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Get Your Motor Runnin': Kids Behind the Wheel


Say what you will about the six-year-old Virginia boy who tried to drive himself to school Monday morning after missing the bus, but I bet he wasn't talking on a cell phone or putting on makeup as he sped down that country lane.

Yes, he eventually ran off the road, hit a utility pole and totaled his parents' Ford Taurus, but does that make him any worse than the drivers we encounter every day around here?

Just give him a few years. He'll probably be a great driver when he's 8.

My 17-year-daughter is learning to drive, so I've been thinking a lot about youngsters behind the wheel. Gwyn lags behind many of her fully licensed peers, since not long after she got her learner's permit we moved to England, where we not only didn't have a car but they insist on driving on the wrong side of the road. She's only recently settled back into learning, going out most weekends with me or my wife and coaxing a lovely burning smell from the clutch of our Mini Cooper.

I still remember my father's first words to me when he started teaching me to drive 30 years ago: "This is the most dangerous thing you will ever do. This is more dangerous than holding a loaded gun." It made an impression.

Of course, back then every student at a Montgomery County high school learned to drive in school. Driver's ed featured simulators and movies (hmmm, a ball just rolled into the street; can a child be far behind?), and trips around town with the basketball or football coach in the seat next to you.

I don't understand why that changed. Driver's ed at school suggested that safe driving was an important civic responsibility. I suppose some people think schools have a hard enough time teaching kids to add and subtract; why tax teachers with another responsibility? Plus, a whole industry has arisen since high schools stopped teaching driving. What would become of places such as AAA-Angelo's Driving School and Bail Bond Service and their highly skilled employees?

I worry about my kids on the road for precisely the reasons my father laid out. Driving is dangerous, and a teen with a license embodies the diminution of control that a parent experiences as a child grows older. One minute they're crawling, the next they're walking, the next they're borrowing the car keys and telling you not to wait up.

I wish there was a sure-fire way to guarantee my daughters would become safe, skillful drivers. It sounds like maybe getting them Grand Theft Auto is the way to go. Do drivers check their mirrors and use their turn signals in that video game?

What memories do you have of learning to drive? Who taught you? And if you've taught your teenager, what advice do you have? Park your thoughts in the Comments section below.

By John Kelly  |  January 7, 2009; 8:53 AM ET
 | Tags: driving  
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I'm fourty-four years old and still learning how to parallel park.

Posted by: justhere | January 7, 2009 9:31 AM | Report abuse

I have 3 daughters who are now 20, 21, and 23. While they had learning permits, I had my daughters drive me places and was unmerciful in my criticism of them. When I needed to go to the grocery store or on errands, I would tell whichever one was in the learning permit phase to get the car keys, we had someplace to go, rain or shine.

They didn't like it because they knew it would be tough experience. But if they weren't willing to drive me places so I could experience for myself their skill level, they weren't going to get my permission to take the final licensing test.

Also, I had heard somewhere that it is important to talk with young drivers about the danger of running off the paved road onto the shoulder and how to handle that situation. We live in Southern Maryland and a lot of back roads don't have paved shoulders. I think a lot of accidents are caused by inexperienced drivers overreacting to leaving the road. So, after we talked, I had each of them deliberately run a little off the road so they could see how it feld and how to gently bring the car back up onto the pavement. It was a good way to help them experience a dangerous thing while guiding them on how to safely handle it.

Good luck!!

Posted by: greatscott47 | January 7, 2009 9:38 AM | Report abuse

I have many good memories of learning to drive. My high school, John F, Kennedy, offered driving education classes. Everyone enjoyed practicing in the driving range and it was a required course. My older brother made sure that I was careful with the signs and rules of driving. He taught me to not be scared and spent many weekends just the two of us. I taught my son to drive. He is now 18 and was hired by a law firm to drive to all courthouses in the area taking all kinds of paperwork to process for a famous lawyer in Rockville. My daughter, who is 15 asked me to teach her a year ago. I agreed to teach her in weekends, just the two of us. Her brother would let her drive more than I on the road late at night. I suggest you go to empty large parking lots to teach your child. Have it be a special event, so that they will always remember this as a good experience. Be calm and explain well so that they know not to push the accelerator at first. Going slowly has made my kids very good drivers. It really brings you closer together when you teach your teenager to drive. I am glad that they learned to drive before they took the driving class that is required by each State now. I taught both of my children how to drive with love. I feel better knowing that they learned my rules first, because mother knows best!!

