One from the vault: February 11, 2004
Winter is the season for tragic death on Maine’s weather-slicked highways. The engine of commerce must go on, and we live in an economy that depends on people being able to get to their jobs by automobile, no matter what the weather. Schools have the good sense to close down when road conditions become dangerous, but most businesses don’t.
Is there anything – short of catastrophic illness – more frightening to a parent than teaching a kid to drive? A car or truck is the most powerful piece of machinery many people will operate in their lives. We put cars in the hands of teenagers because the only way for them to learn is by doing, and because, at least in rural Maine, the mobility afforded by the private automobile is a near necessity.
This doesn’t make it any less scary. We lose a few kids every year. We accept the carnage on our highways (43,005 fatalities in the U.S. in 2002*) as the price we pay for this individual mobility. We don’t shut down the roads every time there’s a tragedy.
I’ve been though this twice now. Both my kids are now licensed drivers, and both breezed through driver’s ed and the test more easily than I did. Still, there’s nothing like the feeling of handing your kid the keys for the first time and putting your life in their hands as you buckle into the passenger seat. And nothing matches the lump in your throat the first time they take the car out solo, leaving you to watch from the driveway or the front window with an outward show of confidence and your fingers crossed behind your back. Every time there’s an accident involving a teenager, you die a little bit inside, knowing that it only takes a second of inattention, a patch of ice, or a bit of bad luck to send your kid to the hospital or the graveyard.
In California I used to take my daughter and son out to the desert and let them drive on sandy trails when they were around 11 or 12. The worst thing they could do was run over a cactus and flatten a tire. That never happened.
I learned to drive on an island in Maine in a Jeep with a standard-H shift and bad brakes. To stop, you coasted uphill, turned the key and popped the clutch, or ran into something – preferably something soft, like a bush.
But a lot of kids have had no driving experience when they get into the driver’s ed vehicle. They don’t learn how to drive a manual shift. And they don’t see the gory films my generation did, from what my kids tell me. My friends and I joked about those films, but on some level they served their purpose, which was to remind us that driving is a dangerous activity that can snuff out your life in a second.
On the day of my son’s test, we drove around and around downtown Belfast as he practiced parallel parking. As the hour approached, my son grew more and more apprehensive with each botched attempt. “I’m going to fail,” he moaned.
Now, parallel parking happens to be one of my few strengths as a driver. I can’t see well at night, I sometimes forget to buckle my seat belt, I drive about 10 mph above the speed limit, and I’ve rolled through more stop signs than General Sherman did on his march through Georgia. But I’m a superb parallel parker. So I tried to offer some fatherly words of encouragement.
“This isn’t that hard,” I told him. “I aced parallel parking all three times I took my driving test.”
Somehow, this nugget of parental wisdom didn’t send him into the test brimming with confidence. But he must have done it right, because they gave him his license the very first time, like his sister before him.
A few weeks later he took the car to Bangor by himself. I tried not to be nervous. Eventually I had stopped being nervous when his sister drove to school every day. I told him to be careful. It was all I could do. It’s all any of us can do.
Originally published in the Village Soup Times.
* — Happily, fatal accidents have decreased since then, as Americans have begun to drive less. The figure for 2013 was 32,719. Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.