Behind the Wheel

I enjoy driving.  That doesn’t mean that I’m a car guy in the slightest.  I mean I understand the basics of how they work, but I have no real expertise and certainly don’t baby my own vehicles with hand-washing, waxes, detailing (I’m not even sure what detailing mean), and so on.  As long as I have a reliable vehicle that handles well, I’m fine.

No, I enjoy the act of driving itself (As a side note, sitting in traffic for my commutes to work and back home does not count as driving, as far as I’m concerned).  I like being on the road and going.  Driving trips have never been an issue for me.  As I mentioned in a post ages ago, there’s a sign on Interstate 70 as you’re heading west out of Baltimore, Maryland that gives the mileage to Denver, Colorado.  Every time I see that sign, I have the urge to just go and drive there.

Back in July, I flew out to Minnesota with my girlfriend, rented a car, and we spent the next several days driving around that area of the country.  We covered 1600 miles and saw parts of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and Iowa.  It was a lot of time in the car, but the roads were great, traffic was generally light, and the scenery was fantastic.  Other than a traffic snarl in Deadwood, SD due to construction, I had a wonderful time driving the hundreds of miles that we covered.

I’m not driving quite as much now, and it terrifies me.  Not because I miss being behind the wheel.  No, it’s because of who is doing the driving instead: my almost-16-year-old son.

My son got his learner’s permit just over a week ago, and he has been very eager to make use of it.  This eagerness isn’t absolute among his classmates.  Several news articles over the last few years have noted that many young people just aren’t bothering to get their driver’s licenses.  THIS ONE from The Washington Post quotes a AAA study that found that only 44% of driving age teens are actually getting their licenses within a year of being old enough.  And by age 18, the number only goes up to just over half of teens.  In the mid-90s, that figure was closer to 66%.

So my son is bucking the trend.  The boy I’ve watched wreak varying levels of vehicular havoc in video games throughout his childhood now wants to drive a real car…on real roads…with real other people.  I can’t get him to remember to close the cabinet when he grabs a glass out of the kitchen, and I’m supposed to put him in command of a two-ton automobile hurling down the road? 

I started him in the parking lot of his high school.  It’s large, empty, and the perfect place to let him get familiar with the feel of the car.  Actually, the local driving school, which he is also attending, uses it quite often.  Much to my surprise, he was very serious and, above all, cautious, as he maneuvered my old Camry around the lot. 

Once I got him out on the real roads, the cautiousness continued.  He crept up to stops signs and then stopped well back of the white line, so far back that he couldn’t see what was coming on the cross street. So he crept up some more.  I couldn’t fault the care he was taking, but, sitting in the passenger seat next to him, I was on still on edge.  I’m normally don’t have a problem when other people drive.  But with him, I couldn’t help but worry.

He was just so new at it, and it was up to me to make sure that he didn’t make a mistake that got us both killed.

I suddenly had a great deal more respect for driver’s education instructors.  Every day they get into a car with a kid who is just learning to drive.  Each and every time they are entrusting their lives to a complete novice that they don’t really know.  I know my son.  He’s a good kid, and I’m still petrified.  Driver’s ed instructors must have nerves of steel.  I wonder if they get hazard pay.

My son, meanwhile, has now logged a week behind the wheel.  We’ve gone from parking lots to neighborhoods to back roads to the middle of our small town to the expressway and even a little bit of the much busier suburbs to our south. 

There have been a couple of scares along the way… 

“I don’t care how slow you were creeping along, you didn’t actually stop at that stop sign.”

“You can’t change gears while the car is still moving.  You’ll destroy the transmission.  Do you want to pay to replace the engine?  Stop completely before you go from reverse to drive!”

“The turn signal does not magically clear the cars from the lane beside you!  You have to LOOK before you change lanes!” 

We’re still alive.  That’s the main thing.  I have to wonder, though, were my parents this scared when it was time for me to be behind the wheel?

- Alan Decker

@CmdrAJD on Twitter