Coaching your Teen to Safe Driving Habits with Commentary Driving

Written by Will Thornton
Coaching your Teen to Safe Driving Habits with Commentary Driving

That time has arrived! Your 15-year-old is eager to get that all-important license to drive. As a parent, you’re likely to have concerns about how to make that happen, or maybe you’re not sure about when and where to start.

From that initial conversation about what it takes to be a safe driver to the moment you find yourself thinking about how to be a good safe driving role model, you’re probably wondering what to do to ensure they become safe drivers. So that you can gain that peace of mind in knowing they’re safe when driving on their own.

How to model safe driving habits

First, consider what you need to be saying and doing, as their parent, for your teen to become a safe driver in the truest sense of the word. Do you, in how you drive, model safe driving habits?


That question can be extremely hard or easy to answer depending on how you were taught and presently drive. Possibly, you learned some version of the Smith System that is often referred to as defensive driving skills.


You may have to take some time to revisit, and possibly work, on some of those skills that have, shall we say, have been ignored a bit over time. Or maybe you need to brush up on your driving skills because you’ve gotten complacent. It’s easy to happen when nothing bad, like a major collision, has happened to you.


One important factor to consider is that your child has been “learning” how to drive since they were five or six years old. They have, quite possibly unbeknownst to you, been watching you and will model how you have been driving.


Always remember, like with anything else in your relationship with your son or daughter, what you do speaks much louder to them than what you say. Do all that you can to avoid the “do as I say, not as I do” trap that can only lead to big arguments and hurt feelings while out practicing and learning together.


An assumption that parents often make that can prove very counterproductive when getting started is that you, as their parent, are a safe driver. Now, that is not to say you’re not! The question is, how effectively do you manage, despite possibly some not-so-safe habits, to stay collision-free yet still feel that you are being a good role model?


The great news is that this situation is easily overcome by adopting a “let us learn together” attitude.


This mindset can easily be accomplished through what is commonly called commentary driving, which you will say and do together, out loud, as you begin. As a veteran driving instructor and coach of sixteen years, I have a more favorite name for it which I term as “driving out loud.”

what you do speaks much louder to them than what you say

What is commentary driving?

If you look up commentary in the dictionary, you’ll find its meaning to be a series of facts that lead to a conclusion. i.e., “That car is a nice blue color.” Which, if you are a car enthusiast, is something worth noting.


When it comes to commentary driving, it takes on a more direct role. It is, as a parent who is both teacher and coach, an especially important tool in helping your driver gain both the physical and visual handling of a vehicle towards being safe and confident. Then one day, after getting a license, drive independently of you.


Important note: It is crucial to create a distinction between learning how to make a turn in teacher (going through steps slowly together) mode and completing a similar maneuver in practicing (doing it by themselves without much intervention) mode. First, you need to focus on coaching them through the steps necessary to develop confidence.


Once a teen knows what to do, it’s time to stop telling them how to do it. Start asking questions and allow for minor mistakes. i.e., “That was a great turn, for the most part, Sally but remember to cover and use the brake, if needed, to control your speed in the turn. Then return to the gas out of the turn.”


Never raise your voice or berate them for a minor mistake and only raise your voice if what they do puts both of you in imminent danger of a collision. Driving up onto the curb is not a collision.


Remember, always telling them what to do far too often leads to yelling. It’s very easy to become emotionally charged as a parent and view the mistake as something that can’t be improved upon and learned from. That is simply not true.

The do’s and don'ts of commentary driving

Give directions far in advance of the requested maneuver for turns and lane changes. Waiting till the last moment puts an unrealistic burden on their ability to respond to your requested maneuver and only leads to arguments and hurt feelings.


Doing commentary driving can, at first, seem extremely hard to do for a teen as they deal with possibly feeling self-conscious about using it. It might seem burdensome initially, while still coordinating the basic muscle memory skills or habits needed and saying them out loud.


You, as an experienced driver, just do it naturally without thinking about it because you have been driving for many years. It is a habit, for you, that doesn’t require any real conscious thought to do. For them, it is not.


Always remember that they have not developed the “how” of say, making a right turn yet and be patient. Do not push. Build on small successes as you go.


If you find as their parent that you cannot be patient or are too anxious or pushy, then you’re coaching and getting them to use commentary will be severely hampered and little progress will be made if any.

Never, never, never, make any assumptions about the movement of other vehicles, pedestrians, and changing traffic controls

Developing good habits

There are two sides to commentary driving that, much like two sides of the same coin, must be working together to develop safe (low risk) driving skills and habits. They consist of habit development and awareness of the driving scene.


