Backseat Driving Up Front
“Stop the car! I want to get out!” Yes, I’ve said this with one of my children at the wheel. Well, in my head anyway. What I have said is, “Stop the car! I’m going to drive!” but that’s just not the same, is it? Because then you have to get back in the car with the teenager who is mad at you, mad at herself, or both. Helen claims I always unlocked my door when she was driving so I could bail at any time but that is NOT true. Gripping the door handle so tightly that I sometimes wonder if it’s what caused this pain in my right hand and not arthritis, yes. Stomping the imaginary brake, yes. Never, ever taking my eyes off the road, yes. Well, except the one time in Colorado, going up the winding gravel road to the dude ranch, when I looked down at a red, itchy spot on my arm and wondered about poison ivy and there was almost a head on collision. But in all fairness to Helen, the too-old-not-to-know-better male driver in the other car also wasn’t taking precautions with that curve and therefore blind stop. By the way, more about blind spots needs be on the test, and not how many feet you should stay behind an emergency vehicle that is a minimum of 10 seconds at 30 mph and a minimum of 6 seconds at speeds of 60 mph (answer 500).
When I learned to drive we practiced first on large simulation machines in the darkened annex of Topeka High School. With screens where every possible obstacle would jump out in front of you. With the teacher saying, “Eric, you just ran over an old lady and a kid on a bicycle.” That teacher was Willie, the basketball coach, who had us take him on errands and once had us drive him to his house where he stayed inside 30 minutes while we waited in the car. I imagine he was telling his wife tales about us, or taking a short nap, or maybe having a much needed shot of whiskey. But at the time we decided he and his wife were up to no good, as in funny business, because, well, we were teenagers. I remember how I kept speeding up instead of slowing down around corners as my foot couldn’t decide which pedal was which and how he said, “Annie,” (a nickname I liked but was seldom called) “please don’t do that anymore—you’re scaring me.” And there was none of this “50 hours of recorded time with a licensed adult in the front passenger seat with at least 10 hours after dark” business. No, I would try to get my parents to go out driving with me but they always seemed suddenly very busy when I asked. They probably didn’t like the way I killed the car in the middle of intersections, the big green Plymouth with the manual transmission and heavy-duty clutch. I didn’t either and I wasn’t going to get a car anyway so was in no great hurry to practice. I caught a ride to school with my friend Kathy. Her windshield wipers didn’t work and when it rained I stuck my hand out the window and moved them manually. Were there seat belts back then? When did that begin? But this is starting to sound like one of those stories old people tell.
Rose just completed her driver’s education class and now has things to say about all this. Things like, “You drive slow, Helen drives fast, Wayne drives crazy—I have no good role models.” Although I wisely chose not to respond to this remark at the time, I will state here that I drive at the speed limit or even slightly above unless it’s rainy or snowy or dark or dusk when the deer are out or when the sun is in my eyes or when driving on unfamiliar roads or when I don’t seem to be focusing well or am drinking tea from my thermos with the leaky lid. Helen and Wayne’s driving I won’t comment on, except to say that two out of three times the young among us speak the truth.
Each time we go out driving, I am supposed to record the time (seems like an eternity), driving conditions (abundant anxiety), weather (windy of course–it is Kansas), and skills practiced. Skills practiced?? I thought that should be obvious. Driving so as not to have an accident and thereby raising the parent’s already high auto insurance. But I wrote down “staying on the right side of the road”, even in downtown Riley where there are no yellow lines and hardly any other cars, come to think of it. How do people learn to drive in big cities? This question has puzzled me for years.
We really should list the skills to be practiced by the parent in the car. Things like trying to remember what it’s like to be fifteen. Things like keeping in mind that this is a huge step toward adulthood and it’s our job to help. That, however hard it seems, we need to calmly and patiently talk through the stop signs, the lane changes and merging traffic, the parking (oh, God, the parking), and yes, staying in the right lane, even when it seems like the most obvious thing in the world to someone who’s driven, what, 50 years, and knows how to manually work the windshield wipers.
It’s all a far cry from easy, no matter which side of the car you’re on. But it’s something that has to be gotten through, a kind of rite of passage. In the end there’s a license with a photo that admittedly (no matter what you tell her) should have been retaken. And there’s a young person ready to be more independent. We need to be happy about this, even though a part of us still wants to be in the driver’s seat, where we think we have some control over things. Where we think we can keep everyone safe. When really, all we can do is smile and hang on for dear life. And keep the doors locked. Jumping out just isn’t an option.