They think: Ill only let her drive from point A to point B. But the license wont say that.

Forty-five hours might seem like a big investment of time. But think of it this way: How much time have you invested in sports or music for your child? Sheila Jones says, If youre willing to help your child practice piano or soccer every day for years, why shouldnt you invest at least the same amount of time for something that is could be life-threatening?


Lets be clear what Behind the Wheel is not (in case you are as confused as I was.) It is not a complete on-the-road driving instruction experience. That is what parents are for. Behind the Wheel is an extended road test, the successful end of which is a provisional license. Virginia law requires seven 50-minute sessions of driving and seven 50-minute sessions of observation (in which the teen watches another teen drive).


Finally, your teen can ferry the whole lacrosse team and you wont have to pick her up from that movie that lets out at midnight, right? Not quite. For the first year, your teen will have a provisional license, which means she is not allowed to drive with more than one non-family passenger less than 18 years old or to operate a vehicle between midnight and four in the morning. As of July 1, 2010, changes in Virginia law also require that passengers under 18 to wear seatbelts in the backseat and prohibits drivers under 18 from using cell phones or wireless communication devices. It is the parents responsibility to make sure that their teens follow these rules.

Congratulations! After 16 years of relentless duty first as chauffeur and then driving instructor, you now have more free time than you ever thought possible. You have raised your teen to recognize, understand and respect the rules of the road. You have taught her not to drink and drive, chat and drive, text and drive, eat and drive, or even apply eyeliner at a red light. You have taught her how to adjust her mirrors, recognize her blind spot, cope with adverse weather and erratic behavior from other drivers. In short, you have shepherded her through the rite of passage to adulthood. You should be proud.

Now you need a vacation. Ive heard California is beautiful this time of year. How about a cross-country road trip?

Sharon is a mother and writer and chauffeur and reluctant driving instructor who lives in Charlottesville.

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