Tips for Co-Pilots of Learner Drivers – Reducing Stress

Tips for co-pilots

Tips for Co-pilots & parents of learner drivers

I’m not going to pretend that being a co-pilot for a teen, new driver, or any learner driver is not potentially stressful, because it certainly can be. In fact, some family members flat-out refuse to drive with a learner.

And I get it. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see my life flash before my eyes a few times here and there (read: all day every day lol) while being a driving instructor.

In this article, I’m going to discuss some tips, tricks, and ideas for parents and co-pilots to reduce stress and be able to practice driving with their learners more comfortably.

Take your time learning how to drive

Learning how to drive is a process that doesn’t happen overnight. I often think of it as building a house. You need a really solid, good foundation first. There is no way around it.

If you think about it, your learner will be driving for the rest of their life. So, there really is no rush. Take your time with the whole process. What do I mean by this?

Well, it takes most learners about 60 hours of total driving before they are ready and at the point to be able to drive safely, and independently, and to pass the road test.

So, I recommend keeping track of the hours, even if it’s not officially required by ICBC any longer. But it can give you an idea.

If your learner has only driven seven hours, then don’t expect him/her to be able to pass the road test and drive like a professional because it’s just not going to happen.

Tips for Co-Pilots of Learners
Tips for Co-Pilots of Learners

How I taught driving lessons – the process

Just to give you a general idea of the entire process, this is how I taught people how to drive. Each instructor and driving school is likely different. This was just what I found to work for me.

Consider:

  • It takes about 60 hours to learn how to drive
  • I could teach someone how to drive in about eight driving lessons, each driving lesson being an hour and a half hours long
  • Parents and co-pilots drove with the learner for the remainder of the time so that the learner had at least 60 hours in total

The order I taught things in for learners:

Lesson One Blind spots, blind zones, shoulder checks, setting up the seat and car controls, stop signs, two-way, four-way stops maybe, basic right-of-way rules

  • Complete six to 7.5 hours of driving before the next lesson.

Lesson Two Driving in traffic on a busy street, lane changing

  • Complete six to 7.5 hours of driving practice before the next lesson

Lesson Three Freeway driving and basic backing skills. The freeway is actually pretty easy to do, compared to most other driving maneuvers, and it can build confidence when a learner is still quite new

  • Complete six to 7.5 hours of driving practice before next lesson

Lesson FourTurning left at a traffic light, parallel parking

  • Complete six to 7.5 hours of driving practice before next lesson

Lesson FiveRight turns at traffic lights, reverse stall parking

  • Complete six to 7.5 hours of driving practice before next lesson

Lesson Six – Assessment & something else minor (yield sign practice, roundabout, hill parking, 3-point turns, etc.)

  • Complete six to 7.5 hours of driving practice before next lesson

Lesson Seven – Defensive driving techniques & anything else I’ve so far missed

  • Keep practicing

Lesson Eight – Advanced techniques (Downtown Vancouver)

Now I’m pretty bad at math, but if I divide 60 total hours by eight driving lessons, I get seven and a half. So, this tells me that the learner, if evenly spacing the learning (which I highly recommend of course) will need to practice and drive 6 to 7.5 hours after each lesson (or new thing, if not taking lessons) before moving on.

This is so important because it allows for the learning to “sink in” and allows the learner the real-time that they will need to fully understand basic, important concepts before moving on.

I’ve met many people who did not learn in this way and tried to learn everything at once. And I can tell you that is extremely difficult to try to undo, and to try to build a foundation after all that time and confused learning already went by.

A solid foundation so important

I can not stress enough the importance of a solid foundation. In other words, if all you do is practice your basic stop signs, in quiet, residential areas for six to 12 or even 25 hours, then that’s so perfectly good.

There really is no need to rush out onto busy streets and environments that are too difficult or stressful. There is not much to be learned in that environment other than learning that, “driving is stressful.”

I always recommend to learners to stay in environments that they are comfortable with. Yes, you can learn how to drive comfortably, at your own pace, and without having unnecessary stress.

Speaking of streets…

Location, location, location

Location is everything. It was not until I moved away from North Vancouver that I realized how perfect it is as a place to learn how to drive. It just has everything there. It has every kind of driving environment that you would need for a learner, all right there.

But no matter where you live, you should be able to find appropriate locations for your learner. In the beginning, you want to find a quiet, residential area where the learner will feel comfortable. There is just no point in going to areas that are too difficult in the beginning.

