Opinion: Negotiating traffic with a 15-year-old behind the wheel

At some point, our 15-year-old son became confident he could drive in city traffic.

I admire his confidence. I just don’t trust it.

I’m about to turn 64 years old, and I still get jumpy in traffic. Driving though Atlanta makes my whole body tremble.

About seven months into the learner’s permit experience, our son has learned to negotiate extra time behind the wheel.

“Can I drive some today?” he said one day earlier this month as we set out for Pigeon Forge.

“Sure,” I said, thinking the gentle stretch of miles between Cleveland and Charleston would be perfect.

“Can I drive all the way from Chattanooga to Pigeon Forge?” he pressed.

“No, you cannot,” I said.

To a 15-year-old, negotiating means getting your foot in the door, lowering your shoulder and then trying to push your way inside. Meanwhile, if the front door remains blocked, you tiptoe around to the back door.

About the time we got to Athens, Tennessee, last Friday morning, he was itching to take the wheel.

“So I’ll pull over up here and you can drive from Sweetwater to Lenoir City,” I said, feeling generous.

“Sounds good,” he said, while no doubt plotting how to extend the drive.

After five minutes behind the wheel, he was fishing for compliments.

“How am I doing?” he said. “Pretty good, right?”

“Not bad,” I said, “but look for ways to create space all around you.”

We talked about creating a three-second cushion between your vehicle and the car or truck in front of you.

“Pick out a spot ahead, and when the car in front of you passes that point, begin counting,” I said. “One, two, three.”

I realized that I was talking like a kindergarten teacher.

We talked about changing lanes and how to check your mirrors. I told him about interviewing a truck driver once who had 1 million accident-free miles and how he stressed constantly scanning your mirrors for safety.

“But you can’t trust your mirrors alone,” I said. “You have to look back over your shoulder every time you change lanes. Otherwise, a car could be in your blind spot.”

He nodded, and directed his eyes to the rear-view mirror.

“We’re almost to Lenoir City,” I said. “Do you want to pull over soon?”

“I feel like I could go a little further,” he said. “But whatever you say … I love you.”

So that was his plan, from Sweetwater to sweet talk.

Suddenly he got more talkative. We talked about a Ford truck show, our Pigeon Forge destination. We talked about our favorite truck colors and agreed that Tennessee orange isn’t high on the list.

The more we talked, the more the miles accumulated.

By the time we hit Knoxville traffic, he had settled into a rightward lane, which made exiting a little tricky.

“I feel like I can make it through Knoxville,” he said. “If you think it’s OK.”

Silence.

“I love you,” he said again, turning it into a question.

“I love you, too,” I said. “Just stay under the speed limit and concentrate.”

Thus did the boy complete a rite of passage, negotiating freeway traffic in a midsize American city.

Impressively, he did it by simultaneously negotiating the traffic — and his dad.

And so it goes. I treat him like he’s 10. He feels like he is 20. And somehow we meet in the middle.

Email Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com.

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