Some things about driver’s education have not changed since I first walked into my high school cafeteria over 40 years ago to join dozens of students eager to get their driver’s education endorsement. For you skeptics, yes, they had driver’s education way back then.
As in years past, today’s classes are dedicated to preparing teens for the serious task of driving a motor vehicle. There are requirements for classroom hours, behind-the-wheel experience and observation time, and there are written and driving tests to pass.
These days there is added emphasis on driver distractions such as cell phones, TWD (texting while driving), and something we probably witnessed as teens but didn’t have a name for: road rage.
Today’s classes include more information on the dangers of drinking alcohol or taking drugs before getting behind the wheel than we ever heard, and they even teach roundabout etiquette (a class I wish my husband could sit in on).
However, the biggest change to hit driver’s education in the past 40 years hasn’t been in content. The biggest change is that today’s teens no longer have to learn how to drive using a manual (stick-shift) transmission, like I did.
Unhappily for me, the year I learned to drive, a new law came into effect offering discounted insurance to anyone who had taken a driver’s education course. As a result, many of the older students at the high school I attended decided to take the class.
Just bad karma I guess, but I got paired to drive with three senior boys, all good old farm boys who had been behind the wheel of a tractor since they were 2. Their folks forced them to take the class to reduce their insurance rates after a series of tickets hiked them up.
I’ll just call them hecklers.
Having never been behind the wheel of a car before in my life, I didn’t even know the difference between driving a car with an automatic or a manual. I was like an innocent teen in the opening act of a Stephen King movie, about to face my worst nightmare: an accelerator, a brake pedal, and, horror of horrors, a clutch.
“Ladies first,” said my instructor, Mr. Harrison.
Chances are that first, agonizingly slow trip across the high school parking lot in 1966 did leave some lasting damage. I do know I’ve suffered from headaches since about that date, and I hope my hecklers have, too. They deserve it after all that abuse they threw at me.
To those waiting for buses, I’m sure we looked like Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan head-bopping our way across the parking lot, “What is Love” blaring in the background.
I have to hand it to him: Mr. Harrison never lost his cool. But he did end my first solo drive long before my time was up. “Let’s stop before we all need to go to the hospital with whiplash,” he said. I don’t know why the hecklers didn’t climb out a window or open a door and jump. I guess they wanted that darn certificate as much as I did.
Of course, I did improve, and eventually I was forced to venture onto a public street. We only had one streetlight in town back then, and it took me two full revolutions: green-yellow-red-green-yellow-red, to get through that intersection.
I rocked that old Ford like a low-rider performing at a custom car show, my hecklers shouting their encouragement from the backseat.
Perseverance does count, and I eventually made it across that intersection and, gratefully, out of driver’s education. Certificate in hand, I signed up to take my driving test. I aced the written test, then waited for the instructor, confident in my newly acquired driving skills.
Within 10 minutes he asked me to quit trying to parallel park before I wrecked the car. But, for whatever reason, maybe so he wouldn’t have to ride with me again, he passed me.
As Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story: I’ve had a clean driving record for more than 40 years – not one ticket. (Insurance companies don’t count warnings, so why should I?) I’ve never caused an accident. (Those parking lot altercations were minor inconveniences at best.) And I have never injured anyone with my vehicle. (That old man’s neck did not snap back like my son says. I barely tapped his bumper.)
As for that manual transmission and those hecklers, I guess I’m thankful. To this day I can jump in and drive any vehicle that comes my way. And I learned to ignore all those ribald backseat comments, which helped when I later had three sons (hecklers) of my own.