Posted by: MotherKnowsBest | January 7, 2009 9:46 AM | Report abuse

I learned to drive in the mid-70s in Illinois, it was part of the sophomore year high school curriculum. As I see it, there were two whammies that turned out to be good for me in the long run. First -- the local car dealers donated cars. The school had only a couple compacts, so I (as a taller student) got to drive the full size cars. Second -- I had driver's ed the first semester, when I was only 14. So, when I turned 15 in December (the age to get a learner's permit in Illinois) I crammed all my on-road driving into December & January.

Posted by: mensa58 | January 7, 2009 10:00 AM | Report abuse

From what I got out of the news article, the kid got into trouble from going too fast. If he hadn't tried to pass other vehicles he might have made it all the way. The video game wasn't set up to train a six year old properly, that's for sure.

Posted by: scottandrewtaylor | January 7, 2009 10:00 AM | Report abuse

Taking something without permission is theft John!

All that kid learned is that stealing gets him what he wants - attention. Well, and hopefully foster care, but face it, that kid just learned that it's OK to steal.

Posted by: gm123 | January 7, 2009 10:01 AM | Report abuse

At least the kid should get credit for trying to keep perfect attendance.

Posted by: MStreet1 | January 7, 2009 10:04 AM | Report abuse

gm123, you are a vile, uncaring person. The breeder hog mother wasn't awake to give him breakfast and he was hungry. He wanted to go to school so he could get breakfast ... something he obviously doesn't get at home! I hope you choke on your doughnut.

Posted by: justhere | January 7, 2009 10:29 AM | Report abuse

John, When I learned how to drive, my family only owned manual cars. So I spent a few weeks learning how to drive stick shift in a parking lot before I was allowed to go out on the road. This made a huge difference in my confidence for driving a manual.

As for the clutch on your Mini, maybe you should consider renting a car with a manual transmission for the daughter to learn on. Once she has mastered shifting, then she can use the Mini!

Posted by: TerpPhysicist | January 7, 2009 10:53 AM | Report abuse

Oh, and I love the pic of the Bugeye Sprite! I have always wanted one of those!

Posted by: TerpPhysicist | January 7, 2009 10:53 AM | Report abuse

My father took me on a Sunday morning, in our Chevy Cavalier station wagon, to a business park about ten minutes away from our suburban Dallas home. Since it was a Sunday, the spacious parking lot was empty. So he had me drive around the parking lot, getting comfortable with using the gas and the brake, how to steer, how to use your mirrors, how to deal with your blind spot, how to gauge distances and how they change in a moving car. After about half an hour I had the hang of it. He said, "OK, drive home." Like I said, it was Sunday morning, so the roads were empty. Made it back without any incident, but did nearly hit the garage pulling in. All in all a very happy memory.

Posted by: Handsome_John_Pruitt | January 7, 2009 11:01 AM | Report abuse

True story: On a training excursion, my father's flatulence caused my brother to run off the road and almost wreck the car.

Posted by: nonsensical2001 | January 7, 2009 11:33 AM | Report abuse

fr gm123:

>..All that kid learned is that stealing gets him what he wants - attention. Well, and hopefully foster care, but face it, that kid just learned that it's OK to steal.<

Um, go back and read the article again. It will tell you that what he wanted was to be able to get to school! Nothing about "wanting attention" or "learning to steal" was in the article.

Posted by: Alex511 | January 7, 2009 11:59 AM | Report abuse

My children learned to drive over 20 years ago and these were their rules:
1. They had to drive over 600 miles with one of us before they could take their test.
2. They had to learn and take their test on a stick shift car.
3. They had to take their driver's test on their 16th birthday. (We needed them to drive - way too many carpools)
4. None of them went to a school with driver's ed so they had to take the commercial courses which only provided six (6) hours driving time!

