I’m sitting in the passenger seat. “What are you doing!?” my daughter Molly asks, with genuine curiosity and a touch of that tone only teenage girls can muster. We’re outside the YMCA. Molly’s always the last one out of the gym, always dusted with chalk. “You’re going to drive,” I explain.
“I don’t know how to drive.” It’s a soliloquy by Molly standards. Mostly we get single syllables, sometimes only a grunt. It’s six words this time, with no hint of adolescent disdain or argument. There’s only bemusement at the very thought. We made her take the state-required driver’s ed course over the summer because she was faffing around the house. She sat for the state-mandated 30 hours and followed the state-mandated curriculum to earn a learner’s permit. The course has the usual stuff: don’t drink and drive, how to hold the steering wheel, why you need car insurance.
The only thing that seemed to matter, however, was the rules of the road. That’s what’s on the test, so that’s what Molly learned.
Massachusetts also has parents take a two-hour class. It started with a 10-minute video sponsored by GEICO, the scared-straight video. These used to be of the “hamburger on the highway” type, which showed shattered cars and bloody bodies strewn across the pavement or hanging out of a half-open car door. This modern one was much scarier: Parents talk about their teenager, the one who died shortly after she or he got a license. I cried. Then I went home and decreed that Molly would not be getting a license anytime soon, perhaps ever.
“I don’t know how to drive,” Molly had said. So I drive while she escapes to Snapchat with the girlfriends she saw in the gym moments ago. On rare occasions I’ve taken that demon iPhone from her, but only with great difficulty. She’s a gymnast, solid as a rock and possessed of an iron grip.
Molly, born in 2000, is at the epicenter of our present revolution. She is the bull’s-eye of the target market for Uber, robo-electric cars, and Brooklyn. And she’s scaring car companies to death. There has been a precipitous and steady drop in the percentage of young people getting their licenses: a drop by half for 16-year-olds, a third for 17, a quarter for 18, a fifth for 19.
Detroit needs to figure out whether kids don’t like driving, don’t like shopping for cars, don’t care about cars, or simply don’t need cars. Researchers suggest that the Internet has something to do with this slow death of the car culture. It makes intuitive sense that kids today don’t need to come together in time and space the way they used to. Perhaps you’ve witnessed, or been a part of, this bizarre scene: A group of kids gets together, turns on a movie, and flops onto the couch. They then spend the rest of the evening staring at their phones. They may look up when the slasher cuts the virgin’s throat. Mostly they see each other through their 4-inch screens, pausing occasionally to ask the gang to “like” their latest Instagram.
Maybe kids have less interest in the original mobile device — the car — because they feel transported by their new mobile devices. Or it could be that they like staring at screens. The screens have become ubiquitous, and the cars have become more boring. Kids missed out on the fun of handling tiny Japanese cars. They’ve never commanded an American dreadnought. They know only the cars of the mushy middle.
In the 1970s and even into the 1980s, many teens and young adults would have had handed down to them, or bought secondhand, a heavy hunk of Detroit iron like the 2-ton 1974 Chevy Impala. Alternatively, you might have had an old Corolla, a Civic, or even a VW Rabbit. They were go-cart sized, and driving a go-cart is a blast. Then came the un-cars that nobody loved. American cars had shrunk and the little Japanese cars had grown. They converged around a middling size that has neither go-cart handling nor road-hugging weight. The 2019 Honda Civic rides on a 106.3-inch wheelbase and is 3Æ feet longer than the original. Soften up the ride for the American tush and you’re left with a machine neither cute nor fun nor magnificent in its massive luxuriousness. You ride in comfort, but strangely alone. So the kids escaped to their screens.
* * *
It’s prom night. The Jeep is upside down. The Corolla has only a bit of damage, but a girl has been ejected. She lies unconscious on its hood. Her prom dress is in remarkably good shape considering she’ll be dead in a moment. When the paramedics pull the sheet up over her face, her friend, the driver, wails hysterically. A cop pulls her gently away. A field sobriety test. The handcuffs come out, Miranda is read, she’s been put in the back of the cruiser. She was driving drunk and so will be charged with vehicular manslaughter. Call her life ruined. Meanwhile, two other girls are carted off to the hospital.
Away from the main action, a boy is trapped inside the overturned Jeep. As he tries fruitlessly to wriggle through the window, beer cans spill out almost comically. At first, his friend can only mutter and clasp his hands to his head. Then he gathers himself together and takes a seat among the beer cans. He will buoy the trapped boy’s courage until help arrives. From where I’m standing, the trapped boy looks to have only minor injuries, and in any case he’s feeling no pain. He’s a lot luckier than the pair of teens whose lives have been cut short. Two more, in the prime of life, can look forward to years of rehab before they can walk again.
Collisions between vehicles unleash enormous amounts of energy in a sudden explosive moment. But there’s little sign of cataclysm here. In the early 1920s, shards of plate glass would have lacerated everyone. In the 1950s, passengers would have been hurled against chrome knobs and radio grilles, or out an open door, their skin peeled off as they skidded to a stop on the pavement. In the 1970s, a Detroit boat might have torn a Beetle in half. A fuel line might have ruptured and caught fire. Today, the gas stays safely where it belongs and windshields peel away like Tupperware lids. The Corolla’s body panels are thin, in part to absorb the impact of a crash. Once the firefighters cut the roof support pillars — using a powerful pair of hydraulic scissors heroically branded the Jaws of Life — they peel back the roof panel as if it were a can of Maguro.
