I got a very good piece of advice from a friend whose oldest child is a few years older than mine: do not, under any circumstances, buy a new car within two years of your child’s taking Driver’s Ed. My friend did, and her Toyota Highlander hybrid now bears a series of minor scars inflicted by the daughter she came to call, jokingly, “Crashy.”
So far, my daughter has only nicked a fence post in our driveway. But I am prepared for worse. I have come to realize that this 16-year-old, who is more mature and responsible than many adults I know, and to whom I would entrust my life in countless other situations, does not know what she’s doing behind the wheel of a car. She has completed the required driver’s ed classes–conducted, she said, by an instructor who spoke agonizingly slowly because Massachusetts law mandates only hours of class time, not mastery of content–and has been out with a driving teacher 8 or 9 times. But whenever I let her drive with me, she says confidence-inspiring things like, “Whoa, this is scary!” and “Oh no, traffic!”
I appreciate her honesty; it is indeed strange and frightening to sit in the passenger seat while the child who once had trouble mastering a tricycle commands what my friend Tim called (when his daughter was learning to drive), “a speeding death machine.” Driving is not intuitive to someone who hasn’t been doing it for 30 years. My daughter, for instance, still has trouble figuring out which way to turn the steering wheel when she backs out of a space. And the other day, she started to follow the car in front of her directly through a four-way stop sign. In her defense, I was playing iPhone Scrabble at the time–a diversion I quickly abandoned right before I yelled “STOP! DON’T YOU KNOW YOU HAVE TO OBEY THE SIGN, TOO?” Apparently, she didn’t. I calmed down and explained how to navigate a four-way intersection (didn’t they cover that in Driver’s Ed?). When we got home, I found a triple-letter spot for my Q.
A few weeks ago I let her drive home from Cambridge, which required a difficult merge in heavy traffic onto a highway under construction. (Thankfully, I’d had a cocktail.) She stopped at the stop sign on top of the ramp and waited, instead of inching forward and forcing her way into the traffic stream, as an experienced driver might have. The cars behind us started honking and swerving, irritated, around her. I wanted to kill them. And this is how driving with my daughter has made me a better person: now, whenever I see a car traveling erratically or too slowly or too close to the curb, I no longer think, “Asshole!” Instead, I imagine generously, “It must be a teenager learning to drive.”