How to Choose a Driving School for Your Teen

teen girl excited to get keys to car - teen driversCar crashes kill more teens than cancer, homicide and suicide combined, which is why choosing a good driving school could quite literally be a life or death decision. In fact, the Automobile Association of America (AAA) reports that although teens represent only 7% of the licensed population, they are involved in almost 20% of all fatal accidents. Scary stuff.

However, in spite of the statistics, safety risks and high gas prices, there's no dampening the enthusiasm of a teen who is finally eligible for a driver's permit.

Huntington Beach, Calif. mom, Suparna Lundquist says her 15-and-a-half year old daughter is, "excited and nervous about the driving lessons. Mostly because it's something new, but something she really wants to do."

Oh, yeah. Freedom! But first, homeworkFor parents and teens aged 14 and 15, 30 AAA clubs nationwide offer free Dare to Prepare workshops. For those living outside workshop areas, the company devoted to all things auto offers a 20-minute online tutorial.

The course is designed to provide a head start when looking for a driving school as well as tools and guidelines to help families go through the challenging learning-to-drive process. Elaine Beno, corporate spokesperson for AAA of Southern California said, "Participants in Dare to Prepare receive educational tools and resources to take home to help prepare them for driving."

"It's critical for parents to be involved in their teen's process of learning to drive," said Beno in an interview with WalletPop. "Parents should understand that all driving schools are not the same. And that quality driving instruction provides the foundation needed for safe driving practice. Parents should expect to provide the in-car training practice that nearly all states require for a teen driver." Beno notes that in California that means 50 hours of supervised practice with 10 of those hours being driven at night.

Lundquist was thrilled to find driving schools offering supervised training at night. In fact, she reported, "most of them will take the child out at night and on the freeway. That's great -- especially the freeway part since that's a scary place. And getting on and off [the freeway] to me is the hardest part for a new driver." Not to mention tough on the nerves of the new driver's parents.

Lundquist said she found driving schools through online research and the recommendation of friends. "I narrowed it down to those that looked like they were DMV and police approved if possible. I also tried to look for comments online about what others thought of the school." Bottom line, however, peer review weighed heavily in making the decision.

Beno said in addition to peer referrals, AAA has a list of what consumers should look for: "Call and visit several schools," said Beno. "Ask to see classrooms and observe part of a course. Classrooms should be clean, orderly ... Review course curriculum or textbooks."

She added, "There should be a study guide or textbook for each student. Materials should be current and in good condition. Each student should also receive a copy of the state driver's handbook."

In addition, AAA recommendations advise making sure that classroom and behind-the-wheel sessions are integrated. Beno explained that classroom time should consist of a structured lesson plan covering risk prevention and the fundamentals of defensive driving and the time spent behind the wheel should reinforce those concepts.

Beno said driving schools should also provide the opportunity to practice in a variety of environments including residential streets, city traffic, rural roads and highways.

"Ask about refund policies, class make-up policies and remedial training policies," advised Beno," and find out if a signed contract is required." Always check the school's references and be aware of any complaints that may have been filed through the Better Business Bureau.

If you find schools with several complaints on their record, Beno said consider it a red flag. "Ask for references of previous students and parents that can be called about their experience with the school." Beno also suggests considering AAA-affiliated schools. "Any school that displays the AAA logo has been thoroughly reviewed and must maintain: late model, safe cars; up-to-date training materials; professionally trained instructors; a record of good business practices; and discounts for AAA members.

To supplement the school experience and give parents a better idea of their teaching roles, AAA offers handbooks and videos which are available online. Although the handbook and DVD are priced at $29.95, the site offers other tools for free: parents and teens can download a driving log to chart when, where and for hour long the family practiced; play online games to practice driving skills; check out the Teen Guide of Frequently Asked Questions; watch "webisodes;" read the Zits comics; and take a written DMV test for practice.

AAA also suggests parents and teens discuss signing the club's Parent-Teen Agreement which is designed to define expectations on both sides. The agreement outlines the teen's "unsupervised driving privileges" as well as the family's agreed upon rules and consequences that spell out exactly what will happen if the new driver commits a violation.

"I think my daughter will be a great driver," predicts Lundquist, "she has already begun paying attention anytime we are in the car and is trying to be aware of the surroundings. I am a bit scared about her being on the roads but mostly from the standpoint of others not paying attention and crashing into her. I really feel that she is going to be a careful driver."

Okay, that's one down. With 80%--90% of driving-age teens hoping to get their licenses this year, that leaves only a few million left to go.

Fasten your seat belts parents -- and make sure your teens do the same.

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