Two days after my son turned fifteen-and-a-half, he had his driver’s permit in his hand. As a parent, my reactions veered across a wide spectrum of emotions. On one hand, having another driver in the house will undoubtedly be a relief in the ongoing scheduling game that we play. Like many families, we maintain a complicated matrix based on who has after-school practice for one of their myriad activities and how many times both kids have to be in very different places at the exact same time. On the other hand, however, is the frightening realization that our baby has so quickly become another adult in so many ways. It’s a sea-change to acknowledge the teenager who can’t even remember to take out the garbage is about to take on the enormous responsibility of driving.
While my emotions were still running this back-and-forth game, an even more eye-opening reality hit. This one came not as my son exited the DMV waving his permit, but after being out on the road with him a few times. That’s when my son became not just a passenger who was focused on talking, changing my radio station, or his texting; he suddenly became a fully engaged and observant student of driving who was uncovering my weak spots.
Having a full-time critic is tough, in part because a number of the rules of driving have changed, and in part, because I have now been driving long enough that I take many things for granted.
Now, I’m a good driver, if you agree to define good as having no major accidents and having been issued a couple of tickets (speeding, I’ll admit). I have driven across the country from both east to west and north to south. I have also driven cars on closed-road courses and once, drove an open-wheel race car on a race track. Driving, however, is one of those disciplines that once you learn it, you don’t usually take refresher courses or get the latest information on technique. Having a student driver in the car has given me the benefit of ongoing driver’s ed.
So, what has a 15-year-old novice driver taught me?
He taught me that there have been changes in rules and protocols that have passed me by.
For instance, I still use my old-school method of hands at ten and two on the wheel. I learned to drive in the pre-airbag days, as did many of us, I’m sure. With airbags that are deployed from the center of the steering wheel, however, the best hands-on position is now at eight and four, with arms on the underside of a potential airbag deployment. While that might not sound like a huge change, try driving that way and see how long it takes you to overcome the discomfort and instinctual reactions.
He taught me that I drive too fast.
Not get-arrested or even get-a-ticket fast, but I sometimes push the limit when I’m in a hurry. And let’s face it: I’m almost always in a hurry. My son asked to drive one day, and my gut reaction was that we didn’t have time for him to drive. But why would it take longer for him to cover the exact same path? Because he is consciously managing his speed to the exact limit and I’m usually, as they say, pushing it.
He taught me about concentration.
As my son and his driver’s ed classmates are going through their training, there is an appropriate and absolutely necessary focus on the need for concentration. We have already discussed with our son the rule that his phone needs to be out of reach while he is driving. We all need to think beyond the don’t-text-and-drive rule, however, because distraction also comes in the form of music, or conversations, or little brothers, or dogs making noise in the back seat.
Having an in-car critic is a good reminder that I sometimes let my years of experience make me believe that I can dig through my purse or look at directions while I’m behind the wheel. And as I have been pointing out to my son, the question isn’t just, Can you drive and do whatever else you are doing? The question is whether you can do both those things and pay attention to all the other drivers in cars around you.
And he taught me – or at least reminded me – that part of being a teenager is being able to block out recognition of the bad things that can happen.
I have heard his cohorts voice incredulity that all their parents care about is an accident. “It’s just a car,” they say. What the kids don’t yet realize, however, is that it’s not just the sheet metal that is important to parents. It’s the people inside the sheet metal. Although cars seem big and protective when you are inside them, when 5,000 or so pounds hit something, bad things can happen.
My own father, a man not at all known for dramatics or hyperbole, told me when I was learning to drive that a car could be “a machine of death.” All these years later, I still remember that conversation, so he obviously impressed on my teenage mind the awesome responsibility I had to everyone around me while I was driving.
While I have been able to learn a lot from my son and to use his learning experience to improve my own driving, in the end it is my responsibility as a parent to remind him that learning to drive is not only about him. Driving, like so much of life, gives you a chance to impact people around you, and that can be either positive or negative. Driving, like so many milestones of a young person’s life, is an assumption of serious responsibility. Personal freedom comes along with personal responsibility. That just might be the most important lesson of all.
Visit Project Yellow Light to learn how you can prevent distracted driving. Teens can create a short film and enter a scholarship contest in honor of Hunter Garner, a young Richmonder who died too soon in a 2007 car crash.