Sarah Smiley: First ride-along a dangerous rite of passage

What’s the scariest thing you did last week? Here’s mine: I voluntarily got into a “two-ton killing machine,” according to the driving instructor, and let my child take me for a drive — a drive that included two rotaries.

What’s the scariest thing you did last week?

Here’s mine: I voluntarily got into a “two-ton killing machine,” according to the driving instructor, and let my child take me for a drive — a drive that included two rotaries. By “child,” I mean my 15-year-old son, Ford, who I swear seemed to be sitting criss-cross-applesauce in front of the television watching Blue’s Clues and drinking apple juice from a sippy cup only yesterday.

This “drive-along” was part of Ford’s requirements to complete Driver’s Education and receive a driver’s permit. After several weeks of classroom time and driving with a paid instructor, Ford is ready to be released to us, but not until this part, where we risk our lives in the backseat of a Jeep Grand Cherokee to learn his strengths and weaknesses behind the wheel.

Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating. But it did seem like the instructor, sitting in the passenger seat was, in effect, saying to us, “Here’s everything I taught him; he’s all yours now, so good luck.”

Dustin and I slid into the backseat and fastened our seat belts with attention and care not seen since buckling carseats for the first time. If stopping by a fire station first to check our buckles had been an option, I would have requested it.

I know I sound like I don’t trust Ford, but mothers’ uneasy feelings about giving their children control over an automobile are not new. The first time Dustin took his mom driving, he recalls that she had her hand on the passenger-side door handle the whole time, as if leaping from a moving car would be better than staying in it with her son at the wheel. Of all the rites of passage mothers face — first day of kindergarten, first sleepover, first heartbreak — the first ride-along is the only one that involves such personal risk.

While we were still in the parking lot, Ford’s driving instructor told him to take us to the Department of Motor Vehicles. He wanted to test Ford’s ability to deal with the distraction of navigation while still operating the car safely. This, of course, meant that no one else in the car could help him with directions. My baby was on his own, and it was going to be so very difficult to keep my mouth shut.

As luck would have it, the first intersection upon leaving the driving school’s parking lot is one with the usual four entry points, plus a nearby signal for cars going diagonally past the other streets. We would be one of those cars.

“Exciting,” Dustin said.

I had other adjectives in mind.

There is no greater human urge than a mother’s instinct to hit an imaginary brake or yell unintelligibly when her firstborn son, whom she knows took an extraordinarily long time to master shoe-tying, crosses a busy intersection diagonally. Plus, we were not headed in the direction of the DMV. We took a lovely detour through neighborhoods I had not seen in many years, our path punctuated with aggressive braking, stops at green lights and uneven pressure on the gas pedal.

Just as soon as I got comfortable with the process and even started to take a selfie for Facebook in the backseat, the instructor suddenly had good reason (an oncoming car) to show us how his nifty passenger-side brake works.

“When your parents are driving with you,” the instructor said afterward, “remember that they won’t have a brake, so they’ll have to use words, or, more likely, screams, in situations like that.”


Then came the rotaries. If you remember Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s Vacation, that was us: “Airport! Hannafords! Airport!”

Toward the end of this near-death experience, the instructor guided Ford back to the neighborhoods to practice parallel parking—which he’d just learned that morning. Friendly side note/warning: Driver’s Ed classes often use cars parked along the curbs in neighborhoods to teach parallel parking. When you live in a small town, you probably know the neighbors who own those cars, too.

Ford had to demonstrate his hours-new parallel parking skills on our friend Ben’s car. Ben is Ford’s mentor for Confirmation class at church. He used to be the mayor, too. But, no pressure.

And this is where I started to ease up on Ford. I’m 39 years old, and when I parallel park, it usually looks like I just stopped in the middle of the road. I can’t seem to get close to the curb. Ford completed a near perfect parallel parking job behind Ben’s car.

Maybe he will be a good driver after all.

But I still find myself coveting the instructor’s extra brake and wondering for the first time how I might get one on our car.