Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Your Young Driver, A Guide

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Just yesterday, the Smithie took her driver's road test. Alas, she did not pass because of a laundry list of errors that all boil down to "She was nervous."

"Second time's the charm," I said. And how do I know? Because she's the second Young Adult I've ushered through the process. I say Young Adult because the Boy didn't get his license until the summer after his freshman year at college. And the Smithie? Why, didn't she graduate? you're asking yourself. And didn't Julia mention something about grad school? Reader, I did. The Smithie made it through college and her master's(1) without obtaining her license. But it will soon be at hand! Now I, your expert in all things teen, collegiate and YA, will guide you, hapless middle-aged parent, through this process.

In fact, the steps to teaching your offspring to drive are the same as the famous K├╝bler-Ross stages of grief. Only backwards.

ACCEPTANCE.       Accept the fact that despite paying somewhere between five and eight hundred dollars for driving school, you're the person who will actually teach your kid how to drive.  If you're not yet in the teenage range, you may be thinking What the hell? I took driver's Ed in school! It was free! Ahahahahahahahaha. No. "Driver's Ed" was jettisoned, along with Home Ec (2)  and mimeograph machines, in the 90s.

I don't know what we got for our $500 (x2!), but my kids came out having memorized the rules of the road but unable to execute most of them. (3) If anyone's going to teach your kid to brake when he sees red lights, or stay between the lines, or oh my God, stop, don't do that, don't ever do that! it's you.

DEPRESSION    No Benadryl, Ativan or booze. This is for you, not your young driver.

BARGAINING    This can take two forms. When the Smithie was first learning to drive, at 16, she was terrified of other cars. (4) We had to coax her into the vehicle, like a shy dog who suspects he's going to the vet's. Since she had to have 36 hours of driving under her belt to apply for a road test (5), the fact she didn't want to drive more than ten minutes at a time was a problem.

When she decided, at 23, that she needed to be a Real Grownup and get her license, things had changed. She wanted to drive everywhere. All the time. No matter the conditions. Which, since she started in late October, has included rain, heavy rain, torrential rain, snow, fog and snow fog. No thundersnow yet, thank God. If bargaining with your youth falls through, I suggest bargaining with God. Just get us through this rotary, Lord, and I'll never swear again. Which brings us to...

ANGER    Hopefully, you'll keep your cool (6) but I can guarantee your young person won't. Take the gun out of the glovebox (7) because you're going to see road rage like you've never seen before. Your student will rant at drivers who don't use turn signals, the difficulty of green arrows, the stupidity of rotaries and the ridiculous confusion of four-way stops. Then there's the raging at you.

"Honey, you're accelerating at 45 miles and hour toward a red light."

"MOM! My FOOT is ON the BRAKE! You don't have to tell me EVERYTHING!"

Except when you don't say something that seems like a no-brainer, like, "Honey, you're missing your exit." (8) you'll get, "Oh my GOD, Mom, why didn't you TELL me?!? Jesus Christ!" (9)

DENIAL   This is the stage you reach when the date for the road test arrives. Despite the fact that your young driver can't back into a parking space, still tries to turn left on green against oncoming traffic (10), veers into the breakdown lane when a truck passes by and seems constitutionally unable to obey the speed limit, you close your eyes and keep mumbling, "Of course he'll pass. Of course he'll pass." The road test examiner, who has not had time to become sick of being driven around by your hormonal teen, does not agree with you.

Oh, well. Back to stage one. "Sure, honey, let's go practice backing up. I'll stand in the parking lot in 18 degree weather and guide you into a spot for forty minutes." Remember, if you keep it long enough for them to get licensed, someday soon they can drive you to the old folks home.

(1) In a year and a half! She's such a hard worker. Are you hiring a children's librarian? Tweet me.

(2) They still teach cooking and balancing a budget, bit it's now called "Life Skills" or "Consumer Science." And I don't think you have to sew an apron to pass anymore, like in my high school. I cheated and had my mother sew mine. Do I really deserve to call myself a graduate?

