Monday, August 23, 2010

Behind the Wheel

By Jennifer Huffman
Napa Valley Register
Monday, August 23, 2010

So we are about to have another driver in our family. A 16-year-old driver. Behind the wheel. Of a real car. On a real road. With other real drivers, who may or may not be equally new at driving.

This terrifies a mom on so many levels. Where do I begin? Well for one thing I should start by saying I hope this will be one of many columns I write about our teen and her driving. But I have a feeling I’ll be lucky to get even just this column about driving in print. I predict that once said 16-year-old starts driving I will be forbidden to write about it. So you could say I am doing a preemptive strike. I’m writing about the driving before it even begins so that once the newbie driver looks at me with daggers in her eyes and says “You better not write about this in your column,” I can respond quite truthfully, “Sure. I won’t write about your driving.” Oh, yes, I am one clever mom/columnist.

Back to the driving.

First of all, I don’t exactly know how it all works yet. I know there is a driving permit to get. And some online course or practice driving with something called Sweet Sisters. I have seen those Sweet Sisters cars around town. Why is it that all the Sweet Sisters cars are cute little Mustangs? Does a 16-year-old really need to zip around town in a candy apple red Mustang for a driving lesson? I think not. There is nothing sweet about a skittish 16-year-old behind the wheel of a potential hotrod.

A 16-year-old should learn to drive in their grandpa’s gigantic olive green 1970s Oldsmobile, in an empty high school parking lot like I did. She should be driving in the oldest, biggest, most sturdy and protected car ever made. Preferably with roll bars and while wearing a NASCAR-approved helmet. And with a GPS system that lets mom know exactly where the new driver is at all times, and relays the precise speed she is driving on Jefferson Street at 3:35 p.m. on any given afternoon. Yes, that is how it should be.

I guess there is also some kind of practice driving that needs to be done — again on real roads in real cars but with mom or dad in the passenger seat. This so-called “practice” driving must continue for six months. Six months of pure terror, I am told. Is it possible to act nonchalant while letting your teenager — who may or may not still sleep with stuffed animals at night — drive you around town? There is no brake on the passenger side of the car. I will be far, far away from the actual steering wheel and completely defenseless. I will be at her mercy. Is your blood pressure going up as mine is as I write this? I may need to see a doctor after the stress of just writing about her driving.

Let’s not forget that 16-year-olds are notoriously unpredictable. They may be able to memorize all kinds of arcane Algebra II formulas and French verbs but they can’t remember what they ate for lunch that day or where their shoes are. One minute they’re driving down the road, the next minute, “Oh, look at that butterfly,” and boom, the car is wrecked and someone has a broken leg or two.

As a parent of a new driver, I should have some kind of remote control button that I can push to instantly freeze all other traffic in town as our daughter makes her way to and from the school on the approved and designated route we will establish for her. Only when she arrives at her destination will all other traffic be free to move about town.

Then there’s the car insurance. I have heard the horror stories of the cost to insure a teen driver. Thousands of dollars a year, apparently. Who’s going to pay for that? I may need a benefactor to adopt her. Please let me know if you are interested.

A mom friend told me I could send our daughter to some kind of CHP teen driving program. Great! Sign us up. Better yet, let her ride along with a CHP officer and see the havoc a drunken driver can bring. Make her look at pictures of traffic accidents caused by speeding drivers. Have her use that ray gun to clock speeders on Highway 121. Scare her straight, I say — straight off the road.

Unlike my husband who lived on a ranch outside of town when was growing up and needed his own car to get to school, I was not one of those kids who rushed out the minute I turned 16 to get my license. My mom taught at my high school. I rode with her to school every morning. I most certainly was not presented a brand new car on my 16th birthday with a bow on top and car keys in a box. (No, I’m not bitter.)

Instead, somewhere around my 17th birthday I finally got my act together and got my license. My first car was our family’s bright green 1976 Volkswagen camper van. The kind with the long stick shift and that swayed like crazy in any kind of crosswind. Oh how I envied my friends at school that had their own cute little cars. But noooooo, I was driving the green VW van. With my mother in the passenger seat. Woo hoo.

So here we go. Next time you’re on the road, if you see a minivan with particularly terrified looking mom in the passenger seat and an impossibly young looking girl behind the wheel, just pull over and let us pass. We mean you no harm.

Surrendering to Motherhood appears every other Monday, alternating with Michelle Choat’s Gal on the Go.

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