Driver’s Education

driver-licenseWhen I was a kid growing up in my low-crime, friendly, moderately sized hometown of Ann Arbor, my main means of transport as a youth was by bicycle, and it was the main vehicle of my liberty, starting at about age eleven or twelve, to go where and when I wanted. For my kids, growing up in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles (perhaps America’s most traditional and iconic suburb), in a greater urban area with millions of people and the local news just often enough with stories to freak parents out, they were not given that liberty, and depended on their parents to be their chauffeurs. Or at least until that wondrous future day when they could get their own driver’s license and be able to drive a car themselves.

For the record, I taught my kids to ride bicycles, and we even took a few leisurely rides around the neighborhood. But it never caught on as a means of real transportation for them, and their mom and I never encouraged it, based on the mythology (whether really true or not) that our suburban streets were not safe for kids, resigning ourselves to driving them everywhere they needed to go, including school every morning (except for the two years our daughter went to our neighborhood elementary school and I would often walk with her).

As parent and chauffeur, I quickly understood that it was a very different dynamic asking parents for a ride than hoping on ones bicycle and getting there oneself. First of all your parents would have to know and approve of everywhere you were going. Second they might not be available at all or argue with you that the trip maybe was not worth taking. Young and parent-transport dependent, you were constantly in the mode of justifying and being judged on your travel intentions, something that you probably were getting way too much of already at school.

I knew some parents that got so into this transport role, that they went so far as to completely schedule their kid’s life, including what friends they saw and when, never giving the kid an opportunity to on their own initiate an activity outside the house or build their own schedule.

By the time I got my driver’s license at age 16 I was already used to my liberty to go where I wanted (at least after school before it got dark and on weekends) and very experienced at managing my schedule. My kids, on the other hand, had not had that same opportunity, and in my opinion suffered the arrested development of not being able to manage and execute their own schedules during their personal time. This is so much a fact of life among the parents I know, that I suspect that most parents don’t even think about the deprivation involved. If their kids non-school hours are filled with scheduled lessons, sports and “play dates”, isn’t that developmentally sufficient?

So it is no surprise that both my kids fixated on the day when they could drive a car themselves. Neither was big on math, but they both calculated almost to the day when they should get their learner’s permits and have the required six months before they could apply on or after their birthday’s, for their get-out-of-home-free card.

When I was 15, they taught driver’s education in our public schools, including the behind-the-wheel part. That is no longer the case in Los Angeles, but we were privileged to have the resources to enroll our kids in private driver’s education classes (which yes, we had to drive them to) for both the behind-the-book and behind-the-wheel training. Our kids passed the written test at the DMV to get their learner’s permits, did their required hours with us in the car with them and then passed their road tests and passed this very pragmatically meaningful coming of age milestone.

Some youth I have known tell horror stories about logging those required learner’s permit hours driving with their except I could see clearly the things that they were weak at as rookie drivers, like parking and multi-lane left turns, and when they later started driving on their own, I would worry about them making mistakes in those weak points of their skill set.

But the big-time angst came when they had the license finally and asked to use the car to drive themselves places. We tried to adopt the strategy of okaying small local trips before the longer ones “across town” (which in Los Angeles could be forty miles and involve multiple freeways and bumper-to-bumper traffic). This was always difficult, because the bulk of their friends were in no way within any kind of “neighborhood” and lived all over the greater Los Angeles area. I think the slow increase of the complexity of their trips may have been as much a desensitizing therapy for the parents as it was incremental experience for the young driver.

So for our son Eric, I recall his first trip was a ten-mile thirty-minute drive across the Valley from our home in Northridge to his friend’s house in West Hills, all on surface streets. He was sworn to call us as soon as he arrived and before he left to come home (so we would know during what periods to be needlessly worried…*g*) He felt quickly confident in his driving skill, but we of course were harder to convince. He pretty quickly pushed the envelope, though each new longer or more logistically complex journey was a negotiation and subject of worry, trying to keep from thinking about all those worst nightmares of bad accidents, etc. I recall that within a year he was driving with friends 400 miles to San Francisco, up into the local mountains or north to the Sierra Nevada’s.