(3) Admittedly, this may be because we live in a very rural area. It's hard to practice complicated lane changes in a place with only two stoplights.

(4) She said she could drive perfectly as long as no one else was on the road. I suggested this limited her future job prospects to night shifts in remote areas of Alaska.

(5) It's now 70 hours. Which means when Youngest starts the process this summer, I'll be ready for Social Security by the time she finishes.

(6) Especially if you ignore my advice about the Ativan.

(7) You might be tempted to use it.

(8) Exit had three large green signs warning it was coming up and was brightly lit with cars turning off it.

(9) Be prepared to hear your child swear. A lot. See ACCEPTANCE, above.

(10) How is that even a question? The cars are coming straight at you.


  1. Oh, my goodness, I am laughing so much I can hardly read!
    Is that really what it's like? I had absolutely no idea about any of this because, since I absolutely despise driving, I gladly left the whole business of teaching the girls how to properly maneuver the car to their father so that I could happily miss all that fun . . . .

  2. **Practiced 3 point terns at 2AM prior to license test at 8AM!! Thought once they were past the 2AM feedings, I could sleep ...Not when testing day is upon us. Did this for all 5 kids, Dad did the road driving part. I'm just now comfortable being driven by my kids. They are in their 30's, but as a passenger I still put my imaginary break on at times :/

  3. Julia, OMG, so funny!! Poor you. Poor Smithie. I have a friend here in the UK who is in her thirties and still doesn't have a license (not at all uncommon here). She has taken instruction (private teacher) passed her "theory" easily, but she gets so nervous she can't pass the road test.

    I don't remember it being difficult teaching my daughter to drive, except that at the time I had car with a 5-speed manual transmission, and I just could not seem to impart the technique for smooth shifting. My brother came to visit, took her out for a couple of hours, and after that she was perfect. Magic. I'd still love to know how he did that.

    Maybe Victoria needs a couple of hours with an unbiased (I mean that in the nicest possible way!) coach...

  4. Scaring the pets, laughing hysterically, Julia! For some reason I ended up teaching both boys how to drive. God help me, this is a true story--I was so nervous back in driver's ed, that my teacher made me drive in the cemetery. First of all, I couldn't kill anyone there, naturally, but also the cemetery had lots of hilly, winding roads--it helped. I took that piece of advice to heart and started the boys out in the cemetery before they were allowed on the roads.

    And we just hired a children's librarian--so there's hope--there are jobs out there, Smithie!

  5. My youngest learned to drive in Ohio. We rented traffic cones from the driving school and practiced the fiendish maneuverability test (I tried to demonstrate it and failed)in the local college parking lot. She asked around for the easiest location to take the road test. We made a practice run to the location and tailed several teenagers taking their road tests. I thought the local cops were going to bust us. In the end, she passed, and plastered my vintage Honda van with Mother Earth bumper stickers.

  6. Oh Julia, this is priceless. I know you two will survive! Red readers, the Reds were exchanging stories off-blog yesterday about driving failures. I flunked my first test--the humiliation still haunts me. But I made it through second time around, and my parents did too.

    I probably told this story before--we had two German shepherds when I was learning who rode in the back seat whenever I went out to practice. The smoothness of my stops were judged in dogs. A "no-dog stop" meant neither of them had been thrown to the floor. A "one-dogger" meant only the old dog had to scrabble back onto the bench. But a "two-dog" stop was a neck-jerking brake-slamming stop...

  7. Oh, Julia. Oh, Smithie. FChurch, I learned to drive in a cemetery, too!

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  9. Oh,dear the drivers test. Sigh .Horrible. I failed my first one, too. The tester alleged I didn't come to a full stop at the stop sign. but i DID I DID I DID. Nevertheless, I failed. My Mom and I were supposed to go to for Chinese food afterward, to celebrate. We went anyway, but it wasn't the same.
    I passed the second time.

    Full disclosure: in drivers ed, my teacher, Mr. Grosskopf, told my mother he was only letting me drive because
    1. It was the school's car
    2. It was the school's insurance
    3. He had his separate controls (remember that?
    Mr. G still wouldn't let me drive on the highway, only back roads.

