Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The Last Student Driver

16-year-old Quinn has her driver's permit and has been going out for regular practice in anticipation of her first outing with an official driving instructor. She's our youngest, and our last one to learn how to drive.

Our oldest still doesn't have a license yet. She got dinged on her test for not turning to look behind her at one point, so she needs to take the test again this summer. Our middle daughter has a license, and I must say it is handy to have another driver in the house. All three kids are good drivers. They don't take risks, they're careful, they work hard to follow all the rules, and even though they lack experience they are doing well so far.

But teaching the kids to drive...  Nothing quite prepared me for how it would feel to be in a car with one of my kids behind the wheel.

Which is funny, because I remember distinctly as a teenager feeling I would do a much better job with teaching my own kids one day than my parents were doing with me. I was insulted by how often my mom tapped the phantom brake on the passenger side of the car when I was doing my driving practice. My parents' nervousness felt like an undeserved lack of confidence. Surely I would be more relaxed when it came time for me to teach my children to drive.

I was so wrong. I am a jumble of nerves when I'm not in control of the car. In fact, I've noticed that there are times if I pay too much attention to how my husband is operating the car it makes me nervous, even though he's an excellent driver and there is nothing to worry about. There's just something disconcerting about paying close enough attention that you feel the slight differences in reaction time and judgement as the car is moving. When I'm in the car instructing the kids, I have to pay attention to every choice and action, and they're invariably a little different from what I would do, and my anxiety level rises.

I've spent a lot of time with each of my kids in the parking lot of the Chuck E Cheese's near our house. We've been around and around that lot, using the turn signals, stopping at signs, parking in empty spaces. That's all fine. When they move out onto the actual streets, that's when Ian takes over.

My husband is a really patient and calm driving instructor. He taught my sister-in-law from India how to drive by taking her on long boring roads here in Wisconsin so she could get the hang of everything without the distractions of the streets in New York City. He's good about finding routes for the kids so they can practice all right turns one day, easy left turns the next. If he's nervous at all, he doesn't show it. (Of course, he's lived in a war zone twice, so the bar is different for him.)

The best bit of advice I think I've given my kids as drivers is to be predictable. When I drove with Aden and Mona to New York a couple of years ago, Mona did a lot of the driving in both Indiana and Pennsylvania. She started off a little erratic, and I understood her confusion about what to do with people merging onto the freeway near her. I explained that in most cases, it made sense to remember that it was the job of the people merging to adjust to her, not the other way around. If she suddenly slowed down to adjust to them, it disrupted the flow and made things potentially more dangerous. She got the hang of that philosophy in Indiana, which was good, because by the time we hit the winding mountain roads covered with trucks in Pennsylvania, there were some precarious driving moments that she handled very well. My anxiety level was through the roof, but I was still proud of her.

Other advice I've given them: Start any kind of turns early when traveling at high speeds so they will actually happen at the right time. Use the "two second rule" to keep a safe distance behind the car ahead of you. And something my Uncle Joe told me when he went out driving with me on my permit once was to kind of center your view of the steering wheel down the middle of the road or lane to position the car correctly in that space.

It's strange adjusting to how some driving techniques have changed since I first learned. For instance, keeping your hands at "ten and two" is no longer considered safe because if the air bag were to deploy it would break your arms. Now kids are taught to keep their hands low, more like "eight and four" which I remember being strictly forbidden when I was in driver's ed. I was a bit alarmed when I realized Mona had been taught it was okay to leave one foot on the brake and the other on the accelerator. I made her learn how to use a single foot for both pedals instead, because riding the brake is bad, and even just lightly tapping it can cause the brake lights to turn on which could cause confusion.

Thinking back on my own days of learning to drive with my parents, two moments stand out.

The first is the time I was backing out of our driveway and hit a tree. That sounds dramatic (which is how my mortified self thought of it in the moment), but I really only tapped the tree. The house where I grew up has a shared driveway, and requires some tricky maneuvering. I slowly backed up, not really by using the accelerator but more by letting go of the brake, and bumped our enormous green 1972 Monte Carlo (we used to refer to it as "the limo" it was so long) into the oak next to the house. My dad and I both got out to inspect the tree and found a small fresh gouge mark in it. I felt horrible until my dad pointed out an identical (less fresh) gouge mark a few inches over and said, "I did the same thing last week."

The second is the time we took a trip out East and I ended up for some reason driving us on the New York Throughway. When you first learn to drive, you are hyper aware of all the rules and speed limits, and all of those things went out the window on the New York Throughway. The average speed people were doing was about 95mph. (Not hyperbole.) My mom was in the front seat with me telling me to slow down, since the speed limit was only 55. My dad (who was from New York) was in the back seat with my brothers telling me to speed up. That was... nerve wracking.

So far, aside from Mona navigating the PA roads better than I expected, the only memorable driving moment with my kids was when we sent Mona up alone to retrieve her sister from UW Stout, four hours away. There was a crazy bit of texting between Aden and her father about a storm system up there. Aden was worried and kept saying, "It looks bad" and her dad kept checking the radar maps and saying, "It should be fine." Then Aden said there were tornado warnings and they were all in the basement of the dorm. And finally Mona, having arrived, piped up to say, "You all worry too much. I'm here, let me in, I need to use the bathroom,"

Anyway, so far Quinn is doing well with driving. And I'm sure one day I'll be able to relax a bit with one of my kids behind the wheel. It's just disconcerting when in my mind it's so easy for any of them to be babies again to me, or age seven, or twelve. How did they all get so grown up? It all went so fast.

This is why I needed a baby-sized dog. And I don't have to worry about her ever wanting the keys to the car.