The most difficult things to teach a new driver:

  • How to make decisions
  • Where to look

Some quiet areas that I personally used for Lesson One basics type of environments:

  • Sutherland High School area (North Vancouver)
  • Pemberton Heights (North Vancouver)
  • Burnaby Heights (North Burnaby)
  • Oak Street & 25th Avenue area (Vancouver)
  • Beside and around Lonsdale Avenue (North Vancouver)

I never really used empty parking lots for beginners (unless we are talking about driving backward) but if you feel the need to do that before moving on to a residential area, that’s fine too. Look for:

  • College, Universities, or other types of schools (Capilano University, BCIT)
  • Superstore / large mall parking lots
  • Churchs (usually only have cars in them on Sundays and sometimes Wednesdays/Wednesday evenings)

Establishing some ground rules

Setting up some basic ground rules with your learner can help you both to know what to expect and how the driving lesson or driving practice will go. A few things I always did with every learner:

  • If there are no instructions given, then the learner is to assume that they are going to go straight ahead (or follow the road, you know, whichever one comes first). This way, they don’t have to constantly ask where they are going
  • When giving instructions to the learner, I always used a gesture to point out which way I wanted them to go (right or left). Simply saying “Right,” or “Left” won’t help because many people get these confused when they are learning how to drive, so pointing helps a lot with people who have a dyslexic tendency (no judging, no shaming)
  • When giving the learner instructions, state the location first, and then the direction. For example, “At the first set of traffic lights, turn right,” rather than, “Turn right at the traffic lights.” This matters hugely because I can guarantee that if you say, “Turn right,” your learner will proceed to turn right before you’ve had a chance to let them know where
  • Pull over if you need to discuss something confusing that just happened and draw a diagram. Trying to talk about certain things when the learner is still driving is just a recipe for disaster. They need to focus, and when they are new, there is no way they can focus on what they are doing, and on an abstract concept that is new to them, all at the same time, so pull over and talk about things and draw a simple sketch to illustrate your idea or point, and then continue with the whole driving thing: live in the moment.

The formula for teaching someone how to drive

The basic formula for teaching someone how to do a driving concept or maneuver is:

  1. Portray – Show with a diagram or picture what you will be doing
  2. Demonstrate – The co-pilot can drive and show how it’s done
  3. Coach – Talk the learner through the process safely
  4. Assess – After a while, ask the learner to do it by themselves without coaching and see how they do

I would always stick to this process pretty closely. And I would not assess the student very often (just a bit in lesson three and lesson six). Most of my time was spent on the first three items, portray, demonstrate, and coaching.

And out of those, coaching was by far what I spent my time on the most. Coaching is an opportunity for the learner to safely complete the driving task (whatever it may be, turning left, turning right, merging onto the freeway) with their co-pilot or instructor guiding them through the process. It’s how people learn.

An assessment once in a while was for sure important. But I wouldn’t expect someone to be good at something if they’ve never done it before, or if they haven’t done it too much.

So, I often viewed the assessment as a waste of time, especially because I could secretly assess how they were doing without officially making an announcement about it and making them feel nervous about some “fake test.” Assessments have their place, of course.

Using the Smith System

Are you familiar with the Smith SystemOpens in a new tab. of defensive driving? It is something that I taught and recommend of course for any driver to drive safely. The thing to think about, however, is how to use it while also teaching someone else how to drive, because it certainly can be used for that.

Overview of the Smith System

In case you’re not familiar, this is the basic Smith System:

  • Aim high in steering – Which means looking far ahead, among other things
  • Get the big picture – Know what’s going on around your vehicle at all times
  • Keep your eyes moving
  • Leave yourself an out – Leave yourself an escape route, some extra space around your vehicle at all times, while driving
  • Make sure they see you – People don’t crash into stuff that they can see, they normally crash into stuff that they didn’t know was there, so if you can make sure other people know you exist, your chances of making contact with one another will be greatly reduced

So the Smith System is what I would call a more advanced technique, even though I would be teaching a learner all of these things throughout their learning. Teaching someone to specifically be a defensive driver is a real thing in and of itself.

However, you can still use this to your advantage while you’re a co-pilot with a learner. And it’s not by teaching the learner about the Smith System (yet) but simply using the system as you are driving.

What do I mean?

