For the past several weeks I have been doing something harrowing almost every day: I have been teaching my teenager how to drive. My younger daughter has her learner's permit and she's rejected our offer to hire a professional driving instructor. It's simply a problem of time: Professional instructors require students to schedule lessons in advance to suit the instructor's schedule, but with her long school days and varying after-school activities, she needs to be able to fit in lessons on the fly (perhaps an unfortunate turn of phrase in this case), and only her parents can do that. So I'm teaching again, my least favorite activity. There are times I think I can actually feel my hair turning white under its veneer of L'Oreal.
Not that my daughter is bad at learning this particular life skill. Quite the contrary, she's a conscientious student, takes the lessons seriously, and is doing a great job so far -- just as her sister did three years ago. I have every confidence that she will be a fine driver in time. Really, I'm not worried about her -- it's all the other drivers out there who are twisting my stomach in knots. For example: My daughter is now advanced enough to drive around the streets of Cleveland Park. But at this stage in the process she's driving a bit more cautiously than most drivers, making a right turn onto a main road only when she's sure that no one is coming. So she was waiting at an intersection for there to be a long break in traffic before she'd turn right. She was just about to go when the car behind our car suddenly lurched to the left to scoot around our car, making the right turn ahead of her. I would tell you honestly if my daughter had been hesitating an egregiously long period of time. But she was merely being conservative about when the road was clear to turn. The car that jumped around her caused the oncoming car to have to brake to avoid an accident. This happened yesterday.
Drivers around here are just too much in a hurry, so I guess she'll have to get used to it. I remember how my older daughter learned that lesson. (This one is so vivid in my mind that it feels like it happened yesterday, although it was in 2007.) She was driving down Reno as the light at Porter turned yellow. She decided, unlike 99 percent of drivers in DC, to stop for the yellow, so she braked fairly hard to be sure to come to a stop before the stop line. But the driver behind her had apparently assumed she'd speed up to run the yellow, and was speeding up himself to go through it as well -- or possibly run through the beginning of the red. Fortunately for us all, he did realize she was stopping just in time to slam on his brakes and avoid rear-ending us. By about two inches. Lesson learned: Always check your rear view mirror before stopping for a yellow light. If the guy behind you is zooming along and shows no signs of slowing down, it's better to run the yellow than risk a crash. And in this city, that describes almost any approach to a yellow light, except perhaps for one in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night.
The teaching process has helped to crystallize rules like this for me that I'd previously applied but never thought out in words. That's made me a better driver. I know people from other places commonly think that the driving is better back where they came from. I'm originally from Atlanta, and I truly believe that Atlanta drivers are more courteous, more relaxed, more willing to let others go first. I could be wrong about this, but if we'd stayed in Atlanta, I can't help but doubt whether I'd have to teach my daughters to watch out for all the crazy, illegal things that Washington drivers do routinely. I tell them, for example, that you just can't count on any driver who arrives at a four-way stop sign to come to an actual stop. If you're lucky, they may slow down a lot and then roll on through. And then there's the "second car doesn't have to stop" rule that so many drivers seem to believe is on the books in this town. If the car ahead comes to a full stop at a four-way stop sign, causing the car behind to come to a full stop as well, then when the first car moves on, the second car can go without waiting for any other cars already at the intersection to go first. I'm happy that both girls have been taught to look out for this maneuver. I even like it when they chide me sometimes when I'm driving and come to a stop sign, because they don't feel the full "set-back" of the car making a complete stop. I've become much more careful about doing this, even as I notice how rare it is to see another car do so.
Well, I could go on and on about what else I've observed during these daily instructive drives. The crazy U-turns. The tailgating. The intersection blocking. The cellphone yakking. Everything you want your teenager never to do, on display in a single half hour spin around the neighborhood. I know there's no alternative but to acknowledge the reality and teach my daughter to drive with the idea in mind that others will be doing all these things and worse. All the same -- futile gesture though it is -- let me send out this plea: If you see a small red car driving around the streets of Cleveland Park, perhaps five miles under the speed limit, perhaps waiting an extra second or two before making a turn, please be patient. Please don't honk. And don't swerve around that car to jump the turn. It might not be my daughter at the wheel but it could be someone else's daughter or son in the first few weeks of learning.
Thanks in advance from that white-knuckled bundle of nerves in the passenger seat.
P.S. Here's a tip if you have a teenager with a brand new learner's permit. A great place to have a first lesson is the Carter Barron parking lot. There are actually two large connected lots, with some roadways circling around them. If you pick a time when there are no events on (and that's most of the time), the parking lots will be practically deserted – except for one or two other cars
circling slowly around (that is, other parents giving their kids driving lessons).
Published on the Cleveland Park Listserv on March 19, 2010.