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drive, she said

'My husband is a terrible driver. ... a truly horrible driver. He tailgates constantly and can't even keep the car in the lane. On highways, he routinely hits the rumble strips. ... and even that is not enough to convince him that he's not staying in the lane. He thinks he's a great driver. So now our oldest daughter is 16 and ... he wants to teach her to drive. WHAT DO I DO?"

I came across this letter to an advice columnist in the Washington Post. It wasn't in a driving section; it was where it should be: a living section. Because this isn't a driving issue, it's a behavioural one. "Send her to a professional," came the reply.

A young woman pulled me aside a few months ago, said that she wasn't a good driver, and asked if I had any advice on how she could get better. I paused for a couple of beats, because nobody ever admits they are poor drivers. This girl had progressed through the necessary lessons, but knew it wasn't enough. The first thing I did was tell her it was just as important that she recognized it, as it is rare.

Telling someone they're a terrible driver is like telling them they're a terrible lover. They won't believe you, it will anger them, and now they're going to wonder who else agrees with you. They might also start to question all those times they've been stuck driving alone.

For most, driving is not an innate skill. It takes practice, experience and dedication. Enjoying it isn't enough to make you good at it; you have a role when you're piloting a car that involves the rights and safety of everybody else on the road as well as your passengers. Some people respect this, and some just don't care. It's an uphill battle when people use the yardstick of how many crashes they've been in as a measure of their competence behind the wheel. I don't want to leave a bunch of angry near-misses in my wake, either.

An instructor once noted that our natural line of vision is still essentially that of a caveman: we are looking low and near so we can chase after a woolly mammoth on foot to catch it. In a car, we have to aim at something farther away that we'll get to much faster, and much of driving is vision. If a driver is still chasing woolly mammoths, he's going to be routinely surprised by that car pulling out of the driveway.

Here's a handy litmus test to determine a driver's skill: you either feel safe when they're behind the wheel or you don't. There are also many categories of bad drivers. There are those who don't have enough experience and can get better; there are those who are experiencing a deterioration of health or loss of cognitive skills at the twilight of a driving career; and there are those who believe they are excellent drivers and think I'm talking about somebody else.

If the number one fight between couples is about money, I'm going to venture that driving is up there, too. The choices are bleak – you can say nothing as you grind your teeth down to nubs, or you can say something and start another fight.

Something the advice seeker up top seems to forget however, is that daughter has been driving with her dad for all her life now. Bad habits get ingrained through automotive osmosis: that speed limits are merely suggestions, that stop is short for stop-tional, and it only matters if you get caught. He is not only endangering her safety, he is passing along his terrible habits.

The answer was good, but incomplete. Many people can see the wisdom in letting a pro teach your teen how to drive. But I worry about a bigger issue: how do you empower your kid to refuse to drive with someone they feel is endangering them? Do you yourself leave room for someone to express that concern to you?

Physicians will tell you it's a brutal battle telling an older driver it's time to hang up the keys, but what about someone who is just a terrible driver? Inattentive is as dangerous as aggressive; overly cautious deserves its own category. Sometimes people confuse being able to afford an expensive car with being good at driving it.

As for the woman who asked about her husband, I'm glad she's worried on behalf of her daughter. But why on earth is she still driving with someone she considers a menace? Rumble strips shouldn't be used like bumper guards at a bowling alley or training wheels on a bike, and if your marriage can't survive a talk about driving, good luck when the money troubles start. Or your in-laws come to stay for a month.

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