Road Test

Teaching my teenage son to drive turned out to be a learning experience for both of us.

WANT TO FIND OUT HOW GOOD a driver you are? Try teaching your own child to drive. After my elder son acquired his learner’s permit, I decided that getting a traffic ticket is the only thing more sobering than having a fifteen-year-old point out your shortcomings behind the wheel: “Mom, you’re tailgating.” “Mom, the speed limit is 30; you’re going 42.” Statistics show that kids whose folks teach them are safer drivers than those who pay strangers at driving schools. Not only did my teaching Philip make him a better driver, it made me a better driver too.

Texas has allowed parents to teach their children driver’s ed since 1997. It’s cheaper than paying a professional but also more time-consuming: 46 hours minimum, divided between textbook study (32 hours) and actual driving time (14). The textbooks are thorough but inevitably amusing. For example, one picture shows a driver attempting to parallel park in a space big enough for a Greyhound bus; why bother to back in when you could zip straight in? Philip became intimately acquainted with the giant state parking lot close to our house; because it was conveniently empty on weekends, he could practice steering, braking, and parking with impunity. Before tackling busier streets and freeways, he racked up additional hours cruising our neighborhood while I, riding shotgun, alternated between reflexive phantom-braking and gushing maternal encouragement. Me: “Philip, you’re driving! Isn’t that cool?” Philip: “Oh, yeah. Nothing cooler than a teenager in a minivan.”

Because Philip is a city boy, and heavy traffic is normal to him, he took to driving far more readily than I had. In the small Panhandle town where I grew up, a puff of dust on the horizon was enough to keep me idling at a stop sign for five minutes. Also, Philip had far more actual practice. My main memory of summer-school driver’s ed was gazing dreamily at Arlen, the handsome young instructor (a.k.a. “Arlen Darlin’ ”), and trying to avoid “jackrabbiting,” the jerky motion that resulted when I attempted to coordinate clutch and gear. (Way-back-when note: Learning to drive a car with standard transmission presented its own subset of problems. Fortunately for me, there were darn few hills in the Panhandle.)

The main requirement for teaching your teen is patience. It’s an odd sensation to accept as a driver a person you remember dressing in footie pajamas. It’s equally unsettling to be in the passenger seat of your own car (my favorite four-letter word during our driver’s-ed days was “Curb!”). But eventually I relaxed and started enjoying Philip’s refreshing new-driver viewpoint. For example, when I’m at the wheel, I rarely use my right-turn indicator—I just sort of sling the car in that general direction. This prompts him to intone professorially, “Although the use of the turn signal is not illegal in Texas, it is certainly frowned upon. If you must use it, please do so discreetly.” I learned local teenage customs; whenever the driver sails through a yellow light, for instance, the front-seat passenger slaps the dashboard. The only thing that truly surprised me was discovering that Philip would not be undergoing that longtime Texas rite of passage, a final road test under the scrutiny of a large, silent DPS trooper in hat and mirrored shades. Although parents can request such a test, few do.

Philip has now been a licensed driver for nine months. After three, he suggested that I no longer needed to stand on the porch and wave good-bye to him. Every time he heads out, I issue elaborate directions, and he smiles a tolerant little smile and says, “I know, Mom. And I’ll be careful.” But I still worry, of course; that’s my job. Right now I’m also worrying about what kind of driver his younger brother will be; Parker just turned fifteen and is eager to acquire his learner’s permit.

I hope the dashboard can take it.

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