At the beginning of my in-car teaching career, I would walk away from each lesson with a sore neck and a minor tension headache. It can be very stressful to know that your safety (and your employer’s vehicle) is in the hands of an overconfident and under-competent student driver.
What makes teaching new drivers so stressful is that they’re often unpredictable – simply because they haven’t enough experience to consistently perform the predictable action. Every new situation is a new opportunity to make a mistake.
So, it wasn’t long before I started looking for ways to predict my students’ errors during lessons. And, today, I’m going to share four signs of imminent driver action (or inaction) that I have found to be most reliable and effective in reducing instructor stress headaches.
#4: High Shoulders
Sing it with me:
“The neck muscles are connected to the sh-oouu-lder muscles,
the shoulder muscles are connected to the a-aarr-m muscles,
the arm muscles are connected to the st-eeerr-ing wheel!”
Clearly, humor is a gift and a curse. You’re welcome.
As stressful as driving lessons can be for a professional instructor, they are sometimes doubly so for student drivers. And truthfully, I prefer a student who has a little anxiety about learning to drive. It means that he is aware and respectful of potential dangers.
But stressed out student drivers are hazards on the roadway. They’re easily startled. They make sudden, jerky movements. And their timing is straight-up scary.
A sure sign of high anxiety in student drivers is high shoulders. When a student’s shoulders are raised in a sort of fixed shrugging position, undoubtedly there is tension in those muscles.
Moreover, since the shoulder muscles are adjacent to the neck, back and arm muscles, if the shoulder muscles are tense then so are the rest. Anytime these muscle groups are tense and stiff, student drivers lack fluidity in movement, dissociation of body parts, and often body awareness.
This makes for choppy maneuvers and unintended driver actions. An easy example would be lane changes.
Almost without fail, when you ask a student driver with high shoulders to make a safe lane change, as soon as she turns her head to check the blind spot the steering wheel turns too. The rigidity in her muscles causes the steering wheel to follow the movement of her head as if the two are connected by a taught series of ropes and pullies.
This isn’t the only reason that a student might turn his head and the steering wheel simultaneously; but, if you see high shoulders, you should expect this fairly common driver error and other similar mistakes (such as premature steering while turning and merging, over-steering in curves, drifting while checking the mirrors, etc.).
In fact, anytime your student has high shoulders, you can reliably expect that she will move the steering wheel when she moves her head and move her head when she moves the steering wheel. Additionally, you can expect that she will be easily startled and a bit on edge.
So, the next time you have a student with high shoulders, ask him to take a minute to relax. Suggest that he take a few deep breaths to reduce his distress and roll his shoulders to loosen up those tense muscles. And, if necessary, do the same for yourself.
#3: White Knuckles
Sing it with me:
“I can’t drive … twe-nty-five!”
It feels a little bizarre to witness a student driver white-knuckle his way through a residential area at fifteen miles per hour. On the other hand, there was a time when those same students had me strangling the passenger-side door handle through what should have been the gentlest of curves.
Like high shoulders, white knuckles are a sure sign of distress. But here, the stress is usually more specific.
You might expect to see white knuckles on a NASCAR steering wheel, where the driver is trying to maintain control in a behemoth roadster rounding a curve at one-hundred miles per hour.
For many new drivers, a motor-vehicle is a monster in comparison to the virtual simulations at their local arcade. In a real car, the steering wheel has resistance and real-time responsiveness coupled with two tons of shifting momentum. Feeling intimidated as a newbie is a wise response.
Lacking confidence in steering control, many students overcompensate by gripping the steering wheel as tightly as possible. Most of the time, these students are so overwhelmed by anxiety that they are completely unaware of their vice-grip handling.
Similarly to high shoulders, white-knuckling results in tension in the related muscle groups – i.e. the hands and arms. The primary result is a lack of dissociation between these two body parts and diminished fine motor control.
This means that the student is likely to over- and/or under- steer in curves and turns and jerk the wheel during lateral maneuvers or when startled. Interestingly, white-knuckling also creates problems while signaling. Taking one hand off (or partially off) the steering wheel while the other is still clenched results in a dramatic imbalance in handling. So much so that the vehicle often veers right as the student uses his left hand to operate the turn signal.
In any case, if your student is white-knuckling then you can reliably expect that her steering control will lack finesse and balance. So, be sure to keep your seatbelt fastened and obey the redundant “no smoking” sign.
Like high shoulders, the short-term solution is to help your student relax – except you also get to say, “Jeez, what did that steering wheel ever do to you?!”
In the long run, you need to address the underlying issue.