    FAMOUS EXCHANGE and absolutely true in Drivers ed::
    Mr. G: Watch out for that car!
    Me: What car?

    I am still a terrible and reluctant driver. Enhanced by my terrible eyesight and lack of depth perception. At night? No way.

    Dear Julia, she'll pass next time. xoxoo

  10. This is wonderful, Julia, you have outdone yourself! I feel for the Smithie. My older one learned to drive Sunday mornings in the mall parking lot. She broke what she thought was the turn signal lever off the steering wheel trying to signal with the windshield wiper. The younger one ran into the Stop & Shop (we practiced in their lot) -- we were so focused on how to shift gears that I'd forgotten to tell her about the brake. My dad failed his final driving test because he ran out of gas in the middle of it... only slightly forgetful he. Ah, memories.

  11. So funny. My older son was so over cautious and nervous I think he took the test six times before he passed. At fifty bucks a try. He was the one scraping me off on the mailboxes on the right because he was afraid of the center line.

    Younger son was way overconfident. Yeah, that thing about trying to turn left into oncoming cars...

  12. I passed my road test the first time. Of course, in was December in Buffalo. I parallel parked between two eight-foot snow drives (back when you took your road test on a real road).

    We face this next summer when The Girl turns 16. Under PA law she has to have her permit for a year. I was shocked at the cost of driving school. I've been told that you don't even recoup the cost in savings on your insurance! So The Hubby and I will teach her. I started by doing figure 8's in a large parking lot, but I don't think you're allowed to do that any more. Because her birthday is so late, she'll be the last of her friends to get her license. So our REAL dilemma is "who does she get to drive with?" Because although I'd love to lay down the law and say "no driving with anyone under the age of 18," I suspect I'll be so tired of playing her chauffeur, I'll want the break (plus, now she's kinda-sorta seeing a young man who just got his permit in December, so...).

    On the upside, a friend of ours taught her to drive a JetSki last summer and said she was a natural. So maybe it won't be that hard.

    And I remember Home Ec. I had to sew a skirt. You could fit two of me in it.

  13. After my son failed his driving test the second time, I had to trot out my story about not making cheerleader in high school and surviving the disappointment. After he failed the third time, I took over the teaching. We went to a church parking lot every night for a couple of weeks until he finally got it. Man, teaching a kid to drive is not for sissies.

  14. Brilliant!
    I helped teach both our kids (They and I are still alive and talking to each other).
    I also taught my husband to drive.

  15. For my son's entire life, his father was the patient, calm parent. I was the more high strung one, apt to fly off the handle. Until it came time to learn to drive. The two of them went out two times together, and both times when they returned, it was hard to say which one looked more traumatized. I took over from there and successfully taught our son to drive and later, another young man who lived with us for four years after he graduated from high school.

    Which is not to say that it wasn't EXACTLY as described by Julia. That description was perfect! Any of those incidents I didn't run into with one, I did with the other. It just turned out that this was a brand of terror I could endure better than my husband. And I take some satisfaction in that to this very day.

  16. Hahahaha! Still laughing. We told our girls they could best learn to drive by practicing on the lawn tractor. Win-win!

  17. I should say that my descriptions definitely include the Boy as well. He was the overconfident one who thought speed limits were for old folks and who would be sticking his iPod connector into the car's dashboard while drifting further...and further...and further...out of the lane.

    When I was learning to drive, I got into an accident in a parking lot! I hit a middle-aged lady's Buick, causing $500 worth of damage to the quarter panel and traumatizing her aged mother-in-law. I had to appear in court for that one, and missed getting a fine because as soon as I got up in front of the judge I started crying and couldn't stop. My poor parents. To this day if I'm driving my mother someplace, I can feel her pressing on the passenger-side brakes.

  18. Adventures in parenthood. Laughing, but in complete sympathy, Julia!

    I didn't learn to drive until after I was married and had a child. My first husband, who by then was a cop, taught me, and he was such a jerk it's a miracle I love to drive so much now. But his dad taught me to parallel park, and gave me the single best piece of driving advice: stay in your own lane, signal your turns, and pay attention to the other guy but don't trust him to have brakes as good as your own. I passed that on to my own kids.

