The truck was on the wrong side of the road. In fact, the truck was on OUR side, coming at us on a little suburban side street, headed right for us as we came down the hill, with parked cars to the left of the truck so it had nowhere to go.
This was bad, but what made it worse was this was my daughter Samantha's very first time behind the wheel. We were on our way home from the Division of Motor Vehicles where she had passed -- on her second try -- her driving test and was handed her official learner's permit. We celebrated by letting her drive home. This was hardly a celebration.
The truck was close enough that I could see the driver's face in the windshield as, to her great credit, Samantha easily veered right, scraping the shrubs that hung over our side of the street and making a disturbingly loud clatter on my side of the car.
We missed the truck by inches.
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The danger passed, Samantha pulled over to the side of the road and parked the car to catch her breath. And mine.
Welcome to the world of teaching your teen to drive. If you thought algebra homework and learning how to hit a fastball were tough, just wait until it's your turn to sit on the passenger side of the car while your kid takes the wheel and asks, "An arrow means I can go, right?" and you say, "Yes," and then you notice the arrow is red and your heart stops in your chest.
It's a wonder anyone learns to drive at all.
True, there are professionals who are more than willing to get into a car with your inexperienced kid, but there are those among us -- the majority, perhaps? -- who believe having input on how our children drive is important.
On the other hand, it may just be selfish.
"If most parents are really honest with themselves, really what they're looking for is to make their child drive like them, because they want to feel comfortable in the car," says Philip Reed, senior consumer advice editor for Edmunds Inc., which operates websites about vehicles and driving.
"I think that's unrealistic," he says. "We shouldn't hold them to our standard because our standard may be imperfect."
It's a good point, but still, Samantha was anxious to begin her driving career before her school schedule permitted professional driving lessons, which would come later as part of the certification process. It fell to her mother and I to teach her the basics.
So off we went in the Prius to a large and empty parking lot to practice accelerating, braking and turning. Reed, who writes extensively on safe driving practices, says that was an important first step.
"The dynamics of how the car handles -- how much to press the brake, how fast to turn the wheel -- that is all independent of handling traffic situations," he says. It's good to know how fast your car will decelerate before facing the bumper of another car in traffic.
Samantha has had her license since October, and I asked her what she remembers of those first sessions in the empty parking lot.
"I remember you ruined my day by insisting on making me parallel park," she says firmly. "You might tell people it's not a good idea to make a 15-year-old parallel park on her first day of driving lessons."
Hey, it's a skill you'll use often, right? Reed's not so sure. "The car's going to do it for her," he says. My larger mistake was stressing Samantha out while trying to teach her vital driving basics -- the more comfortable the learning environment, the less nervous she will be about driving 55 miles an hour.
"You should never lose sight of the fact you are dealing with a life-and-death situation here," Reed says. Teen drivers drive less than all but the oldest drivers, says the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, but their numbers of crashes and crash deaths are disproportionately high, and the risk is highest at age 16, twice that of 18- to 19-year olds. (The deadliest month is June; the deadliest day is Saturday; the deadliest hours are from 6 to 9 p.m. Makes you want to take away the keys on Saturday evenings in June.)
Reed also points out that "well before they come of age as drivers, it's important to set a good example for them when you're on the road." In other words, texting, honking and shouting in traffic probably aren't the best ideas with a burgeoning driver as a passenger.
It's also a good idea for parents to "set ground rules about texting, telephones and friends in the car," says Reed. "The more specific you can be about outlining expectations, the better off your son or daughter will be." Reed points out that states are stepping in with new laws limiting what drivers -- underaged ones as well as adult ones -- can and can't do while behind the wheel, but parents teach best when they set examples.
For months I did my best to remain calm, use a level voice and not admonish Samantha too severely for not coming to complete stops at stop signs (although I was firm enough to let her know it was important). Still, she took most of my comments, even noncritical ones, defensively. But when her professional instructor took over, she never reported about either of them being upset over comments or criticism.
"That's because that's his job," Samantha says now. Me? I'm just the amateur parent -- who has been driving 39 years.
One thing I did do right, quite by happy accident, was ask Samantha when she was riding with me what she saw down the road. I made her aware that she was looking only at the foreground. Most of the obstacles that cause fast actions behind the wheel are well ahead, such as stopped cars, changing lights and varying road conditions (construction cones, for instance).
Dr. Susan Smith Kuczmarski says I did the right thing. She's the author of The Sacred Flight of the Teenager: A Parent's Guide to Stepping Back and Letting Go, which sort of says it all.
"The best way to teach teens how to drive is to show them how to really SEE the road," she says. While experienced drivers look ahead, "a teenager drives down a street, focused on holding the steering wheel straight, accelerating and braking smoothly -- and appearing cool. Compared to an experienced driver, their visual discipline and skill are extremely underdeveloped.
"Say right out loud what you see as you drive and what you do to drive safely: 'Signal a left turn about 100 feet before the intersection; start slowing down; stop completely in back of the limit line; look both directions for traffic; check for pedestrians who have the right of way.'
"At first, this narrative may feel strange because you are talking about what you do automatically every time you sit behind the wheel. You may be surprised at how much seeing and doing actually occurs when you drive."
Now it's your teen driver's turn to describe what they see as you drive "narrating what a good driver should be seeing and doing to drive safely," Kuczmarski says. "Listen as your teen describes your driving. Check for any omitted steps. Give feedback, especially positive, encouraging comments. When a teen can describe your good driving habits as you drive, you'll know that he is ready to get behind the wheel."
And once they do, "have him narrate as he drives," she says. "Again, listen and check to see if he has missed anything. Give feedback on both seeing and driving. If you approach it this way, he's going to know how to drive, all the way through his body. The steps [in driving] should become second nature so that you don't even have to think about them anymore."
And whither the clutch? My wife and I are convinced Samantha should know how to drive my manual five-speed Jeep Wrangler as well as the 2007 automatic Prius, in case she ever has need to drive from somewhere in a manual vehicle.
Surprisingly, Reed's not so sure.
"It appears the manual transmission is on its way out," he says, citing copious industry literature to that speculation. "It used to be a point of pride and a little bit of a necessity to learn both, but it will be less important in the future. Even the usual cost difference between automatic and manual is going away."
It was a sometimes a struggle, but an important one, to get Samantha comfortable with driving, and now I can send her out in a downpour to get groceries without (much of) a second thought. It was a relief to both of us when she got that license.
But guess what? Her 14-year-old brother Luke is beginning to ask, "So, can you make a left turn on the arrow?" Looks like more driving fun in the future.