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She's in the Driver's Seat No Matter What

September 14, 1989|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Bedia Thomas of Garden Grove taught his young bride how to drive 51 years ago. And she's been telling him how to drive ever since.

The first time Barbara Thomas, then 17, sat behind the wheel of her husband's 1929 Ford, he warned her not to be too sensitive about criticism.

"I told her from the start that there would be times when I can't be gentle, when I'd have to bark at her and she'd have to live with it," he says. "When you're in a moving car, there's not always time to be gentle. Sometimes you have to stop in a hurry or turn to avoid somebody."

She caught on quickly, not only to the driving itself but to the art of making those helpful suggestions from the passenger seat.

So after long and careful deliberation, Life on Wheels has selected Barbara Thomas as our first Back Seat Driver of the Year.

The choice was difficult, with many well-qualified candidates, but two factors put Barbara Thomas ahead of the pack: the many years--and miles--she has devoted to the craft, and the unabashed pride she takes in her work.

Some of the most persistent practitioners of back-seat driving are equally stubborn in rejecting the label. Many actually take offense at the suggestion that they are anything other than quiet, cooperative passengers who sit back and mind their own business. Not Barbara Thomas.

"Since you asked about back-seat drivers, I take it as permission to brag," she began in the letter she sent nominating herself.

On top of that, her husband says he not only appreciates her suggestions and criticisms, but over the years he has come to depend on them.

"Sure, I listen to everything she says," he relates. "I respect her intelligence and her judgment."

Of course, there are times, he admits, when "sometimes it gets on my nerves."

"When I drive, I like to look around a lot," he says. "It makes the drive more interesting. But she feels I should keep my eyes on the road at all times."

Bedia gives his wife credit for saving the day every now and again with her cries of "Watch out!" and "Slow down!" But he says driving is much more relaxing when he's in the car alone, "because she's very, very critical."

The Thomases split the driving duties. He's usually behind the wheel in the daytime, and she takes over at night. On long trips--they've been through Canada twice and across the United States several times--they take turns.

"I think she's a hell of a lot better driver than I am," he concedes.

In fact, Bedia says, it would be just fine with him if his wife did all the driving. But she'd rather not.

When she takes over, even if he's exhausted from driving several hours without a break, Barbara says, "a transformation occurs. He starts immediately with, 'You pulled out onto the freeway too quickly!' or 'Watch out for that truck! or 'What's your speed?' I tell him that he taught me to drive 51 years ago and it is time to let me drive without training wheels, but it hasn't happened yet."

Hmmm. Maybe they should share the award. . . .

Although Barbara Thomas took top honors, several other candidates deserve honorable mention:

* Marcia Uri of Huntington Beach, who was our first nominee when the contest began several months ago. As you may recall, Uri practices her art not only on her husband, son and daughter, but on friends, cab drivers and even bus drivers, according to her daughter, Deborah.

* Karrin Dempster of Trabuco Canyon, who insists that her back-seat driving is necessary. "My sweet husband gets to talking while he's driving, and suddenly he's paying no attention to the road. We will sit at green lights, go 50 in the fast lane (with no traffic) and turn in front of people. Usually I 'help' with some coaching." Once, after a near-miss, her husband gave her the ultimate back-seat driver's compliment. "Honey, it's your fault," he said. "You weren't watching."

* Rudy, of Tustin, nominated by his wife, Pamela, who requested that their last name not be used, perhaps for fear of further criticism from her favorite passenger. "On a long drive and in the proper frame of mind (or mindlessness ) , he can move rather quickly from . . . 'That's how people get killed, by following too closely,' to 'Anyone with half a brain makes preparations to exit the freeway ahead of time, instead of cutting across the lanes at the last minute.' He is particularly offended when I wave and thank another freeway traveler for letting me slide over into the right-hand exit lane of the freeway.

"I've thought about building a portable henhouse and mounting it on a trailer for him to sit in while I drive. Perfect. The cluck-clucking you can't hear won't hurt you."

* And, finally, there's Kathie Wolin Gardner's Aunt Idee (actually, her mother's aunt). "My mother was driving, and prior to turning left at a blind corner, she stopped and looked to the left. Simultaneously, she said, 'Aunt Idee, is there a car coming from the right?'

" 'No,' was the reply, and mother pulled forward. 'But,' the aunt continued casually, 'There is a truck.' "

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