I took my recently licensed son and his freshly registered 2004 BMW 325xi wagon to the Tire Rack Street Survival teen-driving program last week, and boy, if I wasn’t surprised. Run by the BMW Car Club of America Foundation, in association with Consumer Reports — which donated its impressive test track in rural Colchester, Connecticut, to the effort — it was an excellent introduction to safe driving. And unlike some of the pricey driving schools that we of the gearheaded persuasion hope to attend with our offspring before they do anything really stupid, it costs practically nothing. In fact, the $75 registration fee is some of the best money you could ever spend on a young driver whose first car, unlike some I could name, already has working brakes and headlights. Those of us who know what camshafts are and who learned to drive stick shifts at a young age tend to think we’re good, safe, fast drivers out of the box; turns out, we’re mostly not. I’m not the last word in driver skill today, far from it. But, in retrospect, until I took some advanced training in my late twenties, I fairly sucked.
Sadly, driver education at the high-school level remains the oxymoron it’s always been, so I figured I’d learn young Ike Kitman up early, come back home, and write a nice column about how much his dudeness learned about the basics of car control — tire contact patches, load transfer, proper relation to the tiller, all the good stuff. And he did — I still can’t wait to get him to Skip Barber for some more in-depth review. But while I’m certain my son will be a better driver after his first day of professional instruction, the team of Tire Rack and Consumer Reports volunteers did more, because they not only edumacated him, they scared me straight.
The topic was driver distraction. It’s always been a factor in the outsize teen road-fatality rate, but with the explosion in cell phones and iPods — talking, texting, tuning, and a plethora of distractions I could hardly imagine back when a friend gave me my first lesson in the subject by torching the rear seat of her Ford Maverick when the lit end of her cigarette blew off on the highway — things have gotten progressively worse.
Like all of your better hypocrites, I nodded knowingly as the instructors told a coeducational room full of young folk with feeble beard stubble and excessive eye makeup how a car traveling 60 mph will go 88 feet in the second you’ve taken your eyes off the road. And to back it up, they showed a scary film. Can I say that the cautionary video genre has gotten better since the 1950s scare strips with the fake severed heads they showed us in drivers’ education? Here, a state trooper choked up as he described coming upon a dead girl who’d hit a bridge abutment when responding to her sister’s text, “Where R U?” A severely brain-injured young man explained how his life had been virtually ruined when his friend crashed while texting “Yeah.” Another fellow killed a man on a bicycle while texting “LOL.” He’ll never forgive himself. When the film ended, Jacy Good — a twenty-four-year-old who suffered traumatic brain injuries and lost her parents when a cell-phone user sailed through a red light, causing a tractor trailer to hit her family’s car head-on — spoke. With her lasting injuries, it was all she could do, she explained — tell people the truth. Don’t believe the industry: Hands-free phones are no better. If you’re driving, drive.
Uniting all these tragic moments: the complete banality of the transmissions and the total worthlessness of the effort compared with the tragic consequences. And suddenly, I realized that this could be me. Like millions of my countrymen, I’d become convinced that I could safely operate a motor vehicle while communicating with the outside world — thus fulfilling my duty as a good worker/consumer sheep — and entertaining myself with an increasingly complex array of listening possibilities.
So right then and there I went cold turkey. No more calls, no more texts when driving. I’d become an addict. It’s been a week now. And like a recovering alcoholic, I’m taking it one missed call and one unanswered text message at a time. Please call back.