Center field: My 17-year-old just starting driving – YIKES!

On the parental worrywart scale, I think I usually score in the “mellow yellow” range. Still, last week, I entered the “white knuckle” zone.

Driving lesson (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Driving lesson
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Dear Yoni, You did it. You passed your driving test, after hours of instructions, weeks of anticipation, months of hard work. For you, the achievement was exhilarating; for me, it’s terrifying.
On the parental worrywart scale, I think I usually score in the “mellow yellow” range. Still, I admit, the first time you drove last week, I entered the “white knuckle” zone.
In fairness, the last time we had driven together – in a foreign jurisdiction which shall remain nameless to avoid indictment – you had never driven before. Pressing that accelerator, the resulting power surge surprised you – as did the brakes’ abrupt effectiveness. Fortunately, we didn’t need neck traction.
Seriously, you adjusted quickly and impressively that day. But whereas in North America parents drive with their children as “learners” building toward the driving test, in Israel, you only drive with your parents or a responsible adult who isn’t your driving instructor (at NIS 125 an hour) after you pass the test. We now have three months, during which you must clock at least 60 hours of driving time, before you can drive alone during the day.
Judging by your enthusiasm since Thursday, we will exceed the 60 hours imminently.
I wish I could compare your first independent driving experience to other magical firsts, such as that magical first year when you blossomed from blob-like babyhood to charming toddlerhood, or your First Grade experience, when you suddenly could decipher all those word-codes surrounding you. But this is different. We celebrated those experiences unconditionally. This time, I share your excitement and pride, laced with heavy doses of worry.
My terror is well-founded. Automobiles are under-appreciated as lethal forces. Terrorists are pikers compared to the death these slick machines sow. (Of course, terror is intentional, making it evil and consequential). During the Palestinian terror wave from 2000-2005 I often joked that the most dangerous thing I did when visiting Israel was rent a car. One analysis in 2000-2001 estimated the Israeli risk of death from terrorism as 16 in one million; the Israeli risk of death from traffic was 73 per one million and the American risk was 145 per one million.
That you are not drinking while driving reduces the risk factor greatly – and must continue. But our newfound focus on not drinking and driving (see Mad Men) – deludes us into thinking that as long as we don’t drink, the auto safety gods will protect us.
Unfortunately, many damaging accidents occur with no alcohol, minimal negligence, and good people involved all around. The four people I know killed in car accidents, and the two people I know who were maimed, were not involved in alcohol-related incidents. Two of those accidents, however, occurred when drivers (neither time my friends) fell asleep at the wheel.
In my straight-laced, hard-driving, high-achieving social circle DWO – Driving While Overtired – is far more epidemic than DWI – Driving While Intoxicated. I ashamedly confess that there were too many nights I drove post-midnight, after having pulled an all-nighter the night before to finish my work – even if the roads were rain-slicked, snowy, or icy. Only once we had children did I vow to get a full night’s sleep before a big drive, rather than cramming in a last-minute marathon work session.
Alcohol and sleep deprivation are future headaches – which is why one friend with older children told me, “It only gets worse!” As the father of a new driver, I am experiencing fenda benda terra – fender bender terror in New York-speak – the added fear of even a minor mishap which would bruise your pride while burdening us both with endless errands.
And, cliché but true, I most fear the other slobs driving, not you. Driving around, I wince at the blinker-phobes who never signal, the anger-management-class dropouts driving their cars like assault vehicles and the many unconventional turns and angles for drivers in Jerusalem, a city built for horses and chariots not Broncos or Dodges – the latter being a car name I appreciate more than ever.
My fear of you being harmed – or harming – stems from realizing that this leap forward gives you power. Power – for individuals and countries – is a necessary blessing that easily becomes a curse. Power wielded wildly destroys; power wielded wisely exalts. Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, teaches: “Be as careful with a minor mitzvah as with a major one.” This moral and spiritual lesson is true for driving – and other “ways of the world” too; getting the little things right redeems; getting those little things wrong ruins.
In that spirit, I offer an intergenerational covenant. As I impose conditions on your youthful driving, which I follow as well – respect the speed limits, never drive under the influence, don’t drive exhausted, and be forever vigilant, and then some – I will reciprocate with my own pact for graceful aging. Just as I will climb no ladders after age 70, I will submit then annually to hearing exams, eye check-ups, and an hour-long refresher course with a driving instructor to evaluate objectively whether I remain fit to drive.
Last night, Day Five of our challenging new phase, we drove home from your friend’s house. As you expertly executed a three-point turn, gracefully sailed over the “Rakevet’s” speed bumps, and smoothly threaded your way through Jerusalem’s narrow streets, I felt safe, comfortable, and very, very, proud. As with so much of life, the great risks attendant with driving also afford the opportunity to shine.
Thanks, Yoni, for enabling me to delight in your new glory and watch you wield this new power deftly. I look forward to the many, many errands you can start running between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. two months, 24 days, and 54.5 more driving hours from now.
Love, Abba.
The author is a professor of history at McGill University and the author of eight books on US history including Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, recently published by Oxford University Press.
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