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Thoughts on Turning 16 and Learning to Drive

Wednesday, December 22, 2010, 13:05 EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

In North America, turning 16 is a big deal. It isn’t quite 18 (voting age) or 21 (drinking age in the U.S.), but in a sense it’s even more significant than those milestones. Sixteen means driving. And driving means freedom.

I didn’t get my driver’s license until a couple of months after my 17th birthday, but 16 was (and still is) the magical age. A Massachusetts resident can get a learner’s permit on his/her 16th birthday and, after completion of a certified driver education program, a license six months after the 16th birthday. There are many more restrictions on so-called junior operators (licensed drivers under age 18) now than there were when I began driving, including a prohibition on having other minors as passengers. My friends and I didn’t have to worry about that, so we were able to drive each other to school, double-date together, or partake of a joy ride in someone’s parents’ convertible on a warm sunny day (thanks, Chris!)

1980 Chevrolet CitationLearning to drive was an experience in itself. My parents had two cars, both Chevrolets: a 1976 Impala automatic station wagon that was the size of Rhode Island and was primarily driven by Ma, and a 1980 Citation (or Shitation, as my friend Gary called it, because most of them were lousy cars) 5-speed standard hatchback that was Dad’s high-mileage commuting vehicle. It was Dad who began my driving instruction, and it was his idea that I should learn to drive the standard first because if you could drive a standard, you could drive anything. We had many weekend hours of quality father-daughter bonding time as I lurched my way around the empty high school parking lot while I got used to the manual transmission and Dad kindly kept to himself worries about the damage I was doing to the clutch. Once I became more comfortable, we ventured out to a local neighborhood with lots of hills, so I could learn how to start from zero on a hill without rolling into the car stopped behind me.

1976 Chevrolet Impala station wagonThose were the two hardest parts of driving, and once I had mastered them, it was time to drive the wagon. The difference was awe-inspiring: rear wheel drive instead of front wheel drive, blind spots in new and annoying places, and of course the size difference. Compared to the relatively compact Citation, the Impala was like driving a school bus. I was never quite sure where the back of the vehicle was. Miraculously, only a couple of times did I lose my head and go to depress the clutch, only to catch the left side of the extra-wide General Motors brake pedal instead. Talk about jarring experiences.

After Dad was satisfied with my progress, I began driving occasionally with Ma riding shotgun. That’s when I discovered the wisdom of Dad’s decision to be my first driving instructor. Ma panics, and not just when there’s something to panic about. She pre-emptively panics. If I were driving at a leisurely pace down Main Street and the traffic light 10 car lengths ahead turned yellow, she would gasp and extend her right leg as if trying to depress the break. It drove me up the ever-loving wall. If that had been what I had to put up with when I was first learning, I’d have gladly forgone the driving experience. The upside of driving with Ma is that she could see that I could handle the vehicle and, when I finally got my license, didn’t hesitate to let me take the car to school occasionally after dropping her at work.

And that is where the freedom came in. My high school campus was “open” for juniors and seniors, so those of us with cars would take our friends out for lunch break. I must say that we were pretty safe drivers as far as I can remember, and we managed to avoid accidents that would have cost us our car privileges. We looked for any excuse to drive. Had a particularly difficult homework assignment? Forget calling a friend to collaborate; you asked for the car and drove to her house. Wanted to blow some time at the mall on a Saturday afternoon? No need to rely on a ride from the parents or on the bus schedule; just borrow the car and pick up two or three friends along the way. (With the Impala, it was five or six friends, as the front and back bench seats could accommodate six adults in reasonable comfort.) Even errands provided a good reason to hit the road; if the family fridge was low on milk, you helpfully offered to run to the market.

By the time my own son was learning to drive 20 years later, the magical sense of freedom driving once provided had long since abandoned me. I had my own vehicle by then, a smaller model with a manual transmission (my preference to this day), and used it to teach him to drive. As my father had done with me, I took him to the empty high school parking lot on a weekend and taught him the ropes. I took him there again after it had snowed, and we practiced locking the brakes to feel what it was like when the car went into a skid, and to practice responding. He seemed to learn more quickly than I recall I had, but he didn’t seem too keen on moving to the next step of real town streets, hills, traffic, and especially interstate highways. I finally had to force him to complete his driving instruction and get his license, telling him I wouldn’t allow him to go off to college until he was a licensed driver. Even though he didn’t have a car of his own, I felt it was important that he be able to drive in a pinch, even if it was someone else’s car. After a few minor accidents and more than his share of speeding tickets, he has settled down and has become quite a good driver.

Somewhere out there today is a child who is turning 16, anticipating his foray into the wonderful world of driving. And somewhere nearby is a parent steeling himself for the experience. Good luck to both of them. It will work out fine.

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