Most of us do it. We think nothing of it. If we’ve done it for any length of time, we consider doing it normal, necessary, and just part of living in this here U.S. of A. When we first started doing it, we were thrilled beyond our wildest dreams, experiencing each occasion as if it were the first time. Now that your imagination has riled up wondering what I might be referring to, I’ll tell you … I’m talking about driving a car.
During a recent road-trip with my husband and granddaughter – a seven-hour journey to Montreal – I came to realize just how much we take driving for granted. And yet, it isn’t at all natural like walking. It is a learned behavior, a skill really, requiring that one understand the rules of the road (hopefully) and have a respectful attitude towards other drivers (hopefully). Failing these, there is nothing but chaos on the roadways. At any given moment, it could all turn to disaster.
My husband, God love him, is a hater when it comes to other drivers. Being a passenger as he drives his much beloved car can be rather stressful. He spent his professional life behind the wheel of heavy emergency vehicles. For him, driving and operating a motor vehicle is second nature. He is a good driver. But if looks could kill, and if anyone could hear his assessments of nearly every other driver, well let’s just say ears would be burned off.
Since I retired and spend more time with him in the car, I take a book with me. Being distracted by reading mitigates my stress level, and it gives me a way to dampen his narrative concerning other drivers. This aside, he is correct in fearing other drivers. One small mistake, one careless maneuver, and as the saying goes, “that’s all she wrote.”
Once upon a time, I loved driving. I worked hard to earn my privilege to drive and have been a lawful driver for forty years. Back in the day, driver’s education was a fairly new concept. It was a right of passage from being a ‘kid’ to being a responsible young adult. But unlike today, it was a time when one didn’t automatically expect the family car to be made available simply because one had gotten a license. Most of the families I knew had one automobile, and whether it was a wreck or beauty, it was a valued possession.
My mother never learned to drive. Dad tried teaching her in an empty lot behind our home on Spring Street in Marion. Poor soul, she was a nervous wreck trying to pay attention to his instructions while little kids fidgeted in the backseat. The clutch pedal was her enemy, and the column shift never cooperated with her effort to put it into gear. As she ground the gears in gut retching agony, my parents would quarrel. Inevitably, Ma exited the running vehicle in the field stomping back to the house. Dad was left wondering what went wrong.
Years later, I sat in driver’s ed class a discouraged and depressed 15-year old kid. Lacking any type of confidence in myself, I believed I was not smart enough to pass the written portion of the exam. An absence of support from the home front didn’t help me either. I dropped out of class.
By the time I was 23 and a young mother, driving became an imperative. I needed to work. I obtained a copy of “The Rules of the Road.” I was determined to learn the information. I memorized the entire manual. To this day, some of those sentences come back like passages from the Bible, much to the chagrin of my husband. I occasionally find myself mixing a verse from Psalms with proper distances from other cars in the misguided hope that he’ll hear me. Amen.
Driving gave me freedom, a ticket to higher education, an ability to earn a leaving, and a sense of empowerment. Thanks to driving, I’ve travelled many thousands of miles for both work and pleasure, and I’ve taught several others how to master America’s favorite machine – the automobile.
From an early age, my son learned how to shift the yellow VW bug I owned. He’d place his tiny hand on top of mine and a-shifting we would go. There were many Sunday afternoons when I placed him on my lap and together we’d slowly drive along bog roads out in the boondocks. Those are precious moments I remember, although probably not a very safe thing to do in retrospect. This was before the advent of seatbelts, airbags, and the importance of children’s car seats.
Today, it’s common to find a driveway with at least two cars, but more likely up to four. There they rest in gleaming acknowledgement that the CAR is a necessity and as significant as the home it’s parked in front of.
But again, it wasn’t until recently that I truly appreciated just what an act of faith driving really is. Not only does one need to believe in oneself, you’ve got to believe in all the other people operating cars around you. Today, that leap of faith seems a very high vault.
Many young people seem to drive as if they are sitting on the living room floor playing a video game. How many times have you witnessed a driver weaving dangerously through lanes of traffic, mindless that at any second that hole in a ribbon of cars might close before they can ram their way into the slot. Yet, it isn’t just the young that make driving so much more dangerous. You have to factor in the speeds we accelerate to and the introduction of electronic devices.
