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Learning to Drive

A rite of passage or a real pain?

Back in the day teenagers could not wait to learn to drive and get the use of a car.  My parents were happy to let me drive myself to all of my extracurricular activities.  I was happy, because we had a station wagon and I could take all my friends to the drive-in, to the burger joint, etc.

What I’m hearing is that many kids have decided that they will just wait until they turn 18 and can take the tests (vision, written & road) without restrictions or training. 

The kids are satisfied to be chauffeured around until it is more convenient to drive.  It’s very surprising, but it does make sense.  I’m sure that this is not what was intended when new laws were passed creating restrictions on teen drivers.

I understand that parents are worried about safety and reluctant to have their kids drive.  Insurance is really expensive.  There are lots of distractions—cell phone calls, text messages, MP3 players, etc.  And yes, some kids are not careful and responsible. 

But we do want them to learn, don’t we? What has happened to this important rite of passage?

At 15 and a half, kids can apply for a learner’s permit (the DMV calls it a “provisional instruction permit”) and take the written test, which is not easy at all.  They have to really study the CA Drivers Handbook before taking the test.  (Trust me on this.)  They must take a 6-hour on-the-road course from a licensed driving school.  That’s not so different from my childhood recollection.  But the rest of the process is different.

The days of “Driver’s Ed” being a school class are over due to cuts in funding.  They still need to take a driver’s education class, but most of them take it online.  Gone are the driving simulators and the gory cautionary movies of traffic accidents.

The other big change is that they are supposed to complete 50 hours of practice driving with a CA-licensed adult driver 25 years of age or older.  Ten of those hours must be done at night.  This is the law. 

It used to be up to the parents’ discretion.  When the kid knew how to drive well enough that the parent would lend him/her the car, then they were ready.  Now the 50 hour requirement tends to make some parents (myself, for example) go nuts.  “Can we count the trip to the grocery store as fifteen minutes, when it was really only seven?”  “Where did we put the driving log?”  “Did we write down the trip to dentist?"

After six months of this craziness, assuming they have reached the age of 16, they can take the driving test at the DMV.  (Some of the DMV locations have testers that have a reputation for being difficult with kids.  Talk to other parents before making an appointment for the driving test.) 

Eventually, hopefully, they will jump through all the hoops and become a “Provisional Driver”.  For the first year there is a curfew from 11 pm to 5 am. Also, they cannot transport a passenger under 20 years of age at any time unless a licensed driver of 25 years or older is in the car.  Basically, that means no driving with friends unless your parent is in the car.  (There are some very limited exceptions to this.) 

That throws a wet blanket on the whole thing.  No wonder kids these days aren’t thrilled about learning to drive.  We want safe drivers, but we also want young people to develop maturity and responsibility.  Have we taken all of the fun out of this rite of passage?

Sarah H. October 08, 2011 at 04:57 PM
I find myself having mixed feelings on this issue. Back when I was 16, there were far fewer distractions so easily available to kids. Cell phones were the size of brief cases and only the super rich had them, and pagers were only used by doctors. Now, I watch my 13 year-son, who already talks longingly of driving, being constantly mesmerized by his iPod or frequently texting on his cell phone. Does this make me nervous about the concept of him driving? Absolutely. When he does eventually start driving, will I hammer home the highest standards of full attention while driving? Absolutely. Do I ultimately have complete control when he's out in the world? Sadly, no. That being said, I do want him to experience the teenage life ritual of getting your license at 16. Thankfully, I have a few years before I reach that point. On the other hand, I worry about those kids that wait until they are 18, where they can begin driving with no or fewer restrictions. They will be brand new drivers unleashed on the roads, free to do as they wish without the benefit of two years of parents and the state hovering over them. Perhaps those two years of being watched so closely and with such high standards being imposed before they are even allowed to be behind the wheel, will have some benefit over the fresh-faced 18 year old who can just take off and go. I don't know. Tough call.

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