“Ready?” he asks.
“Um, yeah. I think so,” I say. I shift the car into drive and gingerly lift my foot from the brake.
“Give it a little gas,” he says. I do and the car lurches forward like an overly ambitious toddler taking his first steps. I quickly slam on the brakes and we both whip back in our seats, our seat belts yanking tight.
“Rule number one,” says my dad. “Always wear a seat belt. Okay, let’s try again.”
Growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, in the mid-’80s meant I was eligible for a full driver’s license at 16. A few months before my birthday, my dad and I embarked on a series of weekend driving lessons, commandeering empty lots and deserted side streets. As an overly eager teen, I figured a few quick tutorials were all I needed to hit the road. Turns out I had a lot to learn. Here’s what my dad taught me about driving—and life:
1. Hands at 10 and 2
When I first started driving, I had my hands all over the steering wheel. This drove my dad nuts. He insisted that the safest, most stable placement for driving was at 10 and 2, like the hands on a clock. Over the years my hands have wandered, resting at the very bottom of the wheel during long road trips and hanging over the top when stuck in traffic. Sometimes it’s only one hand on the wheel as I pass a tissue or snack to one of my three kids in the backseat. I’m most comfortable, though, with my hands at 10 and 2, just like my dad taught me. Exploring new ways of doing things is exciting and sometimes necessary, but it’s always good to go back to what works when you need to.
2. Never Rely on Your Mirrors Alone
Learning how to use the rear- and side-view mirrors took some practice. Once I got the hang of it, my dad informed me that while relying on the mirrors was okay for keeping track of my surroundings, it wasn’t enough if I was going to change lanes. I needed to take my eyes off the road and glance over my shoulder to confirm the all-clear. This terrified me. How could I possibly drive without looking? He persuaded me to have confidence in myself and that knowing what was coming up behind me was just as important as knowing what lay ahead if I was going to make a move.
3. Steer Into the Skid
I came of driving age in the wintry Midwest. Snow often blanketed our narrow, curvy street, and school rarely was cancelled. When my dad first told me that the best way to respond to skidding was to steer right into it, I thought he was crazy—until I experienced my first skid. Remembering his words as I slid in slo-mo across our icy road, I turned into the skid and quickly righted the car. Heading toward adversity is counterintuitive, but facing a challenge head-on is often the best way to overcome it.
4. Come to a Full Stop
St. Louis is full of four-way stops, and there are several rules around whose turn it is to go when. If you’re the only car at the stop, it’s tempting to just roll on through. This is never a good idea because 1) another car might be doing the exact same thing and then, boom, accident, and 2) it’s a big, fat ticket if you get busted (which I have). There’s no harm in coming to a complete stop, taking a few seconds to see what’s what, then continuing on. Who knows—given the time, you might decide to take a right instead of a left.
5. If You Ever Need a Ride, Call Me and I’ll Come Get You
My parents were no dummies when it came to what went on at high school parties. Whether it was me driving or a friend, my dad always made sure I had a couple of quarters in my purse in case I needed to call him for a ride for whatever reason. I’m sure I rolled my eyes, determined to deal with whatever came up secretly and by myself. After my (drunk) ride left me stranded at the Steak ‘n Shake one Saturday night, I took my dad up on his offer. You don’t have to handle everything on your own when there are people willing to help.
I’ll admit that the life lessons I learned from my dad while he coached me behind the steering wheel didn’t sink in fully at the time. Now, as a parent myself who spends countless hours in the car, I often hear my dad’s voice reminding me to keep both hands on the wheel (even when one of the kids is begging for a snack), come to a full stop (even when we’re late for school) and remember that the rearview mirror doesn’t always show the whole picture. Soon my oldest will be driving age, and it’ll be my turn to teach her the rules of the road, along with a few life lessons that I hope will stick.