Keys to Freedom

Training boosts young drivers' confidence - and competence

For 17-year-old Matthew Weimann, driving means freedom.

That's why he's spending a summer evening learning the rules of the road from Sharon Grolmus, a driving instructor for the Alberta Motor Association.

"It felt pretty good after the first lesson; I felt more comfortable, and it keeps getting better," says the confident William Aberhart High School student. "I'm looking forward to getting everywhere without having to take the bus or bumming rides off people."

In Alberta, "driver education is not mandatory. You can get a Class 7 (learner's permit) at 14 years old," says Const. Jim Lebedeff of the Calgary Police Service Traffic Education Unit.

A learner's permit requires passing a vision exam and a written test on basic rules of the road, plus parental consent. Learner's permit holders must drive accompanied by a fully licensed driver for two years before they take their road tests.

"They're in a controlled situation with parents or a driving instructor," Lebedeff says.

At 16, a Class 5-GDL (probationary) licence becomes available once a road test is passed. Under Alberta's graduated system, newbie drivers need to spend two years at this level before graduating to a full Class 5.

This is a crucial time for young drivers, and it's strongly recommended they be taught by a professional, says Grolmus, who manages AMA driver training for southern Alberta. Learning to drive from Grolmus runs in the Weimann family - along with Matthew, over the years she's taught his brother and his mom, Nancy, how to drive.

"It's so critical now with the graduated licence that they practise," she says. "When Nancy learned, the rules for licensing were definitely different - you could get your learner's permit and your licence the same day."

In Calgary, driver's education isn't offered as part of school curricula, so kids and parents need to seek out a driving instructor. And being trained by a professional is key to learning what is considered a major life skill, says Scott Marshall, director of training with Young Drivers of Canada.

"Parents will often teach kids their mistakes," he says. "When you show kids how you do it, that's not necessarily the safest way of doing it. But having a professional who is updated on the rules and regulations of the road will help make newer drivers safer, and more likely to pass a government road test."

Grolmus says there are several bad habits that are often passed down.

"Like not setting the park brake. Parents will say, don't set the park brake because it can wreck the park brake - but if we didn't need it, it wouldn't be in the car. Not doing full stops (at stop signs), not scanning for potential hazards - people think they're good drivers, but over time they forget things. It's not intentional."

Nancy Weimann says she's upped her own driving game now that her sons are behind the wheel.

"Most of my driving experience has been since I had children, and I've probably picked up some bad habits along the way," she says. "There are some things I'm sure I've forgotten that my son points out to me, and so I'm consciously doing them now - it's good to have someone to remind you."

Professional instructors can also make sure students are well-versed on the new provincial distracted driving legislation that kicks in this fall.

"When I learned to drive, we didn't have cellphones or any of that," says Grolmus. "Now, you're shaving, doing makeup, texting, eating. When you're in that vehicle, you have to put 100 per cent of your attention into it."

Giving kids a chance to practise their new skills is important, says Lebedeff.

"Try to take them out in an area that's not so busy until they get comfortable driving the vehicle," he says. "Don't throw them to the wolves right away - if you scare them, they might not want to drive."

That said, Grolmus suggests parents enrol their children in driver education during the winter, when ice and snow make the roads more of a challenge.

"I wish more parents would consider their kids learning to drive in winter," she says. "Anyone can drive on a dry road."

Marshall says choosing the right first car is also important.

"Look at the safety value of a vehicle," he says. "Having a vehicle with good visibility is important - driving an SUV as a first vehicle isn't necessarily a good idea, as there are a lot of blind spots. So look at something with a lot of window space and that's good on fuel. And before you purchase, you should find out what it costs to insure - do your homework in advance."

The province's website offers helpful information on learning to drive.

SOURCE - Calgary Herald

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