Eleven and a half months ago, I started writing a weekly blog about teen driving with a particular focus on teaching my one and only child how to drive. While I’m no stranger to the topic–I’ve been working in traffic safety for nearly 30 years and in teen driving since the mid-1990s–I’ve never taught anyone how to operate a motor vehicle before. Now I know what some of you may be thinking. I’ve been hearing it from family, friends and colleagues since I started this journey: What’s the big deal? You’ve been driving for 36 years, you know the rules of the road and, quite frankly, you work in safety. If anyone can do this, you can.
While I appreciate the vote of confidence, serving as my son’s driving instructor and coach hasn’t exactly been a cakewalk. There’s not only the anxiety that comes with putting an easily distracted 16-year-old behind the wheel of a 3,000 pound machine, but doing it on roadways in a state that’s one of the most densely populated in the nation. Add to that what I know about teens and their crash risk–it’s four times higher than any other age group on the road–and it’s a wonder I’ve allowed my son to drive at all.
But driving he is and I can honestly say that it has been, despite a few new gray hairs, a positive experience. We’re spending quality time together, talking a lot (who’d have thought it possible for a mother to have a meaningful conversation with her teenage son?) and developing a new found respect and appreciation for each other. And while my son is the student driver, I can say without question that I’ve learned as much from him as he has from me.
So last night as I was trying to decide what to write about this week, I thought why not ask my son to share his insights on learning to drive.
“Hey Zach,” I yelled from the family room to the kitchen, “I need your help with my blog.”
“Oooo-kay,” he said.
Ignoring his teenage cynicism, I asked, “What’s been the most surprising thing about learning to drive? What would you share with your friends and their parents?”
“Let me think about that,” he replied.
“I’m writing in the morning, well before you’ll crawl out of bed, so can we talk about this now?”
“I’ll leave something in your office,” he responded.
While I was skeptical that he’d come through, he did leave me a list that much to my surprise I found quite insightful. Here’s what he wrote, verbatim, on a page torn from a composition notebook:
One step at a time
Expect the unexpected
Be helpful but still let them be in most of control (they are the ones driving)
Short, sweet and to the point–just as I expected. I also wasn’t surprised by his advice for parents since teens (confirmed by research) often feel adults are yelling at them when giving instruction (i.e., slow down, brake, etc.). But his advice for teens really struck me; it’s not only sensible, but exceptionally mature. While he’s an inexperienced driver who is likely to make mistakes (brain development is the primary culprit) and be involved in a crash (the odds for teen boys are overwhelmingly not in their favor), I can take solace in the fact that he recognizes that driving is risky and requires your undivided attention, and that it takes time to build skill.
As for his advice to “relax,” I had to smile. Thinking back on our first few months of practice driving, Zach, not unlike many novices, literally had a death grip on the wheel. That has changed over time as he has become more comfortable with the vehicle and the road.
So where do we go from here? I’ll thank him for sharing his thoughts pointing out that I think his advice for both parents and teens is sound. But I won’t make a big deal out of it. He wouldn’t want that; he’s not that kind of a kid. Instead, I’ll heed his advice and work hard on being patient (I don’t yell, at least not anymore!) and helpful recognizing that he’s the guy in the driver’s seat.
I'll also put his list on the refrigerator as a reminder to both of us (as well as his dad) what we need to focus on. Coupled with that will be our parent-teen driving agreement that clearly spells out our respective roles and responsibilities once Zach is driving independently. For now that’s a few more weeks away and contingent upon him passing the state driving test. But one thing that I feel certain of based on what I asked him to do last night, is that he’s well on his way to becoming not only a driver, but one that understands what that truly entails.