Surviving Driving Teens

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“What’s behind you?!”

I was fifteen and it was Mom’s recurring test from the passenger seat of our 1976 Peugeot during my repeated attempts at honing my driving skills. She came equipped with a notebook, the notes of which I never saw. The intended use of the notebook became clear in conjunction with the question. It was to block my perspective of the bumper parade by flinging it helter-skelter over the glass of my rear view mirror, measuring my surveillance prowess. More common, though, were the persistently optimistic attempts at boring a hole in the floorboard while pumping the phantom brake. 

A few months later and just after acquiring my driver’s license, Mom’s apprehension was justified when I grabbed my friend Anne Marie and took my grandfather’s International Scout to Royal Palms Beach on my first solo outing. We joined the lineup for the U-turn that would take us from one end of the beach to the other and were distracted by a group of cat-calling boys. Cool new driver that I was, I turned my head to flirt back and managed to spin the Scout on an apparent dime finding myself in a head-on eye-lock with the driver behind me. Instead of hitting the brake, I floored the accelerator and plowed into the front end of his Chevy Impala, which was crammed with his sizable family. After Dad’s review of the Scout’s damage from my virgin escapade, I received a week’s worth of radio silence.

I continued my investigation on how much the Scout could take. I made reckless U-turns over Western Avenue’s concrete medians (I had a thing for U-turns), I repeatedly pounded the horn, which resulted in random and sometimes continuous hands-free honking at unsuspecting neighboring motorists and I gifted it with an eventual screeching halt engine death in the fast lane of the 405 freeway, wherein lay my lesson on the value of oil.

The following year, and within the period of a week, Kathy orchestrated not one, but two episodes of vehicle annihilation. She rear-ended someone on a Monday and obliterated a parked motorcycle on a Thursday. Dad was not pleased with the consequential lurch in insurance premiums.

As a teenager, I mastered the art of eye-rolling, irritated responses to my mother’s knee-jerk passenger-seat seizures. I had zero concept of what she was going through or how patient she really was. Since becoming that passenger-seat mom myself, I consistently participate in Mom’s floorboard dance routine. Mom, I get you.

Remaining idle while my eldest child first took control of an automobile just might be the most terrifying thing I have ever done. We hand our children the keys and say, “Here. Aim this missile and launch it while I passively sit beside you tackling my reflexes.” Then we involuntarily do our best Tourette’s Syndrome impression as we narrowly escape scraping up against every parked car on every excursion.

“Driving instructor” is the one parental role where the apparent abduction of my patience required an amber alert. After her first few lessons, Morgan pointed out to me that on the rare occasion she had a lesson with her dad, he managed to stay uncharacteristically calm. She shot me a “you are alien” look and said, “This is the weirdest role reversal ever.”

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One morning while Morgan was driving to school, she was approaching the intersection a block from our house when the SUV at the stop sign on our left began moving forward. It was not a four-way stop, so Morgan continued on her way, exhibiting no signs of slowing down. So I screamed. Not a slightly panicked “watch out” or “whoooa” but a full-on literal scream. The other driver saw her, of course, as we were barreling through the intersection at a whopping five miles per hour. To be totally fair, Morgan drives like a little old lady. I had no business screaming.

It is a weak defense of my impatience, but it is not just about my fear of death. I am a single parent with a myriad of financial constraints. There is one of me. There are three of them. I have one car. You don’t have to be a math genius to calculate three kids plus even one collision equals zero cars. And if said collision should happen after they leave a party at 2:00 AM, how do I get to them? On my bike?

Dad used to say, “It’s not you I worry about. It’s all those other drivers.” So that’s what I told my daughters and what I now tell my son. On a more serious note, there were nearly 160,000 injury collisions in California last year. Our parental fears in this case are well founded. I am sure Mom and Dad worried about things like drunk drivers coupled with my and Kathy’s lack of experience (I never told them about the median U-turns), but they did not have to worry about cell phones. I have stressed the importance of staying fully present and paying attention so that now, if I lay a hand on my phone while driving with my kids in the car, I get a chorus of “Mommy!” Message sent and received.

The best advice I can give (not that you asked) was most eloquently presented by three-year-old Wendy one morning on Greenwich Avenue in New York City. She hugged Morgan as we dropped her off at City & Country School on 13th Street and climbed back into her stroller. On the way to Bleecker Playground, I detoured to Starbucks for a morning Café Mocha. The streets were wet from the morning rain, the air was cool and damp and I eagerly anticipated the steaming brew and caffeine fix.

We walked out of Starbucks toward a steep driveway, most of which was engulfed in a huge puddle. Because of the mini-lagoon, I was unaware of the pothole that connected the sidewalk with the street. In my desire to arrive at the playground and start sipping from my cup, I opened the throttle on the stroller and shot straight into the pond causing the front wheels to jolt to a stop at the bottom of the pothole. Wendy toppled out face first.

She slapped her hands onto the asphalt, pulled her tiny body into a standing position, composedly turned to face me while wiping muddy water off of her face and blue wool coat, placed hands on hips while pointedly looking at me and said through gritted teeth, “You’ve got to watch where you’re going.”

We often miss those potholes, so whether you’re behind the wheel of a car or sitting in a stroller, wear a seatbelt and forgive Mom, Dad and yourself for related emotional outbursts. This one gets a free pass.

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