    When I decided to buy a new car in the mid-70's, right in the middle of the gas crisis, my head was turned by the MPG of the then-new Honda Civic CVCC, a tiny little car that was getting 55 mpg in the manual five-speed model. However, I did not then know how to drive a manual shift, so I called my boyfriend at the time for help. He drove a VW Beetle. I picked him up in my old car, we drove to the dealership to trade it in for the new one, and then he drove it to a nearby parking lot for the lesson in shifting.

    Luckily, I picked it up pretty quickly, except for the next morning. I was on my way to a doctor's appointment, and got stuck on a little hill at the red light across the street from my destination, through three lights. Worst of all, the guy behind me was going the same place. I apologized, and said "New car". He said, "I think you got a lemon," but I had to admit that I was the lemon. But after that I never had any more trouble, and could park that little car anywhere, including on the steep hills of Cincinnati, in the tiniest spots.

    The Smithie will do just fine. People who learn to drive later tend to be the best drivers, in my experience. My mother didn't learn until she was around 40. She's still driving, at age 86, and has never had so much as a fender bender. Knock wood.

  19. Not the same thing, but Kiddo learned to ride a horse this weekend. The horse obsession has begun with the passion of the fire of a thousand suns — and there goes any chance of us ever retiring, ever.

  20. I laughed so hard reading this.

    My dad used to let my siblings and I steer the car up the hill to our house from the last major intersection at our end of town, so steering was never a problem when we learned to drive. For the major teaching, we practiced with our dad in the local church parking lot when it was empty. The only obstacles were a few basketball hoop poles. My dad was so patient. I don't remember him ever yelling or getting anxious. Maybe he just hid his anxiety well! We also took (free) driver's ed classes, so had additional practice, and we all passed our driving tests on the first try. I remember, though, that I was not completely clear on what a blind intersection was so when I took my test I slowed down to 15 miles an hour for nearly every intersection just in case, and I was docked points for that. I barely passed the test.

    Recently I helped teach a 35-year old friend how to drive. We went to a remote location, Treasure Island in San Francisco, so she wouldn't be driving on the mean streets of SF. The process was more nerve-wracking than I thought. She had only taken a few private driving classes, so had almost no experience driving. She had a tendency to roll through intersections (there are a few on the island) whenever I asked her stop and turn left or right. She couldn't seem to coordinate the concepts of braking, stopping, and turning. It was pretty unique! A couple of times I wanted to laugh about it. (I guess that's better than screaming!) Ultimately we both survived as did my car! She is now a licensed driver.

  21. My dad was a driver's ed teacher. And unfortunately for him, he was a driver's ed teacher when I was getting my license. He was famous for being super cautious - and I had a lead foot. I remember one unfortunate incident when he was chastising me for accelerating toward a yellow light instead of slowing I pulled over and got out and made him drive home.
    Yep, I'm sure he wished he'd closed his school down before then.

  22. Oh so funny! I remember being taken to the largest available parking lot on a Sunday (completely empty in an industrial park) for my first lesson. I drove home that day across a busy highway. What my parents hadn't realized, my great grandfather had me driving a tractor since I could reach the pedals, even if I had to stand up to do it! My father was a stickler for skids though. Not much chance of that in a tractor-they just roll over. We had an ice skating rink near our house, it was a sunken parking lot that the town flooded. The night it was tested, but before it opened for skating, my father would take us out there and we had to drive on the ice until controlling a skid became second nature. It was quite safe, there were open fields on all sides of the parking area so there was nothing to hit.