Many students steadily build confidence in steering control as they learn more maneuvers and gain practice time, while other students have more difficulty trusting indirect results. Either way, you can accelerate this process by running stationary steering drills. Park the vehicle and practice handling the wheel using hand-over-hand and/or hand-to-hand steering. Putting this kind of direct focus on the issue allows the student to develop sureness in handling a real-life steering wheel without the anxiety of making a mistake in real-life circumstances (i.e. in motion).
#2: Fixed Gaze
Sing it with me:
“Look up before you go-go, don’t leave me guessin’ if you see that gap close”
WHAM! … Try getting that one out of your head.
Staring is one of the most notorious behaviors in new drivers. You’ve seen it, I’ve seen it, students don’t.
In my experience, the two primary reasons that a student driver might stare are: 1) he is “zoning-out” and simply not paying attention; or 2) he has yet to master visualizing the path of travel and is compensating with over-attendance.
In the case of zoning-out, students are likely to stare vaguely into the distance with an absent expression. Sometimes, it’s like they actually forget they’re driving.
More often, though, staring occurs in the early stages of visual skills development. Students have a natural tendency to look directly at whatever they are trying to learn how to do.
For students who are just developing visual tracking skills, for example, it’s understandable that their gaze would fixate on that task. In this case, they are staring downward at the pavement immediately in front of the vehicle.
Either way, a staring student driver is missing the big picture. Since he is not scanning his environment, a fixed gaze means that the student is not likely to see many hazards on the roadway and not likely to anticipate upcoming events until they are directly within his stationary line of sight.
As soon as you recognize that your student has a staring problem, you should be on the constant lookout for missed driving cues. Staring drivers are likely to respond late (or not at all) to changing traffic lights, brake lights, closing gaps, warning signs, etc.
This is where an eye-check mirror really comes in handy.
Placing a small mirror on your dash or windshield and angling it so that you can keep an eye on your student’s eyes allows you to quickly detect when your student starts to stare. At which point, you can redirect his focus and attention before he misses something important.
Most students grow out of the typical staring phase as they develop stronger visual skills (particularly scanning). For students who tend to zone-out, the solution lies in giving them a constant visual task (like scanning) that prevents their eyes from wandering into space.
So, the best way to address this issue overall is to focus on building a strong habit out of constantly scanning the big picture. For more information on building strong habits, check out our recent series on driving habits.
#1: Knee in or out?
One last time! Sing it with me:
“You put your right knee in,
You put your right knee out;
You do the Hokey-Pokey,
And you hit the wrong pedal”
Admit it. You started dancing a little.
New drivers make a lot of mistakes, but none are as seemingly unpredictable as hitting the wrong pedal.
Whether your student is sitting in the driver’s seat for the very first time or practicing a new maneuver on the roadway, applying the wrong pedal is a simple mistake that can easily result in costly damages before you even know what’s happening.
There isn’t much reason for why it occurs. It’s simple confusion. Some students have difficulty remembering right from left, some might think their foot is on the brake pedal when it’s not, still others might just be applying the nearest pedal in panicked desperation.
Whatever the situation, I have an amazingly simple and reliable tip for anticipating this dangerous error. I hope you’re sitting down.
Good. Now extend your right leg out in front of you with your toes pointing straight up and your heel resting on the floor.
Pivot your foot to the right, as if you are going to apply the accelerator. Notice how your right knee pivots too.
Let’s do it again. This time pivot your foot to the left, as if you are applying the brake. Notice how your knee pivots as well. Sometimes the knee pivot is subtle, but it’s always there.
That’s all there is to it!
Whenever your student moves his foot to the accelerator, his knee will pivot toward you in the passenger seat (to his right). Whenever your student moves his foot to the brake, his knee will pivot away from you (to his left).
So, the next time you are approaching a stop sign and your student’s right knee is angled toward you, don’t expect her to stop. She’s probably got her foot on the gas.
Keep in mind that all things are relative. The degree to which your student’s knee is angled when applying the brake versus the accelerator is relative to his resting position.
For many students, especially taller individuals, the right knee is always angled out to accommodate the length of their legs with an appropriately positioned seat.
So, take note of each student’s knee pivot angle when you are positive that the brakes are being applied and then again for the accelerator as a guide to discern one versus the other on the roadway.
To remedy pedal confusion, the best thing you can do is heel-pivot drills.
With the car parked, ask your student to repeatedly pivot between the brake and accelerator as you call them out.
This drill has the added benefit of associating and reinforcing the application of a particular pedal according to your verbal cues – which is invaluable during lessons in traffic.
Thanks for reading!
See you next week!
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