Posted by: mpatricia | January 7, 2009 12:04 PM | Report abuse

I remember those simulators!

They had warning lights to alert you that you were doing something stupid. Once in a while, we'd play a game in which the idea was to see how many different warning lights you could activate at the same time -- think driving in reverse at 60 mph in a residential district. It actually took driving skill -- you had to infer what the simulator lesson was trying to teach you and, thus, what lights might, perhaps, be liable to activate.

Posted by: WilsonHSgrad | January 7, 2009 12:14 PM | Report abuse

I learned the basics in Driver Ed at school and driving around with my parents, but a friend of mine helped me learn to drive a stick. (I'm sure my parents worked with me on that too, as they both knew how, but mostly I remember the lessons with my friend.) But I lived in a smallish town with lots of rural roads nearby. That allowed us to practice without traffic (and occasionally to make a mistake, like when I hit a turn too fast and slid off the road, without hitting anything). I had years of experience with small streets, 2-lane state roads, and interstate highways before my first time in multi-lane urban traffic. So I've always wondered how kids in dense areas like this learn. I would have been terrified!

Posted by: Janine1 | January 7, 2009 12:56 PM | Report abuse

Grand Theft Auto is rated M for Mature and features carjacking, murder, prostitution, and soliciting prostitution as acceptable behavior. The fact that the kid had played the game speaks volumes about his parents. I don't blame the kid at all and am just glad no one was hurt. Now that his home situation has come to the attention of the authorities, maybe something can be done to save him from his parents.

Posted by: mercredi | January 7, 2009 1:01 PM | Report abuse

I had driver's ed in high school (yes, it was a sports coach who instructed), and the most lasting impression were the grisly films produced by the Ohio "Buckeye State Patrol" showing accidents such as car vs. train, etc. A few classmates had to run out of the room to puke. A nasty way to address the dangers of driving but effective, as I remember these images decades later. How do we feel about older kids driving younger kids to soccer, etc.? I'm not sure how to handle this with my 10-year-old's friends' older siblings...

Posted by: bluestilton | January 7, 2009 1:37 PM | Report abuse

I learned to drive one summer and then the next summer learned to drive stick. The first summer was ok, although driver's ed never took me on the highway or taught me how to parallel park (I learned to drive in New Hampshire, I've since mastered both of those skills). But the next summer it was me, my Dad, and his 12 year old Ford Ranger. That was a trying time for my Dad and I. I remember clearly stalling out at a stop sign and taking 4 or 5 tries to actually make the right hand turn. And to add insult injury, I looked up to see a cop laughing at me. Of course, he was waiting for someone to blow that stop sign and I was not going to give him the satisfaction. If I recall, I didn't get back in that truck for a few days.

Posted by: sg7472a | January 7, 2009 2:09 PM | Report abuse

2 distinct memories:
1) learning to back into a parking space, my mother said to keep going, and I felt that I had reach the end of the space. I went further, and hit the gaurdrail. Mom let me back up on my own from there.
2) Dad teaching me to use a clutch on a new Ford Ranger; I left a trail of rubber.

Both were done in parking lots not used on the weekends.

That said, I feel my mom is a more confident driver.

I have 2 kids (2 and 5 months), I plan on teaching them in parking lots as follows: dry road, wet road, snow; and to (at some point), accelerate and slam on the brakes; purposefully skid a bit; and then I plan to take them to a 1 or 2 day defensive driving course (like a Skip Barber day), and teach them like Europeans are taught - not just easy drives but also the surprises that we all have had (shoulders, skidding, etc etc).

Also plan to teach them the basics of maintenance - checking tires, oil, etc etc.

