Highway of terror, or, teaching your teen how to drive

American Driving School instructor Bob Nerone with Donna Vegerano, who works in the office and is the daughter of school owner John Connelly. (Phyllis McCabe)

American Driving School instructor Bob Nerone with Donna Vegerano, who works in the office and is the daughter of school owner John Connelly. (Phyllis McCabe)

The next time you get into your car, remember this. There is an entire subculture of brand-spanking-new 16-year-old drivers with freshly minted learner’s permits wreaking havoc on the roads and traumatizing well-intentioned parents. And no one would ever guess it.

My daughter is one of the world’s few collected, mature and responsible teens. She does not suffer from terminal anxiety like her Stress Queen mother. Somehow, despite all my parenting and personality-trait failings, I managed to raise a bright, confident, strong, competent and high-achieving young lady. I done good, right up to the day she got her permit on her 16th birthday.

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It was innocent enough and completely routine for a modern American life. She and I are the exact same size, so she doesn’t even need to adjust the mirrors or seat when assuming the driver’s seat in my car. I fearlessly switched seats with her in a parking lot, and reconciled myself with my Lord. “If it’s my time, Lord, please, just make it quick and painless!” That prayer became my repetitive centering mantra starting with the moment I heard her muttering over her confusion as to which pedal was the gas and the brake.

I don’t understand how we went from taking a few laps in the parking lot, hard-swerving around pedestrians and parked cars to rolling along 9W like any other car, but we did.  Within moments I ripped my cuticles to shreds trying to maintain a façade of calm when she simply asked how to change lanes. Holy crap! Does she not know?! My stiff jaw and white grip on the handle of my car door sent her a new message that she’d never considered prior to this moment: Maybe I do not really trust her with my life. Now nervous, she changed lanes quite spontaneously, barely looking. I jumped in my seat, and gasped. Loud. Tears flooded her eyes. Wow, I really suck, I thought. I really do.

Since we have now been driving together nearly a month, despite my inability to teach her without resorting to panicked screams, I see all my worst New Jersey-schooled driving behaviors and habits reflected in her newness. These are traits, I might add, of the advanced, highly skilled transcended driver like myself — special traits and talents I earned spinning my Big Wheel trike over my little brother’s head.

Rookie mistakes

John Connelly, owner of American Driving School in Lake Katrine, assuaged my concerns. He explained that nearly ever new driver he has seen for the past 30 years all seem to make similar rookie mistakes.

Not checking blind spots, he said, is one of the most common and dangerous errors.   Also, not checking mirrors, not keeping both hands on the steering wheel, making “California rolls” through stop signs and deficient turning signal usage are also other foibles, as is not staying in the appropriate lane when making a turn. Ringing cell phones and blasting music are unnecessary challenges to be avoided, cautioned Connelly. After the first time I saw my daughter get antsy when her cell phone chimed, I had her switch it to “airplane mode” (which disables incoming calls and texts) so she could comfortably focus without wondering who was texting her.

For the first hour or so, Connelly takes students to a parking lot with little distractions so they can learn how to turn, steer, stop and get comfortable behind the wheel. City drivers have to navigate a mosaic of things going on, such as stop signs, people crossing and stop lights, whereas rural drivers have to remember to keep their eyes glued to the ever-fluctuating speed limit signs, he said.

Though Connelly’s driving instruction car fleet are all outfitted with passenger-side steering wheels and brakes, he says he seldom uses them with his driving students.

Connelly emphasized and re-emphasized one thing that every parent needs to drive home to their new driver: Confidence, confidence, confidence. He pointed out that I might have sent the wrong message to my daughter when I crossed myself and kissed the rosary dangling in my rearview mirror after buckling up.

“So many students tell me that their parents yell at them while they are teaching them how to drive,” said Connelly, “Which is why I teach them instead. Some parents grab the wheel.  It scares the living daylights out of them.”

OK. OK. OK. I just did it once! OK, fine — twice. No more than three times though. He advised for the future just to talk them through the moment rather than terrifying them with an abrupt wheel-grab. Connelly said he spends the majority of the time coaching kids’ confidence, and that’s what builds a better driver.

Connelly said he has never once been in an accident with a student. In fact, he said elderly drivers are far more dangerous than new ones due to their diminished eyesight and reaction time.

When the learning time is done and it’s time to take the road test, that happens at Dietz Stadium and involves all the distractions of the Trailways Bus Station and Uptown traffic. Connelly said the driving test is only 10 minutes and they are looking for some key things: careful observation and not just looking in the mirrors but also in the blind spot.  “I make them look in the mirrors,” said Connelly, “You extend the mirrors out as much as you can and not see the sides of your cars. Just to barely see the sides of their cars. The blind spots can be stretched out by extending the mirrors. Same thing with backing up, you want to look over the right shoulder, and not rely on the mirror.” Check the mirrors, but look back where you’re going back, he added. Control is important too. “Both hands on the wheel. You would be surprised how many people want to drive with one hand on the wheel and one hand out the window.” Lastly, turning signals.

Advice in action

“It’s scary because it looks easier than it is,” said my daughter when I asked her to comment directly on this topic for this story. When asked how she felt while I was gasping for air, clutching the door handle and emitting sounds of panic, she said, “Frustrated. Annoyed. I felt like I didn’t want to drive with you anymore.”

I am pleased to report that I have followed Connelly’s advice and have silenced nearly all blood-curdling screams of my apparent impending doom. She’s actually driving quite well, and without incident, for hours at a clip. Ironically, she has begun to criticize my driving with her fledgling, freshman knowledge and taunts me for all the occasions I have been pulled over for aggressive driving.

“That’s because I am from New Jersey,” I always explain. “It says ‘Highly Skilled Driving Ninja’ right on my license. I’m sorry that you will never be as good as I am due to such unyielding state lines. But, you’re coming along quite nicely, girl. You’re doing great.”

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