It happened so fast I missed it.
Our 15-year-old daughter Virginia was behind the wheel of my car. After going through the intersection of Northside Parkway on West Paces Ferry Road in Buckhead, she needed to get into the right lane almost immediately. No one let her.
Traffic was at its usual chaotic crescendo.
Her blinker on, she hesitated and asked me what to do. She is learning to drive. As I was calmly telling her, the car behind us laid on their horn and stayed on it. She panicked. I panicked. She swerved into the right lane and continued.
I gave a friendly gesture to the impatient driver.
Virginia said she almost hit a car.
I was looking at the car laying on their horn and hadn’t noticed. But I realized we narrowly avoided a disaster. She came within inches of hitting a car in the right lane. It’s a miracle she didn’t make contact.
I’m not a fan of the yellow and black “Baby on Board” decals. But after the incident on West Paces Ferry, I need a vehicle shrink-wrapped in a yellow caution-style sign that reads, “Teenage Driver, Your Patience Is Appreciated.”
The thing is, the baby isn’t driving the car. The teenager is.
The Atlanta most of us learned to drive in is light years from the one we are teaching our children to drive in today. Back then, a driver would notice a novice and give them some space.
That may be naive, but there is little patience on the roads today.
I had access to a farm in Suwanee when I was a teenager. I learned to drive when I was all of 12 on dirt roads cutting across vast open fields. I still managed to put a Chevy Blazer on its side, but the point is I had a quiet, calm place to learn and make mistakes and to figure out how to keep a car in a lane.
I still had a professional driving instructor when the time came to get my license. We are doing the same with our children. Parents yelling at their 15-year-olds while they are learning to drive is too stressful for everyone. At the same time, driving is so different; besides the traffic, there are so many more distractions.
The cars may be safer, but it feels much more dangerous.
I’m not wrong.
“The difference in the past driving environment and the present is quite extreme,” said Kent Milner of The Milner Driving School in Marietta. “The growing population has overwhelmed the existing transportation infrastructure. Interstate 285 has become one of the deadliest interstates in the nation.”
There isn’t a better professional instructor, in my opinion, than Milner. A West Point graduate, he was an officer in the U.S. Army. His training includes Airborne School, Ranger School, Air Assault School, Jungle Operations and advanced training as a transportation officer. He also has every certification imaginable for driver education.
If anyone can teach your kids to drive in Atlanta traffic, it’s a highly trained veteran with expertise in military transportation.
Traffic is so awful, he said, parents are reluctant to let their teenagers drive in it. Therefore, most teens have less experience behind the wheel today. At the same time, teenagers need more exposure to deal with the extreme driving conditions unique to our city. It’s a Catch-22.
My solution is to give our daughter a tank for her first car. I am undecided on whether she should have to wear a helmet.
Milner is less extreme.
First, he said, teens learning to drive need to practice every day and work on good skills and techniques, which includes ignoring some of their parents’ less-than-desirable tendencies.
“Parents may have some bad driving habits,” he tells his students. “Don’t drive like your parents. They want you to be better.”
He also advised new drivers to stay patient. For example, when turning in traffic, young drivers should not commit to a turn if they are not sure.
“Patience will keep you alive. Impatience can kill you.”
I agree, but just to be safe, we may look at a few military-grade vehicles for Virginia.
In the meantime, we all need to be a little more aware on the roads. When you get behind someone going too slow or hesitating, realize it may be someone learning to drive.
In that situation, laying on the horn isn’t helpful.