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After my daughter suffered a relationship breakup, she decided that learning to drive would help her get over the heartbreak. So, she picked up the driver’s handbook, crammed for a few nights, passed the test and then started jangling the car keys in front of my face. Like a dog who drops his leash at your feet.
There’s a reason the books advise not teaching your kids to drive. For one, you pass on your bad habits. Insurance companies are aware of this and offer a significant reduction in premiums if they’re taught by pros. The government gets it as well: The only time a student driver can go on the highway is with a professional teacher, not a parent.
All this comes a little late though, since kids have been watching their parents drive all along. Mine certainly have. In the car with his grandparents at nine months old, my son started gesticulating wildly and babbling loudly when his grandfather honked the horn, presumably in imitation of me.
My daughter roundly declares her intention to never copy my driving style. “It’s embarrassing when you drive me to school and comment about other drivers,” she once told me.
“Just wait till you drive and you’ll see how frustrating it is,” I replied.
“I’m sure,” she said, “but do you have to wave your hands around so much?”
This gets to another reason for not teaching your kids to drive: Pushing someone’s buttons – which families do so well – doesn’t mix well with road safety.
During our practice drives, I try to help my daughter by talking through complicated maneuvers in advance. It doesn’t go well.
“There’s an immediate left turn after going over this bridge,” I advise one day. “It will become two lanes, so stay in the left lane, then move into the turning lane.”
I forget that for new drivers, thinking through several steps can take critical seconds. Her brain hasn’t caught up with what I’m saying, and she’s not taking action.
“NOW!” I yell, which rattles her, of course.
“Where’s the turning lane?” she shouts.
I suck in my caustic response. “The one with the arrow on it,” I answer calmly. Or so I think. To her ear it comes out as a shout.
“Don’t yell at me!” she says, gripping the wheel tighter. “You’re making me nervous.”
“I said nothing,” I reply defensively. I want to scream but refrain from doing so because she’s navigating a sharp curve over the salt marsh at high tide.
Coming to a narrow stretch on the causeway, she slows down to just under the speed limit. The car behind starts tailgating. This raises both our anxiety levels, so I raise my middle finger.
“Mom stop it.”
“Well, they shouldn’t be doing that, it’s illegal.”
Anna is anxious. “But I’m holding up traffic.”
“Their problem, not yours,” I say. “And furthermore, the guy is an idiot. If I were driving, though, he’d stop soon enough.”
“And how would you do that?” she challenges.
“Tap the brakes lightly, then speed up.” Now I’m sulking.
“That sounds illegal,” she says, never taking her eyes off the road.
“I don’t think so, but we can look it up when we get home,” I counter.
We drive on in silence for a moment. Then I add: “If he were to rear end us, it would be his fault not ours.”
“Always the last word, Mom,” she says with a smirk.
I basically taught myself to drive at 22 – about the same age as my daughter – on an old car we had sitting in the yard. I also picked up a few lessons from a co-worker.
This obviously gave me an abundance of confidence, because one Saturday night, I decided to drive to work – a pub about 16 kilometres away – while I still had just my beginner’s licence. After we closed around midnight, I offered to drive everyone else home. Five of us crammed into the car and within minutes of pulling out of the parking lot, lights flashed behind me. I pulled over, rolled the window down and stuck my head out as the cop sauntered up.
“Is there a problem officer?”
“Yeah, you’re weaving all over the road. How much have you been drinking?”
“Nothing, we all just finished work, and are heading home.”
“Your licence please?”
I showed him my learner’s permit.
He flashed his light into the passenger seat. “Can I see your licence?” he said to the girl beside me.
She smiled sweetly and said she didn’t have one.
He next flashed his light into the back seat. “Which of you has a driver’s licence?”
Three heads wagged back and forth in unison.
The cop turned the light on me again and raised his eyebrows. “Wanna explain this?”
Legally, I wasn’t supposed to be behind the wheel without a licensed driver in the car.
“I thought they all drove?” I said.
He stared at me hard: “I could throw the book at you right now, but I won’t. Just stay off the highway. Stick to the side roads.”
He started to leave then turned back: “Oh, and do yourself and everyone else on the road a favour and get some driving lessons.”
Which is what my daughter eventually did.
They were a graduation gift from me.
She tells me she never makes a mistake when with the instructor. “Parallel parking is a breeze – his car doesn’t have a stiff steering wheel that grinds and squeals like yours. And he doesn’t suck in his breath when I take a corner too fast.”
Now when she wants to run errands, she takes the keys. Occasionally I go with her. And occasionally she points out rules that I might want to relearn. Mostly I sit in the passenger seat and enjoy the scenery.
One day she taps the brakes once and exclaims, “Did you see that idiot? Where do these people learn to drive?”
I turn to look out the window. “Probably from their parents,” I say, smiling.
Alex Newman lives in Toronto.