I was thinking about buying a car this spring, and the one I had my eye on was white, included four doors, and boasted a sign that said “STUDENT DRIVER” on the roof.
It’s not the sign that I cared about, though; I wanted it for the passenger-side foot brake.
You see, the state of North Carolina had given my 15-year-old daughter her learner’s permit – which, in theory, sent me hurtling toward the day when I would have a personal chauffeur but, in practice, mostly sent me hurtling toward close calls with other cars, innocent pedestrians and retaining walls.
Of course, there were vast differences between expectation and reality on her end, as well.
When she first got her permit, she was elated, her head filled with dreams of personal freedom. But for the first couple months, all she got was nightmares filled with her father next to her, making one of two things: the sounds you’d expect to hear from someone witnessing a shark attack, or the sign of the cross.
Most of us have forgotten how complicated and perilous driving a car really is. How, believe it or not, these two-ton hunks of steel, rubber and glass weren’t designed to be operated at 70 mph while eating an Egg McMuffin or ordering stuff you don’t need on Amazon or applying another layer of foundation.
If you need a reminder, just climb into the passenger seat of a car being driven by a high school freshman whose resume consists of two weeks of classroom instruction, two weeks of driving instruction, and 10 years of Mario Kart. Oh, and make sure you’ve visited a restroom recently before the ride-along.
Her, about to pull out of the driveway: “Do I need to put my blinker on?”
Me: “No, but you need to take it out of reverse so we don’t plow into the garage door.”
Her, winding through the neighborhood: “What’s the speed limit here?”
Me: “Actually, your speed is fine, but – OHMYGODWATCHIT! – let’s try to get more than half an inch of clearance between the passenger-side-view mirror and these mailboxes.”
Her, approaching a stop sign: “When should I start slowing down?”
Me: “Five or 10 seconds ago would have been good”
Her, after parking in a space at the grocery store: “Is this OK?”
Me: “Yup, yup. A little tight on this side here, so I might re-park you. Hang on, I’ll climb out of the sunroof and come around.”
Her, eyes darting back and forth between the road and the rear-view: “I think the guy behind me is shaving.”
Me: “I THINK THE GUY IN FRONT OF YOU IS BRAKING!!!”
Since those first harrowing rides, she’s improved.
She’s still way better at Mario Kart but, like I said, she’s been playing that game for 10 years. In real life, becoming a good driver can take just as long (if you don’t believe me, ask any auto insurance company that drops policy prices when a driver turns 25).
But here’s what I admire most about her driving right now: It’s careful. It’s deferential. It’s defensive. All because she’s new.
She doesn’t yet have our skills, experience, instincts, reflexes, spatial awareness, but she also doesn’t have any of our worst habits. She doesn’t make other drivers read her mind as to which way she intends to turn. She doesn’t floor it like she’s at the zMAX Dragway when a stoplight turns yellow. She doesn’t ride people’s bumpers, or keep the car-stereo volume at arena-rock-show levels, or check her Instagram while changing lanes.
On a recent drive, she even found a safe spot to pull over so an impatient motorist behind her could pass.
I know she probably won’t maintain this level of courtesy forever. But I’ll keep climbing into the passenger seat and appreciating it while it lasts.