  23. Wiping the tears away. O lord, learning to drive. . . I passed the first time around but when the test was officially over I ran up on the curb while parking. I took drivers ed in high school during study hall. Our poor teacher. I knew nothing. I had had one lesson with my dad that ended suddenly. We were driving in the shopping mall parking lot on a Sunday. His old Chevy had power everything. I didn't know the car would creep along if you didn't have your foot on the brake. He told me to stop so I did. Power brakes. No one went through the windshield. But my little brother wet through his diaper to Dad's lap. Lesson over.
    I am in the anger phase everytime I ride with my husband. He comments on the other drivers. I remind him he has a turn coming up. He snarkily thanks me for the reminder. If I don't remind him he forgets to turn. And has the nerve to ask why I didn't tell him his turn was coming up. Help.

  24. I remember very little about learning to drive. My parents refused to teach me. I can only guess why. I would blame myself, but she didn't let my father drive either. He drove when I was very little, though. The last time I recall was the day he drove off Allen Road in Billerica, Massachusetts into the woods stopping short in front of a tree. All I remember after that was my mum telling me, "Stop shaking your Coke!" I wasn't shaking my Coke. It was the car shaking me and therefore my Coke. She got of the car and opened my father's door. "Get out!" Then she drove up to the barroom and we went inside and waited for Daddy to show up. My mother had a Bud, and I got another Coke out of the deal. Daddy finally showed and ordered a pepperoni pizza and beer.

    That pretty much tells the story of my life as a little girl with my parents. After that it was aunt to aunt for awhile. Then back and forth between grandparents. Away to school for a bit. Parents again. No driving.

    Eventually I got a driver's license but had to pay for the lessons myself. Flunked the first time when I took the test in Boston. I had a nasty examiner who had me drive up Parker Hill Road after a wicked bad snowstorm in February. Somewhere just below New England Baptist Hospital he had me do a hill stop on the ice. Flunked naturally. I waited till spring and took it again. Much easier.

    Most of my life I never knew why my mother wouldn't let my father drive. One day I got a hint, when she was dying in Altadena, California. My parents had managed to survive, work very creatively, do a lot of damage in the world, buy a house, and still in their fifties become terminally ill. It was the only time my mother had no control over the car or my father. I asked him to drive me to the hospital. We were headed down Lake Street to the Huntington in Pasadena when my father swerved at something imaginary and drove up onto the sidewalk. Fortunately the car was stopped by a parking meter and missed the people walking by. I was then pretty sure I knew why Mummy wouldn't let Daddy drive.

  25. I feel your pain, Julia. My 16-yr-old is taking her driver's test tomorrow. I'm not sure which is worse--she fails (and is heartbroken, humiliated, etc. and we have to do more practice driving) or she passes (almost certainly)and then we have to add her to the insurance and let her drive the car.

  26. I was nearly 30 when I finally got a license, despite passing driver's ed. in high school (Dad was a terribly nervous driving coach). Buses worked just fine for me through college and office work (no teaching jobs in 1972 when I got my degree). When Prudential decided they needed a woman agent, part of the effort involved helping me master driving, and my managers went over and above to make that happen. Passed on the second try also; the first try is just practice, right? Getting lost going to appointments on very sub-zero nights just added to the motivation to close the sale. BTW, I passed the second time because my then-husband said, "You really aren't ready for this and probably won't pass" (the challenge), "but if you do, I'll buy champagne" (the reward). Very effective . . .
    Hank, I'm with you on night driving these days, even without the -30 temps.

  27. Soooo funny! I failed my first road test back in 1971...I can't remember whether the examiner told me the reason. My dad insisted it was because I wasn't wearing a skirt. He was convinced that the (male middle-aged) examiners were more interested in a young female driver's legs than her ability to execute the list of required maneuvers.

    Arguing with him was pointless. Of course I wore a skirt for the next test and of course I passed. He saw it as vindication - I was just happy to have my license.

    Chris Aldrich

  28. Dear God, I'm dying laughing over here! My own experience teaching our only daughter to drive (it wasn't the driving lessons that made her an only, but it certainly validated our decision) included a leased BMW 5-series sedan with an enormous and powerful engine and a manual transmission. WTH was I thinking??? Ultimately, we bit the bullet and emptied an IRA to hire a professional. Okay, maybe it was a Vacation Club account. Whatever it was, it was worth the price of admission.