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How to Create Good, Strong Driving Habits for Your Students – Part 2

Welcome back!

In the last installment of this series, we talked about habit formation as a natural process and how its three basic components work together to create automatic behaviors – good or bad. Now, it’s time to talk about utilizing those components to create good driving habits during lessons.


Getting to “Good Driving Habits”

As I mentioned last week, we define a habit by its routine of behavior. So, when we talk about good habits we are usually talking about habituated good behaviors.

But I think we can do a little better. I think we can easily develop strong habits out of good behaviors.

The recipe for a strong habit is hidden in the habit formation process. So, before we talk about mixing all the ingredients together, let’s discuss the components again – this time in terms of maximizing the potential of each.



We’ll start here to get the easy one out of the way.

Think about teaching left-hand turns to a new driver. A key aspect in the maneuver is manipulating the steering wheel. Some students have a tendency to handle the wheel by what Robert Zaldivar, former owner of Central Park Driving School, would call cupping. In left-hand turns, this involves grasping the inside 9 o’clock position on the steering wheel with the right hand and pulling down to rotate the wheel counterclockwise. This behavior not only limits steering but also leaves the right forearm and wrist vulnerable to injury during the forceful expansion of the airbag during a collision. This behavior is neither safe nor effective.

Alternatively, as you know, grasping the steering wheel from the outside is much safer because it prevents the driver’s limb from getting tangled in the steering wheel if the airbag deploys. And, grasping the 3 o’clock position of the steering wheel with the right hand at the beginning of a left-hand turn is much more effective because it increases the range of motion to a three-quarter rotation.

Safe + Effective = Good Behavior

The last thing I want to mention here is that it is very difficult to learn a new behavior and habituate it at the same time – especially complex routines of behavior. Students have a much easier time habituating a behavior after they have mastered the behavior itself.

So, once you decide to make a habit out of a particular behavior, start by training proficient performance of the behavior independent of the situation and then habituate it in context.



The best driving cues are specific, reliable, obvious, and present early in the situation.



In my experience, the more specific the cue the more effective the habit. Recall last week, we touched on the idea that a cue is a specific point of contact between a situation and a behavior. If we continue to think about a habit as a series of connected dots, then it’s easy to imagine that the more “dot-like” the cue the easier it is to connect that cue to a specific behavior – because the circuit is simpler, more direct, and less ambiguous. Considering that a red traffic light is literally a glowing dot in the situation, it serves well as a specific (and therefore efficient) cue for applying the brakes.



Cues are useless if we cannot count on them to be present every time the behavior is necessary. It’s impossible to “trigger” a habit without a trigger. When attempting to habituate a certain routine of behavior in response to a specific situation, pick a cue that is consistently present in that situation. At the risk of overplaying it, the red traffic light itself is always present at intersections with red traffic lights. (In case you were wondering, what you’re feeling right now is something I like to call illustrative model fatigue – that’s when a writer has used the same example so many times that it’s one more mention from being hackneyed.)



Cues must be recognized, if only subconsciously, in order to activate a habit. The more conspicuous the cue in a situation, the more likely it is to be recognized and therefore more likely to trigger the habit. So, do your best to pick a cue that stands out from the rest of the situation. [Insert hackneyed red traffic light example here]

This one can get a little tricky, especially with more complex habits. Blind spot checks are a good example. Typically, the cue for a blind spot check is the decision to make a lane change. The challenge here is to make an intangible thought into an obvious signal. In most cases, however, simply calling attention to the cue by saying, “We need to make a lane change, so check your mirrors, signal, then check your blind spot,” is enough to do the trick.


Present Early in the Situation

We all know that time and space are our friends on the roadway. The more time and space we have in traffic situations the more forgiveness for our actions and reactions. Cues that present as early as possible in the situation allow the most time and space for a habit to play out.

Often, there are several potential cues in a situation. Consider responding to a stopping vehicle ahead. The behavior is easy: apply the brakes. But it’s the cue that determines when to apply the brakes and therefore how much time and space is left to complete a stop. Many drivers use the closing gap ahead as a cue to begin braking, and this typically works well enough – until the brakes go out or the road is slipperier than expected or the vehicle ahead stops more abruptly than anticipated, etc. A closing gap is literally the last thing that happens before a collision (which is a closed gap). There’s no need to use this last-minute cue when brake lights warn us that the vehicle ahead is braking before the gap begins to close. That’s why many instructors (including myself) preach the following daily, “as soon as you see brake lights, you brake too.”



