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When my son turned 8 years old, one reassuring thought popped in my head: he’s still only halfway to driving.

That fear has lurked in the recesses of my brain since the day he as born, when I couldn’t imagine this tiny baby someday commandeering a metal killing machine.

We have arrived at that day. He is now 15, and about to get his permit.

In truth, it’s not as bad as I envisioned. He’s a pretty careful kid.

It’s slightly possible that I am drawing on my own checkered past.

To wit: Six months after I got my license, I had a car accident with three of my friends. Turned left in front of a Blog Photocar when the light turned green. No one was hurt, but the other driver was more than a little upset because his baby was in the car. I had to go to court, the whole works.

Even more humiliating was having to call my brother, because my parents were out that night. He was having a party, and when I told him what happened he put down the phone and shouted gleefully to my sister: “Hey, Julie had a wreck!”

My parents eventually showed up and, ever calm, said they were just glad everyone was safe. I do remember my dad shaking his head as he studied the mangled front end.

Other incidents followed. We won’t bother with the details, but one day I rushed home after school, excited to tell my mom about an award I won, and said, “Mom, guess what?” She turned and said, “You didn’t have another wreck.”

I have tried to be a much better driver as a mom, though I am known to hurry when we’re late. Judging by the number of times my son says, “Look out!” I might actually be a reverse role-model.

As we discussed taking him out for some preliminary driving lessons my husband said, “I think I should do it.” This from the man who admitted he and his friends liked to play bumper cars in high school. With real cars. Neither of us may have the perfect résumé for this job.

Not like the unflappable Justin Barnhart, head of physical education, health and driver’s education at Centennial High School, who has taught driver’s ed for 10 years.

Watch our video interview of Barnhart here

Lots of parents who have lost their cool while teaching their own kids to drive often tell him, “I get so nervous. You seem so calm.” He reminds them: “I have a foot brake.”

He also has a “quick left hand” if he needs to grab the wheel, which he reminds nervous students on the first day.

“If you’d asked me 25 years ago if I’d be a behind-the-wheel instructor I don’t think I would have necessarily predicted it,” he said. “It’s something I enjoy doing, something I’m able to give back to the kids.”

He’s been around the block a few times. So to speak. He knows what students are going to do when they get nervous or panic, or “things don’t happen like they expect.”

Common problems:

1. Oversteering. Kids often don’t understand the basic principle that the faster you go, the less you have to turn the wheel. And once they do, they have a tendency to overcorrect.

2. Getting the feel of the pedals. Every car’s brake and gas pedals are different. Some you barely touch. Some you have to punch. Those experiments may involve lurching.

3. Speed. But not always what you’d think. Speedsters are common, but getting up to speed is the biggest Blog Photoproblem for students like Hayrene Ebes, 16, who before last week’s lesson had only worked her way up to 10 mph. Her driving mate, Cecil Ausley, 16, was wearing a “Strike fear or you get struck” T-shirt.

“You really get the entire spectrum,” Barnhart says. “Some I have to remind them, ‘Hey, what’s the speed limit through here?’ For others, cars are passing us when we’re going down the road.”

How many times does he use that foot brake? For some trainees, “a lot.” For others, not once — though his foot may hover over it once in awhile. It links to the driver’s brake so the student gets immediate feedback.

Barnhart has taught hundreds of students with no serious accidents, and of the rest most involve someone (tailgate? me?) bumping into them. It’s a good teaching experience for the kids, he says.

Barnhart and about a dozen other instructors teach driver’s ed two to four mornings a week before school Blog Photoduring the year and most weekdays in the summer. They take two students at a time for an hour and a half, and each student drives 45 minutes.

Some come in with lots of experience, having completed the required 50 hours of supervised driving with an adult, so they’re a little more comfortable. Others are first-timers with brand-new permits.

Some are from overseas and may have had no exposure to cars or traffic rules growing up. That forces Barnhart to re-think the lessons a bit — such as mimicking the proper steering movements on a pretend steering wheel so they can see his hands turning.

“There is no frame of reference for them,” he says.

Students always start out in the parking lot at Centennial, getting used to stopping, starting, turning and signaling. Sometimes that takes a few lessons, but for the vast majority it’s about five to 10 minutes, he says. Then they progress to residential areas around the school, then busier in-town driving where they get used to turns, lane changes and pedestrians. They go on country roads, two-lane highways and even interstates.

Kids do fail the course. But it’s usually not a surprise, he says. It’s fairly obvious within the first few sessions that a student is in trouble. The instructor will talk to the parents and emphasize how critical outside practice will be. Nine times out of 10, that’s all the student needs, he says.

Barnhart reminds students they don’t have to be perfect when they start out: “Our job is to help you learn.”

But he also doesn’t want them to be too relaxed. Studies using cameras in the cars of new drivers show that Blog Photomany students do exactly what they’re supposed to do once they’re driving without supervision. But some don’t.

Part of the training, with guest speakers and sometimes graphic videos, is to drive home the statistics about teen accidents and the dangers of distracted driving, whether it’s rowdy friends, phones or texting.

That’s the biggest worry in our hearts as parents, of course. Mixed with bittersweet pride as we watch them drive off for the first time, no longer reliant on us to find their way in the world.

Barnhart, who went to his 20-year high school reunion recently, was amazed how many of his former classmates remembered vivid details of who they drove with and things that happened while they were taking driver’s ed.

“There’s something about that experience that you don’t forget,” he says. “It’s kind of a rite of passage in our culture.”

A few things for parents to remember while teaching their kids to drive, courtesy of instructor Justin Barnhart:

1. Be as patient as you can be: Your child is probably more nervous than you are.
2. Give them room: If you don’t feel comfortable going out on city streets, take them to a big open space where they can do less damage, like an empty parking lot. Once students show they can be trusted with that, it helps parents relax, Barnhart says.
3. Find quiet time: Once you’re ready for real traffic, consider going out when the roads aren’t as busy, like a Sunday afternoon.
4. Mix it up: If possible, use different vehicles. Driver’s education cars are mid-size, but some students have SUVs at home. It’s good to get the feel of different cars, especially how long it takes to stop.
5. Practice is critical: Do it as much as possible. Barnhart can tell when parents have been too busy to take their kids out to drive. Even if it’s only 10 minutes, take advantage of the opportunity.
“Every time they go out they may experience something they may not have seen before, and they will be a better driver in the future,” he says.
6. See the big picture: Yes, you’re trying to help them get ready for the driving test, but you’re also preparing them for myriad situations that will come up for the rest of their lives as a driver. Give them a good start with strong fundamentals and good habits, Barnhart says.


Julie Wurth blogs about families and kids and covers the University of Illinois for the News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 217-351-5226, or


Driver education instructor Jay Huffman puts his seat belt on as Danielle Lewis takes the wheel while driver's education classmate, Sophia Bauer-Macaraeg, sits in back at Centennial High School in Champaign on June 16, 2015..

Driver education students, Cecil Ausley, left, and Hayrene Ebes wait their turn to join their instructor, Justin Barnhart, for class at Centennial.

Barnhart hands the key to Ausley as they prepare to get the day’s lesson started last week outside the high school.

Barnhart peeks out through the windshield as he is reflected in a mirror during class.

Heather Coit/The News-Gazette

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