Enter the cell phone. There you are innocently on your way to the grocery store when you notice another driver talking on a cell phone. The most flagrant violators seem to be young women and oftentimes, young women with small children in the backseat. That they don’t sense how horrifyingly dangerous this is defies logic. Suffice it to say that if I see anyone on a cell phone, I give them a very wide berth.
And then there are us, the senior citizens. Not all of us are good drivers. Not all of us should still be driving. My friend lives in the Palm Springs, California area. She says that every winter when the snowbirds return from northern states she prepares her mind for Ninja-style defensive driving saying, “…it’s like doing battle every time I leave my house.”
She recently was in a small accident with an older senior citizen who was apparently on the way to a doctor’s appointment. The ole gal suddenly changed lanes without noticing my friend was lawfully in the lane already. The lady was so shaken by her lapse in motor vehicle safety she could barely speak. My friend ended up driving her to the doctor’s office. She told my friend she was distracted thinking about the doctor and accepted responsibility. My friend suggested that she might want to stop driving soon, noting the advanced age of the lady and the numerous dents in her car. Clearly this hadn’t been her first mistake. The lady responded emphatically and with anger, “No way!”
My aunt (the last one standing) just gave up driving. She did so voluntarily. Out of necessity, she had earned her driver’s license late in life. Her husband had become too sick to drive. Since his passing, she has more or less relied on her daughter to take her places, so driving is less relevant. Good thing too, as reports are that her driving often inspired fear.
My non-driving mother and aunt used to pal around together from time to time. One thing I’ll give my mother credit for was being a good passenger. She knew when her life was in danger. Of her sister-in-law’s driving, she said and I quote, “She is a horrible driver!” My aunt tried her best and left no carnage in her wake. That her children didn’t need to intervene on behalf of society at large is a good thing.
Such was not the case with my Father. Even after suffering a very traumatic head injury, he immediately (within hours) went about getting himself a set of wheels. Towards the end of his driving career, he wasn’t going very far and for me it was convenient that he could drive and do the shopping.
One day, while slowly cruising down Route 6 heading home, his vehicle was struck by a car entering from a side street. A very young, very pregnant woman in an SUV smacked into his rear passenger door. That he was cited at the scene for causing the accident speaks volumes to him being victimized for being an elderly driver. We fought that and were able to get the citation overturned after much effort. My husband was his champion. He wasn’t going to let Dad’s nearly eight decades of accident-free driving be blemished if he could help it.
When I talked to my parents about how the accident happened, my mother said (this is precious), “Well if I had had my eyes open it wouldn’t have happened.” Flummoxed, I asked her what she meant. Clearly Dad hadn’t caused the accident or been at fault in any way. Ma responded that she helped him drive by telling him what was doing on around the car as they tooled along. That’s when I knew the time had come for Dad to surrender his license.
To get this man who had spent so many years driving whenever, wherever he pleased to stop driving wasn’t going to be easy. The conversation with him didn’t go well. He simply said, “NO!” and variations of “You can’t make me.” He planned on driving until he croaked. We engaged his doctor. When we finally got him into the exam room, the doctor announced with little fanfare that she’d be contacting the registry to have his license terminated, that it was her professional duty to do so, and she was sure he didn’t want to be responsible for hurting anyone. He smiled at her and said, “OK, whatever you say, sweetheart.” He went in like a lion and out like a lamb.
Driving is a privilege. I wish they taught that with greater fervor in driving classes, especially given the power of modern day vehicles and seemingly, everyone’s need for speed.
I hope that when the time comes for me to stop driving, I do so with as much dignity as my Aunt demonstrated. I hold no illusions that I’ll be driving until the bitter end. Maybe like my Mother, I’ll be a really good passenger and help other people drive from where I’m sitting in the passenger seat, like I do now with my husband. But I can vouch for how he’ll react to becoming a permanent passenger. Note to family: Best to gird your loins now.
By Marilou Newell