Supervising Learners without the Surprises

Posted on 24 January 2020

Most people would probably agree that supervising a learner driver can be a challenging experience. The good news is much of the anxiety can be greatly reduced by simply minimising surprises.
1. We are unconsciously competent drivers

2. We are unconsciously incompetent supervisors

We parents and other experienced drivers generally make way too many assumptions regarding what our teenagers understand about cars or how to drive them. We assume that after sitting in the rear-seat of our shiny metal boxes for a couple of hundred thousand kilometres they would have surely picked up most of the 'obvious' stuff. In reality, asides from clicking save on ALL your bad habits, very little else was likely noticed – including all your good habits.

When it comes to supervising learner drivers, the majority of us are inherently disadvantaged by two factors:

After driving for so many years, the physical action of controlling a vehicle is largely performed on auto-pilot – meaning we are almost competently carrying out the task without thinking about it. It has become SO effortless for us that we're unaware of how unrealistic it is to assume our learners should know it. Learner drivers, when they first begin, are largely unconsciously incompetent drivers and it's for that reason we must be aware of not only our own competency as a driver, but more so, our level of competency as a supervisor or coach.

If we plan to supervise someone else's driving we really should audit our own driving behaviours first – because we tend to acquire many habits over decades, both good and bad. We could all benefit from reacquainting ourselves with changing road rules and regulations. Why not try the RMS online practice knowledge test? After all, the last time most of us sat such a test, petrol cost around 50cents a litre. There is no quicker way to lose credibility with your learner than to have them teach you the rules or observe you doing the opposite of what you expect from them.

Before commencing any supervised driving it's so very important to sit down with your learner and any others who may be sharing their supervision, to develop a plan of action. Some items that should be covered in the plan include:

* Who is going to supervise the driving, and the time, duration and frequency of drives? Will there be anyone in the back-seat, and if so, what is their role and responsibilities?

* Compartmentalising family/relationship dynamics during drives.

* Ground rules surrounding radio/music, GPS and mobile phone use for learner AND supervisor.

* What to do in the event of a meltdown an upset occurring (Eg: Pull over when safe, turn off the engine, breathe, constructively unpack what just occurred and agree on a way forward).

* Logbook management.

* If and when to access professional lessons.

* Reasons for postponing a drive (Eg: Feeling unwell or tired, weather, mood and life's happenings).

The more surprises you can avoid inside a car the happier everyone will be. Some steps you can take, in no particular order, to keep anxiety levels to a dull roar include:

* Introduce your learner to the concept of blind-spots and visual block-outs by walking around the outside of the car with them in the driver's seat - asking them to observe you through the mirrors and tell you to stop once they can no longer see you.

* Inform them what different regulatory and cautionary signs mean– (the L's test makes it relatively easy to memorise pictures following repetitive online test practice over several days, but not necessarily long-term meaning). Keep a copy of the Road Users' Handbook in the glove-box.

* Position a detachable mirror on the passenger side of the windscreen.

* Demonstrate how to adjust the seat and steering wheel for optimal posture and how to grip the steering wheel.

* Show them how to correctly set-up the mirrors. If the car has convex side mirrors it's important to explain that unlike flat mirrors, vehicles appear to be further away than they actually are. Explain often overlooked features such as the night mode on the internal mirror that reduces glare from the headlights of vehicles travelling behind.

* Demonstrate how to operate the various controls such as - pedals, indicators, windscreen-wipers, lights, demisters and park-brake whilst stationary.

* Practice taking the steering wheel with one hand from the passenger's seat with an experienced driver in the driver's seat, in a quiet controlled area – because more than likely you will need to do it with your learner driver. Advise your learner in advance that you may need to do it and that it's quite normal in the early stages whilst their spatial perception is developing.

* In the early stages, do a 'commentary drive' of new routes yourself so that your learner can visualise what he or she will be doing beforehand. Always check-in with them to see if they have any questions or concerns before increasing the degree of difficulty.

* Pull-over and park when safe to discuss any matters that require considerable thought to avoid cognitive distractions.

* To avoid confusion, when replying to your learner, don't say "right" say "correct".

* Provide clear and early communication and directions - both verbal and non-verbal. Don't be vague like "slow down" or "drive slowly" – say "press the brake pedal" and "drive at 40 kilometres per hour." Comments such as "be careful" and "watch out" are not specific enough. Say "At the roundabout, turn left" rather than "Turn left, at the roundabout".

* Rather than trying to guess your learner's thought process ask them questions such as "Is there enough space to proceed, or are you planning to let the red car go first?" – Or you could invite them to do a running commentary as they drive; for example: "I think I will maintain this speed at the roundabout because that red car is far enough away from me".

* Commence lessons in quiet locations such as: car-parks and industrial areas; at non-busy times; in good weather conditions. Avoid night drives in the early stages. Always select an environment, time and traffic situation that matches your learner's level of competency.

At the completion of each journey take a few moments to recover review. It can be highly valuable to ask your learner constructive open-ended questions about the drive. What were they satisfied with and were there any aspects they found challenging? This will help develop their awareness and stimulate learning from within, as well as assist in establishing goals for future drives.

Safe travels, and remember to always plan ahead and save the surprises for birthdays.

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