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Thrills of teaching a teen to drive ... from afar
Scripps Howard News Service

January 17, 2006

Parenting holds many thrills, chills and worries, but none quite as spectacularly terrifying as teaching a teenager to drive.

Our oldest son is driving now, and it's a regular carnival ride every time we take the minivan out of the garage. Abrupt starts and stops and sweeping turns, breath-taking braking and heart-pounding near-misses, and concrete curbs that seem to leap right out in front of us. And that's all before we leave our own cul-de-sac.

I'm kidding. He's doing fine. No accidents yet (knock on every wood surface within reach), and he's mostly careful and deliberate. If anything, he goes a little too slow, sticking to the speed limit, and you know how crazy that can make other drivers. They zoom around us, scowling and honking, and I feel just like a senior citizen.

No, my anxiety isn't based on the realities of my son's driving. It's a pre-existing condition. I've always been a nervous passenger. Other drivers don't go quickly enough, they don't stop soon enough and I'm pretty sure they're not paying enough attention. If I'm riding in your car, you'd better pray that the floorboards are solid because I will be stomping that invisible brake. I can't help myself.

If I'm in a moving vehicle, I prefer to be at the helm. Even on public transportation in unfamiliar cities, I'm always a little itchy about the driver. The airlines are lucky I don't know how to fly.

Giving the steering wheel to another driver causes me the same anxiety as handing over the TV remote control. Only worse, because misuse of the remote control isn't likely to result in death by fiery crash.

For all these reasons I wasn't the one who taught our son to drive. I half-heartedly volunteered to do it, but that made the rest of my family laugh until beverages spurted out their noses.

My wife taught him. She's patient and considerate and level-headed and calm, all the things I'm not. She's the one who took our son out to parking lots and endured the gear-grinding and the whiplash accelerations and the shrieking stops. I stayed at home, watching sports on TV and chewing my fingernails down to the knuckles.

Our son also went through driver's ed in school and attended a six-hour driving course taught by a professional with nerves of steel.

By the time the boy and I started driving together he already had his learner's permit and many hours of experience.

And he still scares the bejeebers out of me. I ride in the passenger seat, fingers dug into the upholstery, feet dancing, a frozen smile on my face, while we miss other cars by inches or drift too close to the shoulder or stop, stop, I said, stop right now. Whew.

I know it's not him. He's driving fine, better than a lot of the crazy motorists we encounter, people who've been driving for years, who should know better. It's me. My own jumpiness. My own phobia.

So I ride along, teeth clenched, trying not to distract him with too much coaching, trying not to criticize unnecessarily, trying not to imagine what it will be like to go plunging across the median into that oncoming semi.

Just a few constructive comments, I tell myself. Only when absolutely needed. Only when it will help. After all, we're preparing him for the big driving test to come, the one where he'll get his full license and be allowed to drive all by himself.

I try to picture him driving without me in the car. He'll probably be better off.


Redding, Calif., author Steve Brewer's latest book is called "Bank Job."
Contact him at ABQBrewer(at)


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