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Sandy Banks

For Mother and Daughter, Driving Is a Test on Road to Independence

February 04, 2001|Sandy Banks

She is buckled into the driver's seat, pushing buttons and pulling levers, adjusting the steering wheel, her seat, the rearview mirrors, the radio.

The radio? "No radio!" I tell her, punching the knob to silence her music. "You need to concentrate on the road." She rolls her eyes at me and sighs.

"Well, once I get my license, don't expect me to drive without the radio on," she announces. We jerk in our seats as she throws the car into reverse.

She lurches down the driveway and onto the road, barely missing the trash cans at the curb. No use fighting over the radio, I decide. There is so much more.

"Too fast," I chide her. "Watch out for those kids on scooters. Don't cut the wheel so much. You're way too close to that car."

Her smile has faded, she is no longer waving to the neighbors. She rolls to a stop at the end of our block. "Too late," I scold. "You waited too late to step on the brakes."

She looks at me, and her eyes are blazing. "I can't do this, Mommy, if you keep criticizing me. Is there anything I've done right so far?"

I smile weakly. "Well, you haven't hit anything. Actually, you're doing pretty good."

She smiles and hits the gas, swinging wide into a right turn that takes us into the path of oncoming traffic. We swerve toward the curb and back again, finally finding our place in the proper lane. I bite my lip as she struggles and hold my tongue.

It is her maiden voyage behind the wheel, with mommy in the passenger seat--in charge, but no longer in control.


I am one of those rare parents who has been eagerly counting down the days until my oldest child can drive. I'd pony up for insurance and hand over the keys for freedom from the tyranny of life as the only driver in our busy family.

With three kids constantly coming and going, my role in life seems little more than delivery woman and chauffeur. Once my 15-year-old turns 16, I can add another driver to my livery . . . and subtract one child who needs a lift to the library, the orthodontist, a football game, the mall.

Still, like any parent, I cannot avoid the horror stories: The carload of teens killed on their way home from a party when their speeding driver spins across the freeway. The 17-year-old, running errands for his parents, who is momentarily distracted by the sun and plows into an elderly crossing guard. The 16-year-old, sober and driving the speed limit, who loses control of his SUV and veers onto the sidewalk, killing a mother and two children.

It is hard enough for experienced drivers to make their way safely through our perilous streets. I shudder to think of my teenage daughter negotiating the kind of maneuvers--changing freeway lanes, merging into traffic, pulling out onto a busy street--that still sometimes make my heart race, and I've been driving for 30 years.

We are lucky here in California, where one of the nation's toughest teen licensing laws regulates how much and with whom our teenagers can drive. No hauling around packs of friends until six months after you get your license. No late-night trips, unless an adult comes along. And it takes six months--and 50 hours behind the wheel--before a teenager with a learner's permit can take the test for a driver's license.

Kids complain that the restrictions cramp their style, taking the magic out of turning 16. And parents face a heavy burden--the choice of spending hundreds on driving school, or two hours a week in the passenger seat, with their teenagers behind the wheel.

We've got one hour down, 49 to go. And I have started pinching pennies, trying to save for driving school.


This time my daughter is in the passenger seat, criticizing me as I drive her home. "You didn't stop before you turned right at that sign. And what's the speed limit here? How come you're going 45?"

I prepare to turn left at a busy intersection, and throw the questions back at her. "Should I go now?" She eyes the rows of oncoming traffic.

"Yes . . . No! That car's coming too fast." Now? "No, wait, someone's crossing the street." Now? "Yeah. But there's a truck coming. You can make it, I think. I don't know. Maybe!"

This is no place for maybe. I gun my engine and turn, clearing the lane just ahead of the 18-wheeler. My daughter sucks in her breath until the truck roars past and we are safely out of its reach. I glance at her and she is staring, wide-eyed, at the street.

"That was hard, wasn't it," I say. She shrugs and turns up the radio. "Don't worry, Mommy. When I'm driving, I just won't make left turns. Now, slow down. If you time it right, you can hit that intersection just as the light turns green."

I lift my foot from the gas and realize she's right. She smiles at me as we cruise through the light.


Sandy Banks' column runs on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is

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