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Road Hazards: Driving with My Teen

Like you, I’m a spiritual person given to pondering the great unanswerable questions of life. Like this little existential mystery:

Why in Saab’s name are 15-year-olds allowed to operate moving vehicles on public roadways?

I can think of no good reason why a person who still drops food from his mouth with stunning regularity — and alarming nonchalance — should be permitted to propel a half-ton, motorized murder machine through cityscapes occupied by innocent and unsuspecting humans.

It ain’t right.

So it’s only natural that I lurch into a sudden brace-for-impact stance when my son is driving and we are careening down a freeway off-ramp at rush hour into a snarl of ghastly gridlock.

“Mom, really? Can you not do this?” the giant child says, dramatically mimicking my dashboard death grip.

“Very well,” I say, calmly. “But what you didn’t see is that I stopped myself from screaming, ‘PLEASE, GOD, DON’T LET ME DIE IN AN UNDERPASS!’ So … that’s something.”

I fear for his safety, sure. And that of his fellow motorists. But it’s more than that. It’s bigger. From the first time he operated a wheeled vehicle — the Elmo lawn mower that helped him take his first steps, his fudgy feet flap-slap-flapping the ground as he pushed that thing from couch to kitchen and back again (boy, I hope he doesn’t read this) — I’ve been scared by what it signifies.

From the Elmower to trike to skateboard to city bus, each time he climbed aboard a zooming new vamoosemobile, I was reminded that he’s going to leave one day. And that I can’t steer his life for him. He was born — conceived and created — to take his own wheel and navigate his own course, to merge into the traffic of life, vulnerable to blind spots and encountering untold hazards along the way. Scanning the road ahead for what the future may bring and swerving dangerously to avoid metaphors like this one that never run out of gas but just keep coming at you like … like the broken white lines on the freeway.

In the months since the optimistic folks at the DMV gave him the go-ahead to drive, my son has gone from being a hyper-cautious pupil grateful for tips like “careful: leashless dog, two o’clock” to a huffy know-it-all who says, “Excuse me, but who just took two straight hours of driver’s training? I think I know what I’m doing.”

The weird thing is — he’s right. Apart from inspiring the occasional brace-for-impact stance, the kid’s got skills. He’s good. Whether driving his dad’s electric car with its distracting miles-per-kilowatt-hour readout, his mom’s slippery stick shift with the fussy fourth gear, his grandmother’s brake-averse behemoth SUV, or the herky-jerky family Jeep that’s older than his biology teacher, he’s gauging his following distance, using turn signals, yielding to those with the right of way.

And damn it all if I don’t have to credit those video games he’s been playing for the last decade for whittling his reaction time down to nearly nothin’.

Once a vigilant, sweaty-palmed passenger who felt the need to be the trained eyes, ears, and instincts he lacked, I now find my gaze drifting from the pavement ahead over to watch my kid at ease and in charge at this metaphor-rich command center — operating pedals, knobs, and levers while carrying on conversations, slowing at curves, flipping on headlights. Would you look at this guy?!

At these times, I have to wonder if the plot to let teenagers drive is really just a tough-love way to help parents recognize these near-grown-ups as the capable, sort-of-amazing people that they are, when they don’t happen to be eating.

If so, then there’s little we can do except hand over the very keys that will take our kids out of our driveways and, one day soon, entirely out of our sight.

And just brace for the impact.


Published inColumnsParenting
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