How to prepare your toddler for driving
Isn’t it too soon?
Some parents or carers with a toddler may think that preparing them for driving is quite ridiculous – it will be at least 14 years before they get behind the wheel, so why start now?!?! As a mother of teenagers (one of whom has a Learner licence) it didn’t occur to me that I should start teaching ‘driving’ to my children when they were toddlers. I wish I had! Rather, it is only through my own studies, and then through my own research, that I realised the importance of starting early, and teaching often.
Why is road safety important for my child?
Despite what many parents believe, learning to drive is actually the safest time for a young driver. I know, it can be scary and I too have screamed as I thought my Learner was going to kill us in a crash! Why is it so safe? The main reason is that an experienced driver like parents and carers usually sit in the passenger seat. Experienced drivers play a really important role in teaching safe road use such as learning how to use complex infrastructure like roundabouts and traffic lights. parents and carers also play a vital role in detecting, and then appropriately responding, to hazards. This helps the young driver to build situation awareness skills, in which they themselves can detect hazards, understand these hazards, and project how these hazards might change and might result in a crash.
Unfortunately, it can take many years to build situation awareness skills, and young drivers are most vulnerable to being hurt or killed in a car crash when they start driving independently with a red P plate (the first provisional licence). Therefore, much of my efforts focus on trying to reduce risks for young drivers by building situation awareness skills before they no longer can draw on parents and carers driving experience sitting in the seat right next to them.
There are two realities you need to know to help keep your child safe as a young driver:
- You are already teaching your toddler to drive, even if you don’t know it.
- It is never too soon to start teaching road safety.
You are already teaching your toddler to drive, even if you don’t know it
Think about what your child notices about your behaviour and your speech. I am sure we can all recall at least one toddler (maybe our own?) who has uttered a swear word at a completely inopportune time. Their parents or carers often freak out because they didn’t realise that their child had heard them swearing– let alone remembered and repeated the swear word, quite perfectly I might add – and of course they didn’t intentionally teach the child to drop an F-bomb. Think about trying to hide a chocolate bar in your shopping trolley with an ever-observant toddler lurking. Even today, living with two teens, it is near-impossible to hide a chocolate bar in our house, let alone in a shopping trolley.
From the moment you turn the baby seat around so that your child faces the forward roadway, they are watching everything you do on the road, and they are listening to everything you say about the road. I have heard toddlers repeat that ‘police always try to book people because the government wants more money’ and that parents have been ‘picked on by speed cameras’.
Monkey see, Monkey do, is never more valid than in road safety: We know that young drivers are likely to have the same attitudes towards the road that their parents have, so it is vital that you show that you have safe attitudes towards the road throughout your child’s lifetime, and that you want them to be safe on the road. We know that young drivers are likely to drive the same way that their parents drive, so it is vital that you show your child that you drive safely and that you want them to be safe drivers when they grow up. We know that if young drivers don’t think their parents will care about how they drive, and that they will not punish risky driving behaviour like speeding or drink-driving, young drivers will be more risky on the roads. Therefore, it is important that you directly encourage safe driving by modelling safe driving yourself, by punishing unsafe road use, and by rewarding safe road use by your child.
It is never too soon to start teaching road safety
Learning how to drive actually starts long before they get behind the wheel. As I noted above, the first time your toddler will learn to use the road safely will be when you turn the baby seat around. The next time is when you push them in a pram and they are sitting upright, observing everything around them as you traverse car parks, footpaths, and congested areas like shopping centre and doctor’s office entrances. Be sure to cross the road only where it is safe to do so, using pedestrian crossings and traffic lights. Encourage your child to make eye contact with the driver to be sure that the driver sees you waiting and stops the car, therefore it is safe to cross the road. Continue this safe road use especially when your toddler is walking beside you, and hold their hand to show that you care about their safety and that they should try and be safe whenever they are near a roadway. This includes safe road use crossing, and safe footpath use. You are well on the way to building situation awareness skills upon which they can draw when they are a young driver.
The next important road safety stage is when your toddler starts riding a bicycle. To be safe on a bicycle, they need to wear a helmet to protect their delicate brain. Most importantly, as parents or carers you need to know that they cannot understand all of the risks with riding a bicycle, and that they should use bicycle paths only. When they are bigger and more experienced with riding, you may decide that your child can use dedicated bicycle lanes on roads, or that they can ride their bicycle to school. An important part of this step will be helping your child to understand how their bicycle can safely share the road with other road users, including cars, trucks, and buses. This is another opportunity to build situation awareness skills that are going to help keep them safe as a young driver.
Learning to drive, and being safe on the road, starts long before your child gets their Learner licence
Your child is learning to drive, and learning to be safe on the road, for many years even before they get their Learner licence. This period is the perfect opportunity to turn safe road use into a habit. This period is also the perfect opportunity to help them build situation awareness skills which will not improve their safety outside the vehicle, but also when they are a young driver who is vulnerable to distractions like a mobile phone or a friend travelling as passenger.
Remember also that we are all sharing the road, whether we are pedestrians, cyclists, or travelling in a vehicle. Therefore, there will be times when it is safer, and sometimes it is simply polite, to let others use the road before us. Encourage your toddler to think about how to stay safe themselves, and how to share the road safely and politely, throughout their lifetime.
Dr Bridie Scott-Parker is a National Health and Medical Research Council Senior Research Fellow with more than a decade of expertise in young and novice driver road safety. She is the leader of the Adolescent Risk Research Unit (ARRU) at the University of the Sunshine Coast, a research unit focusing on improving the health and wellbeing of all adolescents.