My wife and I have been teaching our 17-year-old daughter to drive this month, and we have chosen this moment because:
1. August is the deadliest month of the year for motorists, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (Na-Hi-Traf-Sad for short); and
2. She is about to leave for college in New York City, which means she will depend entirely on mass transportation for the next four years of her life.
In other words, this was super slick planning on my wife’s and my part. We really thought this one through well.
Just for the record, August is indeed a statistical train wreck — excuse me, car wreck. According to Na-Hi-Traf-Sad, more Americans are killed in automobile accidents in August than any month of the year. The reason for this is pretty simple: More of us are driving and we’re driving more miles.
Also, just for the record, among the things you can do to protect yourself and your family is buckle up. It sounds obvious, but here is another killer Na-Hi-Traf-Sad statistic: 15 percent of Americans still don’t wear seat belts. That is — to quote the kids in the backseat of your local high school’s driver’s ed car — “crazy stupid.” So, this is not simply a “click it or ticket” warning: It’s a “click it or become a crash test dummy” cautionary tale.
In any case, I have enjoyed watching my daughter learn to drive immensely, largely because I pop tranquilizers like M&Ms when she’s behind the wheel and I’m in the passenger seat. Obviously I’m kidding. I pop them like Milk Duds, which are consumed at a much more leisurely pace than M&Ms, because Milk Duds are made with caramel.
The truth is, our daughter is doing great. She drives responsibly and at a speed that makes me proud, only taking one hand off the steering wheel when she needs to signal a manure spreader or other slow-moving farm vehicle to pass us. She is also almost an inch above five feet in height now, and so — much to her relief — her middle-school age fears that she would learn to drive while sitting atop a phone book have not come to pass. She can see over the dashboard just fine.
Teaching her to drive is, of course, a serious rite of passage for both of us. It’s an experience every parent looks forward to, along with property taxes and colonoscopies and the weekly realization that Facebook has changed its settings once again and you have to be younger than 21 to know how to use it. It’s up there with that moment when she started kindergarten and first climbed on the school bus, or the first time she went to Fenway Park and started waving like a crazy person to get on the big screen jumbotron — or, yes, that moment at the end of this week when she will leave home for college.
That is, I imagine, one of the reasons why my wife and I have loved teaching her to drive: Every moment together is suddenly very precious.
Consequently, I do not expect she will take her road test this coming week. My sense is that we will take up where we left off when she returns home from school for Thanksgiving break, and then again in late December when she returns home for nearly a month. Then together we can share the joys of driving around Vermont when there is snow and ice and lumbering sand trucks (that will, invariably, pass her when she is behind the wheel).
Who knows? Maybe we can prolong this teaching process until she gets married. It’s all quality time together. Besides, if we wait long enough, maybe it will be her husband who, with the tranquilizers at the ready, gets to remind her that the brake’s on the left. The left!
In the meantime, remember: Buckle up.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on August 21, 2011. Chris’s next novel, “The Night Strangers,” arrives on October 4, 2011.)