Driver Education: Commentary Driving

For most parents who are teaching their teens to drive, using commentary driving seems to make perfect sense. But like many other simple tasks, commentary driving is not always easy to do well, and if done improperly, can be frustrating for both the parent and teen.

Since commentary driving involves speaking out loud while driving, parents should model it for teens well before they allow the teen behind the wheel of the vehicle. Teens are likely to feel self-conscious about the process (and parents may, too), so several lessons just on the method itself will be helpful. Parents should emphasize the fundamentals; for example, taking note of the speed limit every time they enter a new street and watching for pedestrians in every crosswalk.

Just as they would with any other driving lesson, parents should begin practicing commentary driving in a relatively simple driving environment and progress to more complex situations, such as driving on the expressway. Each lesson in a new driving environment should be preceded by a demonstration by the parent of commentary driving in that environment; this allows teens to absorb some of the new hazards they will encounter from the safety of the passenger seat.

One purpose of commentary driving is to focus the driver’s attention on her or his thoughts, which in turn helps to maintain a high level of alertness. This is particularly helpful with teens, who may be struggling to overcome the excitement of finally getting to drive enough to focus on the process. It’s also helpful to parents, who otherwise might experience great anxiety as they wonder whether or not their teen has noticed hazards ahead, such as other drivers drifting out of their lanes or following too closely or cars parked on the side of the street.

While commentary driving involves talking while driving, the content of the discussion should be specific and targeted to the driving environment. The driver maintains a running list of observations and actions. An example of commentary driving is: “Approaching intersection….green light….car in oncoming lane waiting to turn left….checking mirrors….light still green….checking intersection….crossing intersection….”. Comments that are general, i.e., “checking ahead,” are not helpful because they don’t increase the awareness level of the driver. The person commenting should say what they see and how they plan to handle what they see.

Parents should resist the temptation to interject into teens’ comments unless absolutely necessary. Questions such as, “What would it mean if that traffic light was yellow?” and “How many seconds should your following distance be if it starts raining right now?” distract teens from what’s in front of them and teach them to rely on someone else’s observations instead of making their own. Parents should make note of any discussion points on a log and cover them at the end of the lesson when the vehicle is parked.

If teens get distracted and stop commenting, parents should encourage them to return to the process with general comments like, “Keep going; tell me everything you’re seeing and what you’re going to do.” When teens repeatedly stop commenting, they may be tired or overwhelmed, signaling that the lesson should end. After the lesson, parents can point out that when drivers stop commenting, their level of alertness goes down.

Parents can also ask questions that help teens understand how commentary driving works after the lesson is over. For example, ask, “Could you practice commentary driving while talking on your cell phone? How do you think talking on a cell phone affects a person’s driving?”

Commentary driving can be an effective driver education tool if used properly; parents who invest time and energy in the process help their teens to be better, safer drivers.