Let’s first look at what’s needed for good habit development.

Before going out to a parking lot or into a nearby neighborhood to practice, take the time to use these three following statements as conversation starters about driving risk or dealing with peer pressure.


Talk over common scenarios that, as an experienced driver, you have had to face. Also, do not be afraid to talk about mistakes that you have made and what you learned from them.


  • Ask them this question: Is what your about to do a high-risk or low-risk action to take? i.e., driving 15 miles over a posted speed limit or blowing through a stop sign without ever fully stopping. High risk is of course to speed and do a rolling stop. Low risk is not speeding or doing the rolling stop. It is all about the possible physical impact to not only you but other drivers around you.
  • When in doubt…Don’t! A good example here is when you are allowed to make a right turn on red. You do everything you are supposed to do by stopping completely at the stop line. Then because you cannot see to your left to turn safely, you ease the car forward to the curb edge. You look left, and you’re not certain if the oncoming traffic is far enough away to go ahead and turn. That lack of certainty is that doubt. Just refer to the above question of a maneuver being high or low risk to get a firm answer.
  • Never, never, never, make any assumptions about the movement of other vehicles, pedestrians, and changing traffic controls.


Research has proven that over seventy percent of drivers, new and experienced, make assumptions about the above three items. i.e., trying to speed up to get through an intersection when the light has already turned yellow as you approach.


You can also use these statements or axioms during your use of commentary when out practicing and giving lessons. When you come upon a situation that requires choosing to move or not move, ask them questions 1, or 2, or 3.


Many driving schools have a proprietary version of the commentary used for developing muscle memory habits for basic maneuvering and the development of driver awareness of the constantly changing driving scene. Encourage them to use it, especially at first for basic maneuvering.

Talking and turning

Let’s continue our discussion with muscle memory development for the most complex vehicle maneuver. Turning. Saying the steps out loud while maneuvering will speed up the learning process and increase confidence.

An example of what I use as an instructor for making a stopped left turn sounds like this:


Teen says, “Signal, rear mirror check, stop. Look left, right, and center.


If they are unable to clear for traffic, instruct them to creep forward to the curb edge.


For new drivers, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed, so while learning it can be useful to use numbers in place of specifics. A “looking left,” can be shorthanded to “Clear 1,” for example.


By establishing which numbers correspond to which visual scanning areas a turn could sound like this:


Teen says, “Stop. Clear 1. Clear 2. Clear 3.”


In this case 1, 2, and 3 are substituted for looking left, looking right, and looking center respectively.


Using numbers is less cumbersome and allows them to focus more on the visual. Which is important as visual acuity makes up about seventy percent of driving and in making low-risk choices.


Note: The whole point and purpose of using commentary driving is to manage and reduce risk-taking as much as possible. Until you do you cannot even approach being or even calling yourself a safe driver. Addressing risk-taking actions along with the possible use of driving apps can go long way towards your peace of mind about your teen driver’s safety.

Do not be afraid to talk about mistakes that you have made and what you learned from them

What to say while commentary driving

Commentary words towards driver awareness can take on whatever you choose to use. In essence, there are two areas visually that need to be verbally acknowledged to reduce finding yourself in a high-risk taking situation.


What is happening to the front of you, to the sides, and behind you? Make a game of this by coming up with fun terms, or if using a driving school and you are just practicing with them, ask them to use their terms.


Some examples are:

  • PI (path invader) for anything that moves into your path to the front of you, or any vehicle waiting to enter the roadway you are traveling on to your left or right.
  • SD (speeding driver) can be for any vehicle coming fast from behind you or off to the left or right of you.

Finally: practice, practice, practice

Once you have established a routine for the use of commentary driving, be sure to get as much practice as time allows you. As an instructor, when I hear from a parent that their son or daughter is not getting any practice at home, I’m worried.


A lack of parental involvement makes my job teaching much harder, and the lesson ends up becoming more of a practicing session than advancing through the lesson because the student didn’t practice getting smoother at making basic turns before our session.


Studies have proven that the more you say something out loud the faster you will learn, and your awareness is more keyed up to avoid situations and conditions that would be unsafe. Be patient with the process and you will experience success!

Written by
Will Thornton
is a CEO of Zero Risk Now at Tao- Sun Unlimited Sources, writer, risk driving nerd, speaker, and educator towards low risk driving. Also driving coach and teacher for SafeWay Driving, Sienna Plantation TX.

How to Get a Driver License in Your State