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Teaching new drivers is a lot about attitude

Bob Branson may be the gutsiest guy in Hudson. Every semester he faces a new batch of 15-year-olds, charged with the task of teaching them how to drive - the right way.

Branson is a driver's education teacher at Hudson High School. This semester he has 125 students. He's had the job for 10 years and believes the most important thing he does is teach students habits, things they do automatically whenever they get into a car that can dramatically affect how safe they will be on the road.

Branson, who has a reputation among students of being pretty "laid back," believes that the attitude new drivers have when they get behind the wheel is as important as any technical skill they might have. "They need to understand how important their actions are and that there are always consequences for those actions. Signs need to be obeyed; traffic laws and speed limits are there for a reason. It's not about what you can get away with. Driving is about concentration and paying attention."

Branson said the habits of good driving begin when a driver opens the door and sits down in the car. He drills students to remember a checklist of items they should attend to before they even start the car, everything from adjusting the mirrors and the seat to the click of the seatbelt, not just for the driving but for anyone in the car.

The stakes are high for teen drivers. According to statistics Branson can quote off the top of his head, teenagers are four times more likely to die in a car crash. They have the highest violation rates of any age group and when driving with peers their chances of becoming a traffic fatality go up exponentially with the number of passengers in the car. The state's Graduated Driving Licensing guidelines address concerns with inexperienced drivers and limit the number of passengers a new driver can have and the hours of the day they can be on the road.

But even armed with numbers that tell a pretty scary story, Branson says it is still difficult to get through to teenagers. "They think they know it all and it will never happen to them. I don't argue with them but just try to keep them focused on how not to become one of those numbers."

Branson said speed is the major factor in most car accidents and a big issue with teenagers. "They don't always understand why I keep saying slow down. They don't want to 'granny drive.' I try to stress that if they're going too fast, they won't be able to react to what may get in their way quickly enough to avoid trouble. While we're driving I tell them to keep looking, observing what's around them."

Branson said most of the students do pretty well when riding with him. "But they're not distracted when we are out on a lesson. All we are thinking about and talking about is driving. They tell me what they are seeing and ask questions about what they should do. They really concentrate when we're together and they do pretty well as a result."

The behind the wheel training for each student includes six hours behind the wheel and six hours observing instruction of another student. The driver's education car is equipped with a brake on the floor for Branson but he says he seldom has to use it. Students are put through a series of lessons that include driving in residential areas, on the freeway and in higher traffic areas. They also practice parking, backing up, signaling and recognizing traffic signs and signals.

Branson's students get into the driver's education car with a whole range of experience and confidence but he doesn't always know who is who. "Some of them know what they are doing but are nervous. There's a lot of giggling that goes on but that doesn't necessarily mean the student doesn't know what they're doing. It's just a nervous reaction. Some kids have said they don't sleep the night before a lesson or they've worried about it for days. But I never have any expectations that first time we go out in the car. As long as they don't try to make me mad by doing something stupid, I tell them they will do fine."

But how about their parents? Many of them feel far from fine when it comes to teaching their teens to drive. Parents must provide at least an additional 30 hours of driving experience for their children including 10 hours of night driving. At the HHS parent conferences recently, Branson talked to a number of anxious parents who admit that their children might be ready to take the wheel but they aren't quite so sure.

Branson reassures parents that they will get through the experience but does offer some tips for getting through those first lessons. "Kids mirror the way their parents drive. If you have good driving habits, they have been watching that for years and will likely have those habits themselves. If not, it's a good time to change."

Branson urges parents to be tactful, remain calm and avoid judgmental comments. "Try not to get defensive. Appreciate that they are learning by doing and they have a lot to take in." Other tips for keeping the experience positive include:

  • Listening to the driver, find out what they are thinking and what they are seeing.

  • Keep the focus on the driving experience. Don't brink up other issues or family matters. Leave those topics for another time. Help the driver concentrate on their driving.

  • Encourage the student to "commentary drive." If the student doesn't seem to like having the parent telling them what to do in the car, have the student driver comment on what they see as they drive, what they plan to do next and ask questions if they need to. It's one way to relieve tension in the car.

  • Know where you are going before you leave and avoid unfamiliar places and roads. Give good clear directions and be specific.

    And Branson reminds parents that many cars have an emergency brake located between the two front seats and parents can pull it whenever they feel it is necessary. Branson said if he ever feels the need to grab the steering wheel to make a correction, he grabs the door handle with his right hand first to stabilize his movement and prevent over-correcting.

    "Everybody's nervous to start. But with practice and repetition, it gets easier and more comfortable for everybody," said Branson.

    Branson likes the idea of a contract between parents and their child about their driving once the new driver has earned a license. Contracts should spell out the family's driving rules and agreements and what the consequences are for breaking the rules. Issues in a contract can include wearing seatbelts, traffic tickets and accidents, use of a cell phone, music and food in the car, the number of passengers and the use of drugs or alcohol.

    "The contracts help parents and kids deal with these issues up front, before something happens. Kids need to know the rules and the consequences for breaking them. The consequences for violating the contract should be something the parents can live with and are committed to carrying out," said Branson.

    Parents interested in more information about teen-parent contracts and other information about helping their children become safer drivers can contact Branson for the Wisconsin Parent Packet. The packet even includes a "Driver in Training" sticker for the car window.

    Branson said most students take their driver's training seriously. They know they are required to pass the course in order to test for their license and are aware that driving a car is a privilege they earn. Branson likes teaching teenagers to drive. It is a skill he knows they will use the rest of their lives and a signal of their growing maturity. "It's among the most practical things we teach them in high school. They learn to be responsible for their safety and that of others and they learn their consequences for their actions. Those are pretty good lessons to learn when you're 16 or any age."

    For more information about Hudson High School's driver's education program contact Branson at 386-4226 or reach him online at

    Meg Heaton can be reached at

  • Meg Heaton

    Meg Heaton has been a reporter with the Hudson Star Observer since 1990. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Native American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

    (715) 808-8604