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CARMENTARY

Teaching Your Teen to Drive Opens a New Dialogue: 'Watch Out!'

Mom: White-knuckle sessions guiding a son behind the wheel mean staying calm. It all pays off in the end--honest.

April 29, 1999|KATHLEEN DOHENY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Although it may seem that nearly every car on the road has a teenager at the wheel, slightly fewer than half of California teens are licensed to drive.

Most of the others, of course, are hoping to drive soon.

And that often means pushing parents into moonlighting as driving instructors.

A scary proposition.

But I did it--and survived.

And when my son Shaun turned 20 recently, it hit me: Not only do I not have a teenager anymore, I don't have a teenage driver.

OK, to be fair, I can't take all the credit. Some belongs to a slightly built, balding, mellow Italian man from the local driving school, whom we'll call Guido. But in between those formal lessons with Guido, Shaun logged extra practice with me. And all those hours--working our way up from parking lots to alleys, side streets, busy streets and finally freeways--led to endless comparisons of Guido's Driving School versus Mom's Driving School.

Guido, as Shaun repeatedly reminded me, never gasped, never raised his voice and never, ever screamed "Stop! Stop!" with tears streaming down his face.

But I'm getting ahead of myself--and probably making a few of the parents who right now are scheduling that trip with their offspring to the Department of Motor Vehicles more than a little nervous. The point here, after all, is to be reassuring.

*

It's hard to believe it's been nearly four years since Shaun first slid behind the wheel of my white 1989 Nissan, permit in wallet, and I took the passenger seat. (Which, by the way, automatically throws off your equilibrium. Instead of those mirror signs that say, "Objects in mirror are closer than they appear," parents of teen drivers unaccustomed to sitting on the passenger side need a little prompter that says, "Teen may not be ready to run over the curb, even though it sure looks like it.")

Neither of us can recall the details of that maiden drive. Shaun's memory is probably blocked by glee, mine by sheer terror. I do remember that the car had most of its paint intact at that time, because that was before the McDonald's Drive-Thru Day, also known as the Sandwich Maneuver (see Shaun's accompanying essay).

I do recall--sometimes in vivid detail that can still wake me up at night--many other driving sessions. But finally, I can step back and assess the good, the bad and the ugly of teaching a teen to drive.

Try as I did to look as calm as Guido, it rarely worked. Body parts gave me away. As Shaun was approaching a stoplight during one session, he kept his eyes on the road but directed his comment to me: "Please stop doing that." When I looked down, my right foot was braking, braking, braking.

What also drove him nuts were what he calls my "Band-Aid" sounds. (Clench your teeth, part your lips and suck in air as if it's your last breath.)

The more we practiced, the sparser my in-car vocabulary became, dwindling to mostly "Slow down," "Please slow down" and "Shaun Nicholas Newton, slow down." I should have mounted a tape recorder under the dash, cued to options A, B and C. (If Shaun had contributed to the tape, he would have needed just one option: "Relax, Mom.")

Like other parents-turned-driving instructors before me, I learned that constructive criticism--"Watch out!" "Don't you see that car?"--is not necessarily appreciated. In fact, it's often met with insults, such as "Well, you drive like a little old lady."

In retrospect, I would be more selective where I turned for moral support after those white-knuckle rides. Good choices: friends whose kids are already in assigned risk pools. Potentially poor choices, depending on your own driving history: your parents.

During one long-distance call, I mentioned that Shaun's driving still scared me. Mom, usually chatty, was quiet. Dad, on the extension, had taught all four of us kids to drive and suddenly blurted out what evidently had been bottled up for decades: "Your driving scared me the most."

OK, so I moved on to other coping mechanisms. When things got hairy, I imagined that all the cars on the road were made of rubber. Even in a head-on, there would be no dented bumpers, no deployed air bags, no insurance companies to deal with.

Avoidance and denial, generally considered mentally unhealthy, can be good strategies when teaching a teen to drive. After several kamikaze runs up our narrow, steep driveway, wondering if the side-view mirror was going to attach itself to the chimney, I simply closed my eyes until I could feel the car on level ground.

*

To be fair, Shaun has become a safe, if still too speedy, driver through the years. He passed his driving test on the first try. But when he begins to brag about his nearly-spotless record (a single stint in traffic school for a very creative turn), I get superstitious.

Any utterance of the A-word is forbidden around here.

If it's said by accident, er, mishap, I throw salt, knock wood and cross my fingers.

Silly, you say?

I bet it's how Guido starts his day.

*

Kathleen Doheny can be reached at kdoheny@compuserve.com.

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