Confessions of a Driving Instructor: How to Survive Your Driving Lessons

With over 3,000 hours of behind-the-wheel driving instruction to (mostly) teens and every age up to a 74-year-old Russian grandpa, I’d like to share some experiences with you that’ll help you ace your driving lessons!
Patti with one of her behind-the-wheel students
Patti has logged more than 3,000 hours as a driving instructor and loves every minute of it!

My name is Patti, and my family and friends all think I’m crazy for being a driving instructor. But there’s nothing I’d rather do than 1) be Aceable’s California Operations anchor and 2) teach “my” teens how to become awesome drivers! Each and every capable and responsible young driver I put on the road makes life more meaningful and joyful!

Just as parents cherish those “firsts” with their children, I get to see some firsts too! Like the first time you exit a parking lot onto a real street with real cars, or the first time you enter a freeway and drive 55 mph. I wish I could dash-cam every lesson just to capture your expressions! Beforehand, I always  say, “Trust me, you’re gonna love driving, and I’ll never take you anywhere where I don’t think you’re ready to go yet.”

Baby steps, baby steps.
Baby steps, baby steps.

While my lessons are a lot of fun, I don’t dare let my guard down for a minute. And neither should you. Stay focused, young learner! One of the scariest near-misses I ever had was when a student pulled up from a side street to a busy intersection. She made a full stop for the red light, but at that moment, she lost her concentration. Thinking she was at a stop sign, she suddenly pulled right out into the busy boulevard! By the time I slammed on my brake, we were halfway into the first lane. Lucky for all of us, the oncoming driver swerved around us. Close call … I learned never again to simply assume that students will stay stopped for red lights.

Be well rested for your lesson, dear student. It’s going to be an intense 90 minutes to two hours. I’m helping you train that brain of yours to become watchful. In the beginning, you’ll have to consciously remember to check blind spots, scan crosswalks and intersections, and anticipate idiot drivers switching lanes without signaling. After a while, like an anti-virus program running in the background, you’ll be able to relax into a “watchful” state and enjoy your ride. But right now there’s a lot to consciously remember to do in addition to just giving it gas and steering!

Make sure you get plenty of sleep before your driving lessons!
Make sure you get plenty of sleep before your driving lessons!

I remember one really good student driver not looking at all well rested for his final test-prep lesson. I was thinking, “he’s just not the same kid today.” I asked him if he was okay, and he said he’d stayed up late playing video games with his friends. Five minutes later he pulled to the side of the road and puked generously into some bushes. When he got back into the car, utterly embarrassed, I offered him some breath mints and asked him what he and his friends had been drinking all night. “Vodka,” he explained, “but please don’t tell my mom.” I allowed him to drive home, explained to his mom that her son wasn’t feeling well today, and rescheduled his lesson. At some point I’m sure he’ll share the incident with his mom, and I’m sure he learned his lesson.

I often get asked if I’ve ever had any accidents. I must confess, there was one time I had to fill out an accident report. I was still a newbie and didn’t have my foot hovered over my brake pedal while teaching a student how to execute a three-point turn. His foot slipped, hit the gas instead of the brake, and we reversed hard into a wooden-post mailbox. The mailbox owners said not to worry, they’d wanted to replace that old thing for ages anyway. But being a driving instructor, there was so much paperwork involved that I swore I’d never get into another accident again. (So far so good.) Whenever I hear from this student, we laugh about that poor mailbox! Thank goodness that’s all it was, and not a kid playing in the front yard.

Thank goodness there wasn't a puppy in that mailbox!
Thank goodness there wasn’t a puppy in that mailbox!

If you’re not really feeling ready to learn to drive yet, don’t give way to your friends’ or parents’ pressure to get behind the wheel. It’s really OK! You don’t have to have your license right when you turn 16 — do it when it feels right for you. I teach a lot of students who are 18 and older. I got into the training vehicle one afternoon with a really sweet student who immediately began crying. Gently, I asked her why. She explained that her parents had put her in the driver’s seat a few days ago. She’d backed out of their driveway, all the way across the street, and up on to her neighbor’s lawn before the car came to a stop. It had really traumatized her. I walked her back up to her front door and told her parents in my kindly-professional-yet-dead-serious voice that she’s just not ready yet. “Please be patient, and let her tell you when she’s ready to take her first lesson.” (I wanted to tell them they were idiots to have expected her to reverse for her first driving task!) Three months later I gave her a much happier first lesson and she became an awesome driver.

I’m loving that you can choose to take online drivers ed now at your own pace! You’ve retained so much more information than your friends who had to sit through an old-fashioned classroom course! I used to have to substitute-teach classroom drivers ed occasionally, if one of the other instructors got ill. I always tried my best to get out of it. Trust me, even with lots of jokes thrown in, it’s as gruesome for me to have to teach from a DMV handbook as it is for you to have to sit though it all day, especially on a sunny Sunday!

Patti is a big fan of online drivers ed.
Patti is a big fan of online drivers ed.

Nowadays, though, you Aceable Drivers Ed grads frequently comment, “yeah, I remember that from my drivers ed course.” You know your stuff, dear Acelets! It makes for much safer driving lessons (and driving practice with your parents) that you already know the rules of the road and what all the signs mean. Rather than having to explain what something means while we’re both trying to concentrate on your actual driving, all I have to do with you online drivers ed grads is to make sure that you are constantly scanning so that you actually see those signs, each and every time. Things get a little tricky when kids don’t know the difference between a protected and an unprotected green light during a left turn.

A word for all you video gamers out there: your real-life steering wheel and gas pedal are not the same as your game controls. Your real-life car does not handle like the virtual race car on your flatscreen. Whenever I get into the training vehicle on a first lesson with a student who thinks he (it’s usually a he) already knows how to drive as well as he can drive in a video game, I give him a quick reality check. I have him drive in a quiet residential area where I know there’s an uncontrolled intersection. As he sails into this intersection, not recognizing it as such, I slam on my brake really hard. While he’s still dazed and surprised at the sudden jolt of the stop, I point out why we had to stop so suddenly, and isn’t he glad there hadn’t been a car coming along at that moment? I also add that this is what an emergency stop feels like, and he’s going to learn how to do this a bit later on in the lesson. It works every time: he’s checked.

Patti puts dangerous drivers in their place.
Patti puts dangerous drivers in their place.

One last thing: Just as you’ll go for quality in choosing Aceable Drivers Ed, do the same when you choose your driving instructors — not all of them are true professionals. When it comes to your life and the lives of others, you don’t want to cut corners.

Any driving instructor worth his/her salt will NEVER:

  • Guarantee that you’re going to pass your driving test first time
  • Get impatient or grouchy with you if you make a mistake
  • Carry on personal cell phone or texting conversations during your lesson
  • Fill the training vehicle with gas or go through a car wash during your lesson
  • Just drive around without any real instruction or even fall asleep while you’re driving

It’s all true. I hear this stuff all the time! If it happens to you, have your parents complain to the driving school’s owner and the DMV’s Occupational Licensing division — those instructors shouldn’t be teaching.

A good driving instructor won't let you do this!
A good driving instructor won’t let you do this!

If you care about becoming a safe driver, you’ll be just fine. When I congratulate my students on Ace-ing their drive test, I ask them to contact me again in one year to let me know they’re one of my 30 percent. Because 70 percent of teen drivers either have a fender-bender or a speeding ticket in their first year of driving. It makes me really happy to get those one-year-later emails!

So if you see a happy old-school-looking woman cruisin’ around in a white Mustang, honk and wave! No, seriously. Don’t. Be safe out there!