I’m doing my part to make our roadways safer by first making them a little more dangerous. I’m teaching a teenager to drive.
Actually I’ve slowly been working on this for about a year, but now my son has the learner’s permit in hand and driver’s education looming next month, so the process is speeding up. So is my heart rate.
Not to say my boy isn’t doing well — he is — but I’m reminded just how unnatural driving is when you first learn. There are pedals to push, a wheel to turn, indicators to flip and, most importantly, songs to be played on the stereo. After years of driving, we all fiddle with the radio as if it’s a mindless bodily function, but for a novice, changing stations can also mean changing lanes or hitting one of Mobile’s nearly invisible “speed tables” like Bo and Luke Duke attempting to ramp the General Lee through the open hay loft of a barn (for some reason).
I’m not going to lie to you fellow drivers, you’ve been closer to being sideswiped or rear-ended by my car than you usually might have. Although to listen to some members of my family talking about my own driving, there is some debate as to whether Mobilians may not actually be safer with a 15-year-old weaving nervously than a 50-year-old with a lead foot. I stand by my safety record, though, despite their snide remarks.
When children are young we are always worried about them bumping their heads, falling into the toilet or having some other horrible accident, but there’s really nothing comparable to putting a child who still misplaces his belt every day behind the controls of a 2,000-pound hunk of internal combustion-propelled steel to make you worry. We’re way past helmets and kneepads here.
This is literally ushering them into statistically the most dangerous period of their lives — that of being a teen driver. Where are those driverless cars everyone keeps talking about?
Again, it’s not that my son isn’t doing well. So far he’s seemed cautious and very concerned about doing a good job and not hitting anything, but there’s still something in almost every trip that causes my butt cheeks to grab the fine Corinthian leather of the passenger seat. My car also has this weird button for the emergency brake, so I don’t even have the comfort of grabbing a handle I can rip straight up if I think we’re about to run over the neighbor’s cat. I’m dubious this little button is going to provide true stopping power.
But I can also see the moments where he starts to get too confident — the 2-o’clock hand slips off the wheel and heads over to the radio dial, the speedometer creeps up over the speed limit to the point where we’re only going 15 mph slower than everyone else on Dauphin Street. It’s at this point I imagine what things will be like when I’m not there clawing the dashboard and issuing constant warnings. It’s then that I remember what I was like as a young driver.
In the ‘80s in South Mississippi, most cars were actually propelled by sound waves generated by “cranking” up Van Halen’s “1984” album, or another of the approved metal/hair metal bands popular on MTV at the time. It had to be loud and it had to be metal. You sure weren’t going to get much mileage out of Huey Lewis and the News.
So essentially we were all driving with one of the five senses disabled. A train propelled by a 10 jet engines driven by a braying donkey could be bearing down upon most of us and it would never have made a dent in Randy Rhodes’ screaming guitar solo from “Crazy Train.” Having a ridiculously loud car stereo was my generation’s version of today’s teens focus on having abs. A loud stereo made up for deficiencies in other areas, such as hearing loss.
Of course there’s also the desire to drive faster than you should. (That urge may not necessarily go away for some of us.) So if you combined 100 decibels of Sammy Hagar screaming that he “Can’t Drive 55” and two months of driving experience, sometimes the results were pretty shaky. Throw three idiot friends into the back seat and you’re really playing with fire.
Kids today may not have to deal with Van Halen- or Ozzy-induced sensory overload as much, since the auto-tuned mumblings of Drake don’t really need that kind of auditory punch to be enjoyed properly, but everything else is worse. The dreaded cellphone is there seducing drivers to look at it every two seconds. Then there are also those stupid in-dash displays so we can watch the “What’s Behind Me” show and spend time trying to navigate various computer settings to make the car do what used to be handled by a plastic knob. The only thing that might make those displays more distracting is if they showed music videos or football games.
The vehicles I learned to drive were totally boring. An orange VW camper and a tan Chevy Suburban so stripped down and basic that window cranks were part of the “luxury package.” There was nothing remotely interesting in these vehicles to distract a young driver other than just not wanting to be seen driving them.
Distractions aside, there are so many nuances of driving you don’t necessarily realize you have acquired over the years until you start teaching someone else. How many times do you look both ways when pulling out? How far should you stay behind another car on the interstate? When is the right time to flip someone “the bird” or honk while mouthing profanities?
You also realize how many of your bad driving habits the kids have picked up on.
“You have to come to a complete stop at a stop sign!”
“You never do!”
“I have a special letter from the president that allows me to slow-roll stop signs and run yellow lights, you don’t. Come to a complete stop.”
I kind of think teaching teens to drive in 2018 is probably a lot like teaching a kid to ride a horse in the early 1900s. How long are they going to need these skills? Surely the robot cars are coming and pretty soon we’ll all be able to just take a nap or drink five scotch and sodas on the way home.
In a way it will be sad when the day comes where we don’t drive ourselves. It’s a definite rite of passage the first time that new driver gets out there alone, entrusted with the family car for a run to the store. Still, I wouldn’t at all mind it if robot cars take over before I have to start teaching my daughter next year.