Driving Aloud

student-driver road sign with swerving car

My sixteen-year-old twins are worried that I am going to yell at them in the car.

Given that they are both new drivers with learner's permits, this a probably a reasonable assumption.

But I like to think that dispensing advice in the car is more like the distinction made with laughter: I am not yelling at them, I am yelling with them.

To be fair, I don’t yell because, say, they are nervous and hesitating too much during a left turn through a fast moving and busy intersection. No, I yell because I am in the passenger seat and a two-ton semi is bearing down on me.

In the moment, it seems important that I get their attention with as few words as possible. And occasionally those words are sharp and loud. Like a bark. You see, it takes me a while to craft positive feedback when the consequences are dire and imminent.

I mean, I would hate to T-boned by a cement mixer during the middle of calm and cautionary discourse with my son or daughter reminding them to look both ways and then back again to make sure there is adequate time to make the turn and then coaching them to accelerate without hesitation through the turn because sometimes oncoming vehicles are very large and heavy and moving more swiftly than . . .

Well, you get the picture. It is not pretty.

But even when danger is not a concern, I refrain from yelling. For example, I would never yell at them after they have jumped the curb entering our driveway and run over all of the lilies. I am much more forgiving about things like that.

I yell at them before they are about to jump the curb and run over the lilies.

Clearly I am not alone in the Nervous Parent of Teenage Drivers Department. After their Drivers Ed classes my kids brought home a pamphlet entitled: Safe Driving, with the pointed subtitle, A Parent's Guide to Teaching Teens.

Given that the guide was published by the NJ Motor Vehicle Commission, I assumed it had something to do with teaching such arcane New Jersey peculiarities as using jug handles to turn left from the right lane, or how to decode Turnpike exit numbers, or how to use appropriate hand gestures when blaming other drivers for your mistakes.

And it did. But the pamphlet also emphasized the importance of using positive reinforcement with young drivers and exercising verbal control designed to calmly give teens plenty of time to react. In bold letters it warned: Don’t yell.

WHAT??? I yelled when I read it. Clearly the author was not a parent of a teenage driver. Or at least was never crawling through the middle of a busy intersection staring up from the passenger seat at an irate driver of an over-sized tractor-trailer who is standing on the brakes.

When my older son started driving on his own he was well-prepared and ready. We had put in a lot of driving time together and soon I became completely comfortable whenever he was behind the wheel.

One day, shortly after he had earned his license, I received a call from a police officer. I don’t remember the entire call, but I remember how it started: “Your son is OK, and so is your daughter, but there was an accident . . .

Although my heart was pounding, making it difficult to concentrate, I also remember the sporadic words that followed: . . . struck at an intersection . . . ran through a stop sign . . . rolled over . . . fire department and EMS . . . hospital . . .

I met them at the Emergency Room. Both of my kids were strapped tight to backboards, their heads immobilized with large orange blocks and unforgiving neck collars. My daughter was scared and in tears, but she was quickly unfastened and calmed by the ER doctor because, miraculously, she had arrived without a scratch.

Her older brother was almost as lucky. He had one scratch. On his finger. From broken glass. The doctor cleared him right away too.

Say what you will about modern cars, but they are remarkably safe. Ours was crumpled beyond recognition on the outside, yet remained a pristine cocoon on the inside.

By that time I was an entire back seat of belted nerves. But my son was remarkably calm and collected. He explained exactly what happened. He was taking his sister to soccer practice. Another driver ran through a stop sign as he passed through a residential intersection close to our house at slow speed. When he noticed that the driver was not yielding he swerved to avoid a collision.

But he was too late. The driver struck our car toward the rear, thrusting it sideways down an inclined street. The car rolled over. Twice.

When the ambulance arrived they were still strapped tight in their car seats. Hanging upside down.

Needless to say, I was extremely relieved that they were both safe. But I was also extremely proud of my son’s collected demeanor in the face of an extremely agitating event.

I grabbed his hand and held it. “How can you be so calm given all that happened?” I asked him, more for my reassurance than his.

His eyes twinkled mischievously and he smiled. “It wasn’t my fault,” he said, “so I knew you weren’t going to yell at me.”

I should probably read that pamphlet again.