The best rewards are personal. The more I feel personally rewarded by the results of a behavior the more I want to repeat that behavior in the future.

Many behaviors have results that play directly to our personal desires. Coasting through turns, for example, produces smoother turns. Every driver wants to be a good driver, and the ability to produce a smooth ride is a universally accepted mark of a good driver. Ergo, coasting through a turn leads us to feel like good drivers. And, if we want to continue to feel like good drivers, we have to continue coasting through turns.

These are the easiest habits to form because personally rewarding results are prevalent every time the habit is repeated. It’s sort of an “if you build it, they will come,” situation (I really should start going to the movies again). The first time your student performs the behavior appropriately, all you have to do is point out the smoother ride and feeling like a good driver will forever be the reward for coasting through turns.

On the other hand, personally rewarding results for good behaviors on the roadway can easily go unappreciated when they are in fact a lack of negative results. Teaching blind spot checks comes to mind.

As an instructor, it’s very tempting to reduce risk during lessons by only asking my student to perform lane changes when I know (because I checked first) that there is no car in the blind spot; and then attempt to reinforce the behavior with encouragement and praise. It feels like I’m doing everybody a favor, but it turns out the one person getting short-changed in the long run is my student.

Only having experiences where there is no car in the blind spot can lead students to feel that checking the blind spot offers no direct benefit to themselves – because, in the whole of their experience, a blind spot check has never actually resulted in anything but a pleased instructor. Frequently, the only thing being reinforced with this methodology is a teenager’s pre-existing “what’s the point” attitude.

Encouragement and praise for checking the blind spot (or marking points for whether a blind spot check is performed) does not create a reward for doing so beyond satisfying the instructor’s expectations. As soon as I’m out of the picture (or as soon as they’ve passed the driving test) my students may have no more incentive to continue blind spot checks on their own – because the reward no longer exists.

Alternatively, asking my student to perform a safe lane change while there is a car in the blind spot provides the opportunity for my student to experience using a blind spot check to decide for herself that it is not safe to proceed – which ultimately means that my student has the chance to experience a personal reward (in this case, a feeling of safety and likely pride) for having avoided a collision as a result of checking the blind spot.

This is the kind of reward that will continue to exist well after she has passed her driving test. And, as long as the potential for a reward exists, so will the habit.

Additionally, presenting this challenge to my student during a lesson means that the experience will occur in a more controlled environment where I, as a professional instructor, can act as a safety net for everyone involved.

Obviously, you should only present this challenge to a student who is ready to handle it – ideally, one who has already mastered lane changes without traffic complication.

The main point is this: knowing and feeling are two very different things. For example, I know that Santa Claus isn’t real … but I feel like he might be.

Just because a student knows that blind spot checks make him a safer driver, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he feels safer when he performs one.  And, he has to feel that reward before his brain has enough incentive to make a lasting habit out of doing so.

The reward for a behavior is ultimately what determines whether the behavior is repeated and then habituated. The best rewards are personal. And, the reward must be experienced in order to become the final piece of the habit formation puzzle.


Easy as Pie

So, the recipe for good, strong driving habits goes like this:

Step 1: Determine what behavior you intend to habituate, then train that behavior independently until the student demonstrates proficiency.

Step 2: Connect the behavior to a cue that is specific, reliable, obvious, and present early in the situation by calling it out as the reason for the behavior while on the roadway. “There’s a […] ahead, time to […].”

Step 3: Stage or frame the situation in such a way that allows the student to safely experience a real personal reward for the results produced by the behavior.

Repeat steps as necessary until the habit is smooth and autonomous.


There you have it! Good, strong driving habits in three easy steps!

See you next week for the final installment of this series: correcting bad driving habits!



Get the book that inspired this post!




DISCLAIMER: This post was created for educational purposes only. Suggestions made here are intended for professional instructors. It is the instructor’s sole responsibility to utilize professional judgement at all times, including the discretion to utilize any suggestions safely and appropriately.




How Habits Work


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