Besides the where, the other big difficult issue was when. Since Eric got his license in the winter, it would get dark early and we had to accept right away that he would be doing much of his driving at night. Since he was a homeschooled kid and did not have to get up in the morning for school, we initially said that (after completing that probationary period when young drivers cannot drive alone at night) he had to complete his drive home by 11 PM. That was when we generally went to sleep, and it would be very difficult to do so knowing that our son was still on the road (or maybe even broken down, since our cars were none too new) somewhere. Even a couple years later when he was eighteen and we let him drive home late, it was still hard to fall asleep until I heard the car coming up the driveway.

But other than one fender-bender accident (his fault) and a couple of speeding tickets that jangled our nerves and upped our auto insurance, our son managed to get where he was going and today at 23 is a pretty skilled and accomplished driver, who has now purchased his own car with his own money (from his business) and his own insurance.

For our daughter Emma it was all the same sort of issues, though the geography of her best friend was initially problematic. Her friend was just a fifteen-mile, twenty-minute drive away, but it was a complicated trip involving quick lane changes to transition between (if you can believe it) four freeways. (For those of you who know the north Los Angeles area, and want the details, her trip included brief periods on the 405 North, 118 East, 170 and 5 South.) Add to that the fact that Emma was more directionally challenged than her older brother and again, the trip home for her friend’s was invariably done after dark.

She managed to avoid the speeding tickets (though seems to be plagued by equipment tickets for having a turn signal or other light out) but had more of a major accident (not her fault) that totaled our car but did not hurt her or her passenger, and did not dissuade her from pretty quickly getting back in the driver seat. Today she too, at age 19 has her own car, purchased with her own money from her job and paying for her own insurance.

Though I walk, bicycle, or take the buses and trains as much as possible these days to get around the city, and have refused to take a job that would force me to commute via automobile, it is still clear that independence in this car-obsessed city is most easily found, particularly for older youth, by being able to drive in ones own car.

That said, I do see any number of teenage kids, unaccompanied by an adult, boarding buses and light rail to get to and from school or otherwise get about town. For a couple years, when our son Eric did not have access to his own car, he would journey some forty miles “across town” to his friend’s in Bellflower taking the Orange Line (bus-way), Red Line (subway), Blue Line (trolley) and Green Line (elevated rail). As a committed alternative commuter myself, I am glad my son has had that experience and is comfortable with that mode of transportation.

When I was a youth growing up in Ann Arbor, getting from place on my own was pretty much a given, but in a different time and place where my kids struggled to gain the skills to run their own lives, independence was all about vehicular transportation, and who was at the wheel.

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2 replies on “Driver’s Education”

  1. We grew up like your kids, counting the days to our independence. I also learned the hard way, by a few accidents. In “Podunk” Nebraska, it wasn’t that big a deal to learn. We are near Atlanta, where most driving is interstate. Ben has asked to take driving lessons, and I think that’s a good idea. At 18, he still hasn’t caught the bug, but lessons would help him get there.

    I appreciate your owning up to your fears, ha!He’s our only child, so multiply them at least 4x’s, with my Jewish mother powers of worry. (Like, yeah, if you lose one, you’ve always got another. I should think about these things before I put them down on “paper”….Sorry.)

  2. Cooper Zale says:

    Thanks for your comment, your candor and the kudos on my “owning up”! I’m sure kids first driving is a stressful experience for most parents, particularly when a kid’s route to good friend’s house involves navigating one or more freeways and all those challenging “transitions”! Then throw in the first times it is done at night! Ugh! Thank god our kids did it (as I recall) when we were already able to give them cell phones. The cell phone is underrated as the savior of parents of urban teens! Having that cell phone made mom and dad much more courageous on letting our kids “solo” in the car.

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