Driving lessons

July 05, 2005|By Halaine S. Steinberg

I'M GEARING UP for a summer of white-knuckled fear.

The reason won't be the monster roller coasters at Six Flags, Hershey Park or Disney World. I won't be riding the waves in California or even Ocean City, nor do I plan a summer of skydiving or bungee-jumping.

I'll be supervising teen driving.

This particular thrill ride takes on a wide variety of forms for the parent of two teenagers with newly acquired learner's permits. The very idea of anyone's 15-year-old child controlling thousands of pounds of metal fueled by a powerful engine sets my heart racing even though I am a veteran driving supervisor of my older son. I marvel at how driving instructors do their work, calmly climbing into a car day after day with teenagers about whom scientists have documented that the section of their brain dispensing good judgment will not be fully developed for about another 10 years.

In fact, as an educator, I've seen enough evidence of teenage bad judgment to look upon these scientific studies as mere confirmation of what I had suspected all along. Besides the standard continuum of teenager misbehavior ranging from the minor missed schoolwork assignment to the more serious substance abuse, I've seen enough daredevil driving high jinks in school parking lots to make me want to lobby for an increased driving age of at least 21.

Besides the typical "peeled wheels" and speeding, I've seen what I thought were otherwise sensible young people jump on, hang from and even chase after moving cars, as if they were the in a James Bond movie.

I applauded when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. recently signed a law that bans teen drivers from transporting underage passengers other than siblings for the first five months after getting their licenses. This is the latest development in a graduated system that includes an increase in mandatory hours for driving practice, a longer period between the learner's permit and licensing and provisional licenses for new drivers.

The catch: Those mandatory practice hours almost always fall to the parents to monitor.

But it wasn't until my own 15-year-olds informed me that their aunts were much better driving instructors than their father and I that I experienced this epiphany: Perhaps parents know their children too well and for too long to drive with them.

Indeed, how can any mother relinquish control of a vehicle to someone whose diaper she has changed, whose scraped knees she has bandaged and whose tears she has wiped away in the middle of the night? How can a father feel secure merging onto the Beltway at 55 mph when just a few years before the driver was wobbling around on his first two-wheeled bicycle?

And, to be fair, how can teenagers objectively take instruction, direction and - dare I say it? - criticism from parents when they already have our daily admonitions of cleaning their rooms and taking out the trash in tune-out mode? One evening, my son refused to continue driving when he accused his father and me of yelling at him. My daughter has informed me indignantly that I disregard her feelings in the words I choose to direct her in traffic.

But there is very little room for error on the road, and a mistake not quickly and forcefully corrected could, quite literally, be deadly. And just as I had done when I refused to let them bike, rollerblade or jog on busy streets, I told my children that their safety - not their feelings - would be my first priority.

I once combated the challenges of summer armed with sunscreen, bathing suits and change for the ice cream truck. Now I caution my children to strap on their seatbelts, adjust their mirrors and signal when turning. But one thing hasn't changed: I still remind them to look both ways before crossing the street.

Halaine S. Steinberg lives in Owings Mills.

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