expressway at night

How Teens Can Drive Safely on the Expressway

A complete driver-training program includes lessons on all types of streets and highways, both night and day, in a variety of weather and traffic conditions. But many teens get the majority, if not all, of their driver training on familiar roads close to home. Some young drivers do not make their first expressway trip until after they are licensed and driving on their own. This is a high-risk method for teens to gain driving experience, because:

  • Young drivers who don’t have freeway experience have trouble controlling vehicles traveling at high speeds
  • Teens have minimal experience in dealing with emergency driving situations, particularly at high speeds
  • When expressways are unfamiliar to drivers, they spend more time searching the driving scene for directional signs and landmarks
  • Teens often aren’t aware of the level of risk on interstates, so they may continue other risky driving behaviors, such as non-use of seat belts and allowing distractions such as loud music and noisy passengers
  • Though expressways have a low incidence of collisions, the crashes that do occur have high injury severity rates because the higher speeds exponentially increase the amount of force involved in the crash

Commentary driving is an excellent way to train teens to drive safely on the expressway. With commentary driving, teens maintain a running dialogue of their progress – what they notice as they observe the roadway and what actions they will take: “The car in front of me is slowing down, so I’m slowing down and checking my following distance. My exit is coming up in one mile, so I’m putting on my turn signal, checking my mirrors and blind spot, and moving into the exit lane. The exit ramp has a posted speed limit of 45 mph, so I’m slowing to that speed. It’s starting to rain, so I’m increasing my following distance.”

Commentary driving forces the driver to use critical thinking skills to make driving decisions. The fact that the driver’s observations are verbalized is comforting to the person (typically a parent) teaching the teen to drive, because it allows the instructor to follow the teen’s thought process and quickly make corrections without lecturing, which teens tend to tune out anyway.

Teens often feel awkward about commentary driving, so it is helpful to model it for them prior to beginning driving lessons. This also allows parents to perfect the process and to see the roadway with new eyes, thus relating better to the beginning driver.

From a practical standpoint, it is obviously important for teens to work up to practicing driving on the expressway. The first several lessons should occur during non-peak hours on dry roads during the daytime. Introduce one variable – nighttime hours, rainy weather, rush-hour traffic – at a time, and ensure the teen is completely comfortable with each before progressing to the next.

The following training tips will help teens be safer drivers on the freeway:

  • Make sure the teen understands that though traffic on the expressway can seem predictable because everyone is moving in the same direction at approximately the same speed, surprises can occur and drivers must be ready to deal with them at all times.
  • Use commentary driving to make sure teens know how to identify interstate interchanges, signs, lane markings, and speed limits.
  • Help teens learn how to enter and exit expressways properly: searching the road ahead, signaling, evaluating other drivers’ speed, calculating the amount of available space, adjusting speed to the flow of traffic, identifying exits early, and following exit ramp speed limits. Practice entering and exiting the freeway at different points to broaden the young driver’s experience.
  • Include information in the lesson plan on how high speeds affect following distance, stopping distance, and the physics of motor vehicle crashes. To avoid overloading the young driver, provide these lessons off the road, or have teens take a driver safety course and report what they learned.
    • Help teens understand how the steering needs of vehicles change at high speeds; excessive steering can cause drivers to lose control on the expressway.
    • Reinforce that driving must be taken seriously; many traffic games occur on freeways. Make sure teen drivers maintain a steady lane position in the right lane, except when passing, and refrain from being competitive with other drivers.
    • Talk about the dangers of the expressway, such as crosswinds when traveling on bridges or through mountain passes, other drivers tailgating them, and sharing the road with large trucks, and how to handle each one.