Driven to Distraction

My 16-year-old daughter, Valerie, recently got her provisional driving permit. The next step in the process to becoming a fully licensed driver is for her to accrue 50 hours of behind the wheel time over the next six months. Of course having a license means freedom so she wants to make sure she is fully prepared to pass the driving test when she takes it on the earliest possible date, January 21, 2009. For her, every errand and outing is an opportunity to work on her driving skills. When we head out the door, she reaches for the keys from me and says, “I’ll drive”¦you can just sit back and relax.”

Hah! There are many words I would use to describe the way I feel when she’s the driver and I’m the passenger but relaxed is not one of them. Based on my previous experience while my son was learning to drive and chatting with other parents about what it was like for them when their teenager was behind the wheel, stomach knotted with sweaty-palms in a state of hyper-alertness is more like it.

I’m don’t think I’ve ever prayed more earnestly than when Valerie is driving. “Oh, Lord, by some miracle, may the force with which I am jamming my foot into the floor have some effect on the braking power of this car before we rear-end the stopped car in front of us!” Or another one I frequently find myself mouthing, “Dear God, please use your supernatural power to move that parked car in our path six inches closer to the curb!”

I guess my prayers are working, because she’s been driving for about a month, and she has had close encounters but not made contact with any garage doors, pedestrians, or other vehicles yet.

There are times that I’ll be riding with her and she’s doing such a good job navigating the roads that I’ll actually forget that I’m with an inexperienced driver and I start enjoying the scenery. Then she accidentally steps on the gas instead of the brakes or turns into the lane of oncoming traffic. I make a mental note: stock up on the hair color with improved gray coverage.

It’s a known fact that every ride in the car with your teenage driver is like dog years; you age by multiples of seven whenever they take the wheel. By the time my third child learns to drive, I fully expect to look about 110. Is it any surprise then, that in order to delay their own aging, baby-boom parents are postponing having their teenagers learn to drive?

According to a recent article in the newspaper, the rite of passage of getting your license on the day of your sixteenth birthday which was the norm for my generation is a fading trend. In just the last ten years, the national rate of licensed 16-year-old drivers dropped to about 30% from almost 44%.

The major reason that teenagers are getting their licenses later is because schools no longer offer driver’s education as part of the curriculum. In fact, the article stated that only about 20% of school systems make it available, whereas in the 1980’s, 90% of schools had a driver’s ed program. Schools are willing to teach kids about sex, drugs, AIDs and STDs, but teaching them to drive? That was just too scary.

Actually, the article pointed out that schools dropped their driver’s ed classes due to the cost. The potential liability was just too much for most schools so now the responsibility falls with the parents to find a private driving school. These days, it’s hard to imagine a school district owning a car for the purpose of kids learning to drive. Think about the lawsuits that would fly when a kid who had been trained to drive by the school got into an accident?

When I think back to when I took driver’s ed in high school my biggest memory is of my driver’s ed teacher; he was a 300 pound Hawaiian who always wore sunglasses. We spent the days in class watching Highway Patrol films of graphic car crashes and then once a week or so we piled into the school’s car to take turns driving. This teacher was kind of a strange guy”¦who wouldn’t be after spending five periods a day in a car with three teenager drivers”¦but he was unbelievably patient

Since I think parents don’t make very good coaches for their kids, if money was no object, I’d hire a professional for the 50 hours of behind the wheel experience that Valerie needs. As it is, I’ll have to go with the typical six hours of professional instruction for her. I’m scouring the internet looking for the Big Kahuna Driving School.

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