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License to Thrill

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My son is only three and a half and is therefore at least 12 years away from driving a motor vehicle. Given the current rate of technological advancement, we could see self-driving cars, or at least cars that only require a bare minimum of human interaction, by the time he reaches adulthood. For now though, I am steeling myself for a nerve-wracking experience, especially given that he currently struggles discerning forward from reverse in a battery-operated VW van that doesn't go above five miles per hour.

Last week, I had the opportunity to help my neighbors 15-year-old kid work on his night driving for his learner's permit. In the state of Virginia, drivers are required to have a certain number of daytime and nighttime hours behind the wheel with a responsible adult driver before they are even allowed to participate in the behind-the-wheel portion of driver's education. I'm sure this saves the state a fortune on worn out brake pads and broken passenger-seat brake pedals in driver's ed cars. If memory serves, the two students who drove with me when I was 15 both lasted about ten minutes before the instructor was in a cold sweat. I'm not sure I ever even made it over 25 mph before his nervous foot started hammering down at the pedal.

So it was a pleasant surprise when I got behind the wheel with Matthew, whose name I have changed to protect the innocent. He was driving his mother's Mazda B-Series pickup truck, so at least I knew I was riding in a mostly safe vehicle. We started out in the garage, where -at the very least - he put on his seatbelt and checked his mirrors before starting the truck, stalling out once, then restarting and slamming it in reverse, without ever turning on his headlights. Bad start.

It was abundantly clear why those passenger-side emergency pedals were installed in the ruined Chevy Cavaliers that we learned with. Needless to say, my butt was so tight that I couldn't have squeezed a greased BB through my cheeks. I would have given any amount of money for something more than a panicked scream and the oh-my-God handle over the door to get him to stop the truck, but my shrieking did the trick. Fortunately, outside of a full-on accident, it couldn't really get a whole lot worse.

To be perfectly fair to Matthew, he was an outstanding driver once the initial jitters subsided. The truck had a manual transmission, and his shifting was mostly smooth and without incident. He only stalled out once more, and there were only a handful of times that I had to remind him to upshift. We even safely made it through the drive-through at Sonic and celebrated with a couple of milkshakes. When I told the young man who served us at the window that Matt was a student driver, he even offered to spike my drink.

I'm very apprehensive about the idea of letting a machine take full control of a vehicle while I'm a passenger. It wouldn't be too terribly different from taking a commercial flight or riding on a modern rail line, but in both of those situations there is a highly-trained professional only inches away from the controls. I don't necessarily have the same faith in the average citizen's ability to seize control of a dangerous situation, especially if they're out of practice from rarely ever having to drive for themselves. That being said, I wouldn't mind knowing that there is an always-conscious system in place to at least assist my son once he is able to take the wheel for himself.

But for now, clear the roads and hide your daughters. The neighbor boy is almost on the loose.

-Trey Fennell


Coco #51 Black & Red




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