Behind the Wheel



Hearts pounding, our eyes anxiously scanning the surroundings for danger, our fingers gripping the seat beneath us. One foot hovers in mid-air, poised to slam against a non-existent brake pedal.

A nightmare? A scene from the latest horror movie? No, just another exciting episode in the ongoing saga we call parenting — teaching our teens to drive. 

South Carolina teenagers can apply for their beginner permits at the age of 15. It’s one of the many steps that eventually leads to them navigating the roads of life without us. But before they can truly get behind the wheel solo, they must practice. So, buckle up, Mom and Dad, because you’ve got to log 40 hours of driving with your teen driver before he or she can qualify for a permanent license.

Of course, they’ll also need eight hours of classroom driver education and six hours of behind-the-wheel training with a licensed instructor. That’s where companies like 123 Drive! come in.

behindthewhile2Doreen and Mark Haughton-James have been providing behind-the-wheel and classroom driving education on Hilton Head Island and in Bluffton for almost 10 years as the co-owners of 123 Drive! And they’ve seen it all from their spot in the passenger seat. 

“It’s a fun job,” Doreen said, reflecting on some of the more hilarious — and slightly unnerving — moments she’s had teaching teen drivers. Luckily, she comes equipped with a sense of humor and lots of patience, not to mention a passenger-side brake pedal, an extra rear-view mirror, “and a long left arm” she uses to reach across the car to steer drivers back on course.

Still, turning 15 is not in itself a license to drive, she said. 

“There’s a numerical age and a maturity age,” Doreen said. “Some kids at 15 are totally mature enough to drive a car. Some kids at 20 are not. Parents need to ask themselves, ‘Do I trust this child to take a 3,000-pound vehicle on the road?’”

If the answer is yes, Doreen recommends parents begin with “commentary driving”: “Make your kids put their phones away and pay attention as you verbalize everything you’re doing as you drive,” she explained. “‘I’m pulling out of the driveway. I’ve got the car in reverse. I’m going to turn the wheel this way, because I want the car to go this way…’ There’s so much that we do when we’re driving that we don’t even think about.” 

Once your child actually gets behind the wheel, continue this practice by describing what they’re doing, what they should be checking for and what’s up ahead. Empty church or school parking lots are great places to get in a little practice, and when you think your teen is ready for a challenge, the “Sonic in Bluffton is the hardest drive-thru (to navigate) anywhere,” Doreen said. 

The most important thing to keep in mind, Doreen warned, is that “you will make mistakes.” And both teens and parents can learn from these errors. 

Just ask Hilton Head attorney Bree Kennedy, whose son took the family car for a spin and flattened a neighbor’s mailbox in the process, or Kathleen Sanz, a Hilton Head teacher whose daughter had a slight mishap at the local drive-thru: “$5,000 worth of damage for a $5 cup of coffee,” Sanz recalled ruefully. Still, lessons were learned, and those teens — and countless others — eventually became successful drivers by learning what not to do next time. 

Some teens might be more nervous than excited to take the keys. If that’s the case, Doreen offers this advice: “Baby steps. Have them drive down your street 20 times before venturing out. Driving is mostly confidence and a little bit of skill.” 

One Hilton Head mom said she waited until she was 18 to get her license. Years later, her son also was less-than-eager to drive, changing his mind only after realizing a license meant he could take his girlfriend out on dates without bringing Mom or Dad along. And there might actually be a benefit if your teen is anxious: A nervous driver is a cautious driver. 

So, parents, take heart. While it may take time to recover from the experience of teaching your teen to drive — Hilton Head author Susan Riley said she was unable to sit in the passenger seat for years without instinctively slamming her foot into the floorboard when her child was behind the wheel — know that when your teen walks out the door, keys and license in hand, you’ll have prepared him or her for any road hazards. And there’s always a bright side: Despite the inevitable insurance hikes and auto body bills, your newly licensed teen can finally start to help with running errands. 


Have a teen who’s about to get behind the wheel? Here are a few resources you might find helpful: 

  • 123 Drive! Driving Academy:
  • The Parents Supervised Training Program: This helpful driving manual provides lesson plans for beginning drivers and their parents. It’s available at or at 123 Drive! locations. 
  • Safe Driving apps for parents: Life360 and Canary are two apps to help parents monitor unsafe driving behavior such as excessive speed, abrupt braking and texting while driving.


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