Prom is still two weeks away. Students Against Destructive Decisions has decided to stage this car crash in the Swampscott High School parking lot. SADD used to stand for Students Against Driving Drunk — a spinoff of sorts from Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The only trouble is, students don’t drive drunk much now until they’re out of high school. The new organization does things like lobby against marijuana decriminalization (that seems to have backfired). It also lobbies for seat-belt laws, although every state except “Live Free or Die” New Hampshire already has one.
The SADD show took a couple of hours away from what in edu-speak is called “time on learning.” It was time well spent on a matter of life and death. Or it would have been, if it were having the intended effect on the audience. A damp, bone-chilling wind gusts off the ocean at 25 miles an hour. Groups of kids are huddled with their backs to the wind and, because of the wind’s direction, to this simulacrum of a car crash.
The students should return to class SADDER and wiser. Mostly they’re just happy to get out of the bitter wind. Did they learn the lesson? Will they stop making destructive decisions? Are they convinced that the cops will lead them away to jail in handcuffs? “Feh,” “eh,” “mmmm,” they vocalize with a shrug. “Allie, I don’t want to see you drink and drive,” one girl teases another. Granted, kids often put a brave face on their fears, but just as likely they’ve grown inured.
* * *
A quarter mile from home, I convince Molly to take the wheel. Some experimentation and a bit of coaching gets the electric seat raised and pitched so she can reach both the pedals and the steering wheel. “Which pedal do I use?”
“The big one is the brake. The little one is the gas.”
Her left foot finds the brake. I explain that only race car drivers use two feet, but that’s what she wants to do. Maybe she’s a driving savant.
I have her move the shift lever down to “D.” A dull mechanical clunk passes under us, and the minivan wants to move. Ease up on the brake and we’re easing down the road. I am reborn. Driving is new again. A partial transcript of our lesson follows:
“How do you make it go faster?”
“You step on the gas pedal.”
“What’s the gas pedal?”
“The gas pedal’s the one on the right.”
“Should I hold the brake down too?”
“No, generally when you use the gas pedal you don’t use the brake pedal.”
She accelerates and something remarkable happens. She smiles. My Molly never cries when she’s hurt, yells when she’s angry, or even expresses cheer in my presence. It’s actually a bit worrisome. Ah, but at the wheel, a beautiful, shy smile of pure delight breaks through the mask. My closed-lipped little girl exults in her command of the minivan. We haven’t shared such joy since before she was carried away by budding hormones. Molly likes to drive. She’s not thinking ahead about independence or back on what rules of the road she didn’t memorize in driver’s ed. Together, we are in the now.
For parents, teaching our children to drive is bittersweet. It’s a time of uncommon closeness in the service of letting them fly away. For the first time since Molly learned to make her own waffles, she needs me again. For the first time since I took off her training wheels, I want to teach her something that she wants to learn. And while she’s driving, she can sit with me, be with me, without the discomfort of eye contact. I’m right there, but she’s too scared to take her eyes off the road.
I know that one day she’ll drive off into the sunset, off to college or with a boy, but for now at least I can hold her to me. The phone sits in the center console, and I didn’t even have to pry it away.
I know better than anyone that nature has produced nothing so dangerous as a 16-year-old behind the wheel. I never encouraged Molly to drive; if I had, she probably would have rejected the idea out of hand. It took her over a year to get around to passing her driving test (on the first try). She’ll never be a “car guy” or driving enthusiast of the BMW type. The minivan we’ve owned for over a decade is good enough for her. She delights in driving just for the sake of it, wandering into the city or out to the coast.
I also know better than most how much damage our automotive lifestyle has inflicted on the world. But whatever qualms she may have about contributing to environmental collapse, they’re not enough to keep her from filling the tank with gas. Against all of that, I want her to own a car and to take the helm and be the captain. I want her to be in command, to be the one who tells the passive passengers to buckle up and collect the gas money; to say, I know a short cut. And I want driving — the pure experience itself — to rescue her from a life of passive touch-screen consumption.
For worse, but also for better and of their own accord, generations of Americans have embraced automobility and celebrated ours as an automotive nation. We’ve been irresponsible and gluttonous, to be sure. But we have turned toward ever safer, more efficient, and more luxurious new models year after year. That turning has put our kids on the road to the safest, most efficient, and luxurious cars of all: the car they’ll neither own nor drive.
We arrive home, having easily dodged the cars parked along the curb and just barely clipped the tree on the corner with the side mirror (it should buff right out). The final trick is the narrow entrance past the stern of the truck to reach the carriage drive. Molly does it, slowly, gently, and with growing confidence. She docks the van so the tires are crushing only a small strip of the grass on one side (about as well as her mother does it). On our way up the front steps I turn over her phone and she clutches it tight again. In a moment she’ll be back on the couch, Instagramming, texting, and Snapchatting with her friends. As for me, I hope my baby never quits driving.
* * *
Historian Dan Albert lives on the North Shore with his family. He reads from his new book, “Are We There Yet?,” on June 10 at 7 p.m. at the Spirit of ’76 Bookstore in Marblehead. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Excerpt from “Are We There Yet?: The American Automobile Past, Present, and Driverless” by Dan Albert. Copyright © 2019 by Dan Albert. Reprinted with permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.