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Teachable Moments with Your Teen Driver: Intersections

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

Despite being literally everywhere, intersections are one of the most unpredictable spots on the road. Any time vehicles and pedestrians have to move through the same space in different directions, there’s potential for a problem. But because every driver goes through several intersections a day, it’s easy to take it for granted that everything will go smoothly.

My family got a harsh reminder of this recently when my brother-in-law was in a car crash. As he was driving through an intersection (where he had the right of way), a car coming the other way didn’t stop and hit him on the passenger side. Thankfully, though his injuries were severe, they will heal and he’ll be okay. His car on the other hand - didn’t make out so well.

Picture of car after crash

I don’t share these pictures just to scare people, but it is a good reminder of the very real risks out on the road.

A study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proves that it does not always go smoothly. In fact, about 40% of all traffic accidents occur in an intersection. Since there are a variety of ways for things to go wrong, we have the potential for a lot of teachable moments. Don’t try to teach your teen driver everything at once. Instead, use intersections as a regular topic to explore throughout your months of practice.

Other Drivers are Unpredictable

It doesn’t matter how carefully you’re driving. You will never be able to predict what another driver is thinking or doing. This is why defensive driving is so important. Your awareness of the potential for things to go wrong will help you avoid accidents, or at least minimize their impact. Teach your teen driver this same level of awareness with teachable moments about other drivers:

  • When proceeding through an intersection on a green light, ask your teen what they would have done if a crossing car hadn’t come to a stop. Find out if your teen was watching the crossing cars slow down and come to a stop by asking what color the first car in line was.

  • When approaching an intersection, talk to your teen about how to handle the light turning yellow at varying speeds and what the safest option is. What if the light turns yellow, and an oncoming car is in the middle of the intersection waiting to turn left? What if your teen is the driver who needs to make the left turn? Is it safe to wait in the middle of the intersection, potentially making the turn on a red light?

  • You have the right of way at a stop sign, but the other driver goes instead. What’s the right way to react in this situation? What if you are moving, and a driver at a cross street mistakenly thinks it’s a 4-way stop?

  • When slowing down at a red light, remind your teen to carefully check the rearview mirror to verify that the driver behind is also going to stop in time.

Road intersection

Unfortunately, drivers make mistakes. You’ve made them, and your teen driver is bound to make them. Sometimes it’s carelessness or distraction, and sometimes it’s simply misjudging a situation. Driving will always be a risk, but preparing your teen for the most common risks will help them practice safe driving skills as a habit and reduce their risks.

Cars, Equipment, and Conditions May be Unpredictable

Setting aside human nature for a moment, it’s important to consider all the things that can go haywire with cars, traffic equipment, and driving conditions. Many of your teachable moments regarding intersections will be about factors completely beyond human control.

  • Vehicle problems can happen anywhere, but have you ever noticed how often it seems cars break down at red lights? Talk to your teen driver about what to do if their car just stops at an intersection and how to safely manage the situation. Also, make sure they understand how to navigate around a car that is stuck in an intersection. The addition of cross-traffic makes this a trickier issue, so your teen needs to be able to consider all of the risks.

  • Malfunctioning traffic lights create mayhem in a hurry. Some drivers take advantage of the situation, some are paralyzed by fear of causing an accident, and others simply want to proceed cautiously and wish everyone would do the same. Talk over these scenarios with your teen to make sure they aren’t the aggressors or the bottleneck when these things happen. Go over the safest ways to handle intersections that have become a free for all.

  • Weather conditions can turn minor vehicle problems into major problems. You may not be able to stop at a red light in snow or heavy rain. You may not be able to get moving again, either. Note where your teen begins applying the brakes as you approach a stop sign, and ask if that would have brought them to a stop on a wet or snowy road. Talk about vehicle maintenance as it relates to being prepared for unpredictable weather.

There are some things that are just beyond our control. How you react, and how you teach your teen to react to those factors will make a big difference in building their safe driving skills.

Don’t Be Unpredictable!

We talked about everything your teen driver can’t control, but let’s talk about the one thing they can: themselves. Your teen needs to know that responsible and defensive driving is crucial to maintaining safety in intersections.

  • When your teen has a green light arrow, remind them that they need to still watch for other cars. Sometimes drivers try to make a right on red when the facing cars have a left turn arrow, or cross-traffic may misinterpret the arrow to be a green light.

  • Don’t coast through empty 4-way stop signs. Not only is this illegal, but it’s a terrible habit that will foster impatience when there is traffic. Impatience always leads to unsafe driving. The same goes for turning right at a red light. Always come to a complete stop and check all directions of traffic before making a right at a red light. If you can’t see clearly, don’t go.

  • Coach your teen driver to be patient and be conscious of doing the safe thing, not the expedient thing. It’s easy to get flustered by other drivers who get aggressive, but you don’t want them to fall into the trap of making hasty decisions to avoid momentary discomfort. Brainstorm with your teen about ways of staying calm and alert despite what other drivers are doing.

Remember that the more you practice these teachable moments, the better they will internalize the information and build safe driving habits.

You need to practice safe driving skills if you want your teen to learn them, so take stock in your driving habits and be accountable to where you need to improve.

Your teen will respect you if you are honest about creating safer habits and follow through. This will help you build a better learning environment and relationship that helps your teen driver get behind the wheel with the best mindset.

For more resources about how to teach your teen safe driving skills, take a look at our additional materials:

Learn more about The Parent's Survival Guide for New Teen Drivers


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