Posted by: Michael_A1 | January 7, 2009 2:39 PM | Report abuse

sg7472a :

I had to add this: I had a 1974 Ford Mustang ( I know, what was I thinking?) that was a 4 speed, no hydrolic clutch, very hard to use. I stalled so many times, and in so many places, that one day, my mom and I switched cars so I could make it to school. I must have taken 10, 15 times to make some right-hand corner here or there. I'm sure someone was laughing someplace....

I have since mastered a stick (I'm 40, uh, 41), and have can also drive a motorcycle. At the time, I thought I was doomed...

So, you're not alone.

Posted by: Michael_A1 | January 7, 2009 2:46 PM | Report abuse

I learned to drive from an independent instructor (in the sixties) because my birthday was during the summer. Surprising because my father didn't like spending money. Somewhere, at school or through the instructor, I watched those gory movies also. My dad insisted I learn to drive a stick shift. Difficult at first, but once I got the hang of it, it was fine. I drive manuals to this day. After all that practice, I nearly failed the driving test because one, I stalled the car at least 5 times at a stop sign, and two, I nearly hit a car pulling into the parking space back at the registry office. I forgot to turn the wheel back after turning a corner and I thought the tester was going to climb into my lap to avoid the collision. All he could get out of his mouth was "I think you need some more practice", but I passed anyway.

I don't have children, but I would think that a parent must be tough but loving to teach their children to drive. My father was tough, but sometimes not very patient, so I was fine with someone else.

Posted by: mitch661 | January 7, 2009 2:52 PM | Report abuse

My first driving experience was in an old beater of a truck in the fields of my uncle's farm, learning how to offroad at 15. From there I moved on to my parents Volkswagens, both stick-shifts, which turned out to be rather difficult because of the clutches.I am thankful for that now because I can drive just about any stick now without a problem.
I have to say that learning from my short tempered dad worked incredibly. He was careful and taught me everything by making me go out and do it (like snow driving) and made sure I knew when I was doing something wrong. He believed in real life experience. By the time I took driver's ed with one of those silly companies I had logged easily 100 hours of driving and was quite comfortable. All my classmates were envious when I drove up to class with my dad in the passenger seat every day. None of them knew that you could get your learner's permit before taking the course.

Posted by: ThatGuy1 | January 7, 2009 3:39 PM | Report abuse

We had a driver's ed track behind the school and a parent who owned a Pontiac dealership provided the cars- I loved tooling the track in a Firebird (and watching people learn to park from my math class window!) Taking it down MacArthur Blvd was a blast. My 16 y.o. son's learner's permit just expired and he has little desire to re-up it because he is so intimidated by Rockville traffic. There are few times of day where I can say "Traffic is light, let's go practice." Just getting to the grocery store takes skill and daring beyond his means. Don't even get me started on highway driving practice. Thank goodness he can walk everywhere right now! Yeah for Rockville Town Center.

Posted by: newhdl | January 7, 2009 7:23 PM | Report abuse

One of my fondest memories is teaching my teenage daughter to drive a stick shift. I told her that I didn't care if she drove automatics, but she should at least know how to drive a stick. Despite some screaming matches between the two of us, she passed her driving test on the first try using the stick shift car. To my surprise and delight, she has owned nothing but stick shifts in the ensuing 16 years.

Posted by: CynicalSteve | January 7, 2009 7:56 PM | Report abuse

I have two sons, 20 and 16. The letting go is huge in allowing them to obtain their driver's licenses. Its a huge step for them, being able to drive themselves to work and school. I have fantasized about the driving age being raised to 18, or even 20. What is the rust in allowing kids to drive?

Posted by: sherberg | January 7, 2009 8:48 PM | Report abuse

I took Driver Ed in Ohio too (with a coach -- they all taught either Driver Ed or, of all things, Health, at which they actually were pretty effective, believe it or not), but for some reason we didn't watch the grisly film.

Another reason to teach your kids to drive manual -- their mooch friends in college won't be able to borrow their cars. ("Yeah, I guess you can use my car. But it's a stick. Oh, you don't? Oh well, then, I can't help you.")

Posted by: Janine1 | January 8, 2009 11:17 AM | Report abuse

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