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CARMENTARY

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

Son: Having one's nervous mother as an instructor means coping with her natural fears for your life.

April 29, 1999|SHAUN NEWTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Looking back on learning to drive, I remember in particular two things: "Slow down" are the two most evil four-letter words on the planet, and I could go a lifetime without ever again hearing the phrase "Look out!"

Sure, learning to drive is fun. Unless your mother is the driving instructor, and the nervous type. Both of which apply here.

But first, a positive note, in case any teens reading this are in the same driving-instruction hell that I experienced: I persevered and got my license April 3, 1996. Like most teenagers, I took what seemed to be the long way around to getting it. The practice sessions seemed like some lame excuses invented by parents to utterly annoy their pupil offspring. But, hey, who am I to judge?

At any rate, Mom--as my main driving instructor will be referred to here--would take me out to empty parking lots and other assorted, wide-open spaces to help me get acquainted with an Angeleno's best friend. The mere thought of driving, instead of pretending (as I did for so many years in the parked car in the driveway), made me wear a smile that couldn't be scrubbed off with Ajax.

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For me, driving just came naturally. (Don't hate me because I'm beautiful.) OK, there were a few glitches and bumps along the way. Getting the hang of a manual transmission was a little tricky, but they say that if you can't find 'em, grind 'em.

And grind 'em I did. I would look over and see Mom grimace at the horrific sounds. I would just smile weakly. I did get the whole manual transmission deal after a while, and with the grace of an Indy driver, I might add. (OK, maybe not that well.)

Not bumping into other cars on the road was another tough part. Sideswiping cars was on my mind a lot--or rather, trying not to.

Then there was the day Mom and I went to McDonald's to grab some shakes. We had just finished giving our order and were pulling up to "the next window."

Well, somebody over-steered the turn at the drive-thru and gave a lasting memory to the left rear fender of the Nissan. Can you guess who was driving?

I thought about giving up driving then and there; Mom, unusually calm in the wake of losing so much paint, said I had to settle down and drive home.

They say depth perception is one of the hardest parts of driving. That, and trying to get the brown paint from the guidepost at the drive-thru off the fender. At the risk of sounding like Baz Luhrmann, the single-most important thing that all drivers should learn is depth perception.

It's a valuable skill not only at fast-food places but on the freeway as well. A real easy tip to remember when changing lanes, I discovered, is to wait until the driver that you want to pass is fully in your rearview mirror and then change lanes--using your signal. (The rearview mirror is that doohickey in the middle of the windshield. If you don't know what this is, pull over and stop reading this article.)

When you're learning to drive, a weird behavioral change is likely to come over you. Suddenly, you jump at the chance to do any chore that might have seemed like a waste of time before the world of driving entered your sights.

"Going to the store, Mom?"

"Yes."

"Great! I'll drive!" I always ignored it when she rolled her eyes, fearing that this trip might be her last.

Once in a while she'd throw me off and ask if I wanted to drive. Some weird reverse psychology. Believe me, parents are just as stressed about the whole learning-to-drive thing as you are. Of course, back when they learned from their parents, they had dinosaurs for cars, Fred Flintstone was their neighbor, and Bob Dole was the high school stud. My driving instructor, Guido, was probably just as old as Mom--but was much more relaxed.

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Teens getting their licenses nowadays say they are getting the short end of the stick, given stricter California driving rules that require more practice time and pose restrictions on solo driving.

Still, driving is fun. All you have to do is remember 40 billion things and put them into practice all at the same time while driving a 2-ton (potentially) killing machine.

Despite all my jokes, driving is all about responsibility. Please don't think of me as a nerd; I'm not. But I've come to discover the driving rules aren't in place so adults can keep kids in their place; they're meant to teach you.

So have fun learning to drive, and have fun driving. But if you drink (even one beer), stay home or stay at the party. Hey, it's far better to wake up and be late for class than not to wake up at all.

And, yes, there is a reason your driver's education teachers show you "Red Asphalt" 30 times in a semester. They just want you to stay alive.

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Shaun Newton is completing his final year at Cal State Northridge. He can be reached at shaunski@excite.com.

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