The Most Terrifying Ride? When Your Teen Is Learning to Drive. a Car.

From a Washington Post column by Petula Dvorak headlined “The most terrifying ride in the world? When your teen is at the wheel.”:

I laugh at all the bungee-jumping, skydiving, roller-coaster-riding, TikTok-trend-chasing adrenaline junkies.

None of this matches the sheer terror of being the passenger in a car driven by your 16-year-old as he merges onto the freeway.

All the statistics tell us that this generation is driving less — among 16-year-olds in 2022, the number was about 1 in 5, according to the federal highway folks.
\In the 1980s, about half of the United States’ 16-year-olds had a driver’s license, according to Federal Highway Administration data. We know who we were.

We were the ones at the wheel of a serious beater, bought with a couple years worth of waitressing tips. Duct tape was integral to the viability of the car, which was packed with the friends on the other side of the license statistic. It smelled of Aqua Net and clove cigarettes, and we knew every word of the 7 Seconds cassette permanently stuck in the tape deck. A car meant freedom and power and opened the world to us like nothing else.

Gen X laughed at the Red Asphalt snuff films they showed us in driver’s ed. Puhleeze. Y’all gave us Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween.

We shouldn’t have survived. And thousands didn’t.

So when we became parents who wear seat belts, we secretly exhaled when we heard the stories about the decline of teen drivers. Gen Z just isn’t that into it.

It made sense. Cars are more expensive, insurance rates have skyrocketed, and the onerous permit and provisional licensing process that requires hours of parental supervision made a license much harder to get than those 15 minutes with a pencil test and drive around the block.

That world we were so anxious to see — the music stores that introduced us to new bands, the mall where we could see new clothes — are all in the palms of our kids’ hands. Their smartphones, thinner than that pack of cigs — opened the world to them and connected them with their peers in ways we could only do in person or over the phone.

“Mom, can we go take the permit test?” asked my younger son, the day after he turned 16.

I appreciate that he celebrates our Gen X music, but does he have to take this retro thing all the way to the freeway?

“I want to go to punk rock shows and see my friends,” he said.

I shrugged. “But I take you to shows and most of your friends take the Metro.”

He eyerolled. “I want to go by myself.”

I died a little inside.

“And you can’t keep driving me to all my rehearsals.”

True. He’s a drummer (and I thought dating a drummer in my 20s was so cool, thank you Darling Husband for continuing my roadie life). He can’t really take his kit on the Metro, as much as I’d enjoy seeing him try.

So here it goes. A YouTube showing of all the Red Asphalts? He’d laugh. (And probably write a song about it.) So I began peppering him with stories of the worst crashes I’d covered. I showed him the YouTube video of a little girl being hit after she ran into the street through parked cars. And we talked about the reason for the high school hockey tournament his brother played in every year at Gonzaga (in memory of a Dominik Pettey, a student killed in a car accident).

While traffic fatalities nationwide are decreasing after a pandemic-era spike this year, according to U.S. Transportation Department data, they’re unchanged in D.C. and even increased by 5.3 percent in Maryland — the places where my son will do most of his driving.

I even gave him one of Abigail Van Buren’s most-requested columns ever, the imagined, first-person narrative of a teen killed in a car accident she printed in 1976, the year 9,356 teens died in car accidents, “Please God, I’m Only 17”: “Hey, don’t pull that sheet over my head! I can’t be dead. I’m only 17. I’ve got a date tonight. I’m supposed to grow up and have a wonderful life. I haven’t lived yet. I can’t be dead!”

I got a little bit of an eyeroll, smaller this time. I was crying.

“I get it, Mom,” he said. “Freedom is a responsibility,” in the words of Bad Religion, Greg Graffin, 1982 (one of our favorite punk bands).

And then he made another point.

“Mom. You said it yourself,” he said, towering over me, putting both hands on my shoulders. “Guns are more dangerous for teens now.”


Three years ago, guns became the No. 1 thing that killed our kids.

“In the last 40 years, and almost certainly before that, this is the first time that firearm injuries have surpassed motor vehicle crashes among kids,” said Jason Goldstick, a research associate professor at the University of Michigan and a co-author of a letter issued last year from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on causes of child death in the United States.

More than 4,300 kids and teens were killed by gunfire in 2020, according to a research letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine that analyzed decades of mortality data from the CDC.

That same year, 2,767 teens died in car crashes.

“Stay in your lane,” I said as calmly as possible even though I’ve nearly dented the floor on the passenger side of the car with my mommy brake. He was veering too far right in his lane, trying to avoid oncoming traffic.

We lowered the volume on the 7 Seconds song. I breathed deep. I had to let him learn to be responsible for his own freedom.

Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Post’s local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. Before coming to The Post, she covered social issues, crime and courts.

Speak Your Mind