  • Aim high and look far ahead at where you are going to anticipate possible problems ahead of time. If you see something up ahead – like a delivery truck parked in the middle of your lane – you can help to alert your learner that a lane change may be needed, for example, and can help them to do the lane change well ahead of time before you get into a “situation”
  • Get the big picture – Just like when you’re driving, you need to know what’s around your vehicle at all times. This is harder to tell when you’re the co-pilot. My driving school cars always had extra sire-view mirrors and some additional rear-view mirrors for the instructor. Consider grabbing these off Amazon or Canadian Tire or somewhere as your extra eyes. If you have no idea what’s going on around the vehicle, then there won’t be too much you can do to help your learner
  • Keep your eyes moving – You probably know this, but in the beginning, when someone is learning how to drive is not the best time to be looking out the window at beautiful scenery – just wait a little longer for that luxury
  • Leave yourself an out – Leave your learner an out. Sure, maybe they are “just driving” but you can be managing the space around the vehicle and make recommendations. For example, if you see a large truck up ahead and don’t want your learner to be driving directly beside it to the right (where trucks have large blind spots) you can tell your learner ahead of time: “We need to keep our vehicle behind, or in front of this large truck, but avoid driving right beside it to avoid the blind spot.”
  • Make sure they see you – This will be another thing that your learner may be clueless about, but you don’t have to be. If your learner is driving in someone else’s blind spot (which, let’s face it, they will do), then you can simply ask them to manage this space. Slow down by easing off the gas or speed up a little if that’s appropriate. Make recommendations to your learner about this space management to help them ensure that your vehicle is in a place other road users can see it. As an experienced driver, you’ll know where this is.

We are not teaching people how to drive. We are teaching them how to think.

Paul

Drive somewhere and plan a route

One of the worst things you can do is to drive the same roads all the time, over and over again. The learner will simply memorize things, and stop actively learning. Try to drive somewhere fun, since driving is supposed to be fun after all. Maybe a trip to Honey Donuts iOpens in a new tab.n Deep Cove for a donut and coffee?

Modern GPS and maps are pretty terrible still at recommending routes, and often send drivers through routes that really make no sense (like sending a driver through 70 stop signs in a residential area instead of hitting the highway). Spend the time with a map and plan the route ahead of time because this is a skill that the learner likely won’t be teaching themselves.

Park the car once

Also, have the learner park the car once when you get there (as long as you’ve already shown them how to do this). This mimics real life, where people drive somewhere and then park their car (I know, what a concept) as opposed to many learners who never park their car, and then learn how to park for five hours in a parking lot right before the road test (ouch).

Bonus Tip – “WHY?”

Always tell the learner why they must do something a certain way. When people know the reason why they must do something, they’ll be more likely to understand and remember and care to actually do it.

For example, when we turn left at intersections and are stopped while yielding to oncoming or conflicting traffic, we should keep the wheels straight in case of rear-end collisions.

Being pushed straight forward is much less bad than being pushed into the oncoming lanes and potentially having two collisions rather than just one.

Why do we have to stop behind the white stopping line at stop signs? We often can’t see traffic from way back in that position. But it’s for pedestrians, of course. So we must stop there first, and then if visibility is poor we can inch out to get a better view.

Body Language

This one time (at band camp, not) I had a driving lesson with a student where we drove in downtown Vancouver. I didn’t really realize that I had been more or less fiddling with my hair the entire time.

I think I had gotten a new kind of conditioner which made it very soft, and I have a long history of playing with my hair, and actually got my fingers stuck in my hair when I was a small child. It was soft then, too!

After the lesson, the student let me know that he had been feeling nervous because I was nervous. I told him, “I’m not nervous.” And he said, “Yes you are, you’ve been nervously fiddling with your hair the whole time.”

Then I realized that body language matters a lot more than I realized. Student drivers may interpret things a certain way, even if you aren’t actually nervous.

So, you can still be a human, of course, but perhaps fiddling with your hair, or holding onto the “holy sh$t” handle the whole time isn’t the best idea. It’s best to just sit in the seat normally and try not to make too many sudden movements, and try not to show you are nervous, even if you are.

If you are nervous, the student can pick up on that, and it can be one more thing that adds to their stress. It’s best if they can see you as someone calm and quiet, but who will speak up when need be.

But remember that they have ears, and yelling is not necessary. You can say, “We need to stop the car right now,” in a somewhat urgent, but normal-volume type of voice.

Conclusion

Being a driving instructor is a hard job, and so is being a co-pilot for a learner or brand-new driver. Hopefully, these tips have been helpful to you or someone you know. Remember that your learner is only going to learn how to drive for the first time once, and reducing stress is always worth it.

Driving can be stressful even for experienced drivers, so being kind to your learner is always recommended. Feel free to take breaks, including the kind where you chase each other in circles around the car to loosen any muscles that may be stiff.

Drive somewhere beautiful and go for a small nature walk before driving home. Let the learner choose their own way to drive back home, which helps to get their brain thinking like a driver, rather than someone who follows instructions all the time. Let me know in the comments if you have thoughts about this whole thing. I respond to all comments :).

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Carmen

Carmen became a driving instructor at the age of 22 in North Vancouver, Canada and is an experienced writer, blogger, photographer, artist, philosopher, certified day dreamer and generally complicated human.

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