Learning to live with dents and dings on the road to surviving

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My first car was a 1974 Ford Pinto the color of guacamole. It was ugly, but easy to find in a parking lot. I bought it for $600 dollars at a used car lot and then discovered to my chagrin that I couldn’t drive it home, as I’d never learned to drive a car with manual transmission.

After a few weeks of stalling the engine, burning rubber, and praying to never meet a red light while heading uphill, I managed to teach myself enough to get around town with speed, if not style.

I came late to driving, was mostly self-taught, and was a horrible driver. Each time I dinged the Pinto, I covered the dent with a hippie bumper sticker, until my car looked like a billboard for peace, love, and co-existence.

As I matured, I learned to ease up on both the gas and the brake. Perhaps this was due to the gentle advice I got from a friend who worked as a bus driver, “You are the worst driver I have ever met in my entire life. Your passenger’s head should not whip back and forth when you brake or accelerate.”

During the Pinto’s lifespan, I got into at least five fender benders. Luckily no one was ever hurt, and I miraculously escaped totaling my car or anyone else’s. I did, however, earn the equivalent of a master’s degree in traffic school. I’ve attended so many times that I’ve memorized half the dialogue from the safety videos.

Decades later, I’ve become a good driver. I still can’t back up in a straight line, and parking often takes me a few tries, but I can get from point A to point B like a champ. I love driving enough that I feel guilty about the carbon footprint I leave by cruising aimlessly whenever I have a few minutes.

As time often does with parents, it gently blurred my youthful driving transgressions until my own children started driving. Convinced of my own expertise born of thousands of miles of road trips, I figured I was the perfect person to teach them to drive. I knew from experience that becoming a competent driver would be easier with adult guidance rather than through a collection of costly errors. We logged hours of boring circles in the parking lot of the local strip mall and on bumpy dirt roads in Mexico.

Life is different in the passenger seat. Somehow I transformed from a person whose goal as a young driver was to go fast enough that the needle no longer touched a number on the speedometer to a person who gasps frequently and audibly when either of my children accelerate. I press on the imaginary brake on the passenger side floor. I grip things tightly.

“Slow down!”

“Mom, we’re in a parking lot. I’m going ten miles per hour.”

The broken line on the side of the road seems closer than it should, the cars around us more menacing, the radio too loud. I breathe, reminding myself that panicky passengers cause panicky drivers.

They learn. I relax, sort of. Not entirely though; I still text them on rainy days to warn them of danger.

“Please leave earlier than usual. It’s raining and there will be traffic. Don’t follow other cars too closely, and don’t you dare read or answer this text if you’re already driving!”
Recently my daughter got into an accident. There are few worse feelings than the one a parent feels when hearing a wobbly voice on the telephone, “Mom? There was a little crash….” and nothing like the relief when it’s followed by “…but no one is hurt.”

After the crying stopped and the logistics of insurance and towing were dealt with, the temptation to scold was great. “Haven’t I told you to turn down the radio, pay closer attention, leave more space between you and other cars? Were you messing with your phone? Do realize what this is going to do to our insurance rates? Do you know what a hassle it will be to be down one car right now?” My mind was racing, but I bit my tongue until the urge to harangue passed. There would be time to talk about all of these things when we were both calmer.

Instead, I put my arm over her shoulder and pulled her close to me. “Have I ever told you about my first car?” I asked her. Through tear-stained eyes she looked at me. “My first accident was on the freeway. I sideswiped a car because I was distracted. My second accident was…”

Her shoulders sagged in relief. She’ll learn, just as I learned. The dents and dings will add character and make good stories to tell her own children when they learn to drive.

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