Backseat Driver: How I Taught my Toddler to Keep Us Safe Behind the Wheel

I’ll never forget the scene that was unfolding before me. I had been slowly making my way toward the stoplight at 135th and Murlen in Olathe. Traffic had been backed up for a while, the reason becoming more apparent as my car inched forward: a multiple vehicle accident. As I reached the intersection, I took it all in. The flashing lights of emergency vehicles reflecting off of nearby surfaces. A group of former passengers, huddled on the corner together. A uniformed police officer, kneeling on the floorboard of the empty minivan next to me, leaning into the open door. The officer straightened, emerging from the white vehicle with two carseats, one in each hand. Now legally unusable, he walked to his car and loaded them in.

My breath caught.

I didn’t know this family. I didn’t know the circumstances or severity of the accident. I didn’t even know if those two children were present in those carseats at the time of the accident. But it didn’t matter. Tears were streaming down my face. I cried the whole way home, thinking of children hurt in car accidents. Thinking of children’s lives who are forever changed by crashes. Of parent’s lives who are forever changed by guilt, emptiness, anger, and loss. Thinking of my own precious preschooler, who rides in a carseat just like the two that were pulled from that van.

Fear gripped me as all manner of horrifying possibilities flashed through my head. I don’t have the best driving record. I tend to follow too closely behind. I’m sometimes distracted, thinking about what comes next on the day’s agenda or what needs to be done when I reach my destination. And with the speech-to-text feature on my phone, I will shamefully admit that I have spoken and sent texts while driving.

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I’ve tried a few things to improve my habits, including estimating car lengths between myself and the car in front of me. I’ve tried taking a moment to get my thoughts in order before putting the car in gear to drive. I even downloaded a GPS-based app that disables your phone while driving.

But habits are hard to break.

So, I thought of the most important thing in the world to me: My son. His safety, his smile, his life – this would be my motivation to truly become a safer, more responsible driver. And could there be anything more effective than involving him in the changes?

I started the next time I had him in the car with me. Before we pulled out of the driveway, I turned and told him how important it is to drive safely, because cars are strong and powerful and fast. I told him that the best way to be safe in a car is if the driver follows two rules:

  1. Two hands on the wheel.
  2. Eyes on the road.

I made him repeat the rules. He grinned, loving that he was learning something so grown up. And then, I did the best thing I could do to help myself develop better driving habits: I told my three year old that now, he can help make sure that every grown up who drives him anywhere follows those rules. Even Grandma. Even Daddy. Even Mommy. His grin and eyes grew wider together.

Then, we practiced. Right there in the driveway. I picked up my phone and reminded him to tell me, “Two hands on the wheel, eyes on the road!” He yelled it with glee. Then, off we went.

Teaching my son these simple driving rules has worked amazingly well. First of all, it turns out preschoolers have pretty good memories. Also, they love, love the chance to boss their parents around. He does a great job calling out the rules as needed. And sometimes, when my text alert dings from the passenger seat, and I’m tempted to reach over, I hear his little voice in my head and I stop myself. After all, I don’t want him to see me breaking the rules he now knows about, right?

Have there been times that I needed to safely have just one hand on the wheel for a minute? Yes. But I don’t regret for a second hearing that sweet voice call out from the backseat, “Two hands on the wheel, Mommy!” On the flip side, there have been times that he wanted to show me something from the backseat, and I reminded him, “To be safe, I have to keep my eyes on the road.”

These quick conversations and reminders are more effective than any app. They remind me that my child trusts me with his whole heart to make good decisions, to keep him safe. His life is in my hands. The lives of other people’s children are in my hands.

And although I am still far from the world’s best driver, I can tell you that my habits have improved behind the wheel. All thanks to the world’s most adorable (and reliable) backseat driver.

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One Response to Backseat Driver: How I Taught my Toddler to Keep Us Safe Behind the Wheel

  1. Debbie Dawkins November 14, 2016 at 9:36 am #

    What a great idea, Amber!! I can assure you it works too, since this very same adorable toddler said the same thing to me, his Grandma, as I tried to wrap up a conversation as we pulled out of my driveway and up my strreet! So, of course, I quickly got off the phone!