Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for July: (7/6) Jennifer J. Chow (7/13) Meri Allen/Shari Randall (Book 1--Ice Cream Shop Mystery), (7/20) Susan Van Kirk, (7/27) Meri Allen/Shari Randall (Book 2--Ice Cream Shop Mystery).

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Driving Lessons

Beastette & Little Red
We’ve just had our family from Minnesota for a visit: two parents, two kids (almost 10 and almost 13) and dog (2+). One advantage of living deep in the woods is that kids and dogs are permitted a level of freedom unavailable at home. A great deal of learning comes from that freedom. The dog ditches her lead for the duration, roams the woods, drinks from mud puddles, swims in the lake and barks at critters without being yelled at (too much).

Children enjoy many of the same loosening of rules: they too can roam the woods, swim in the lake (under supervision), make lots of noise, sleep on the screened porch or out in a tent, and they can learn to drive years before the socially accepted, legally enforced standards.

First it starts with ATVs—all terrain vehicles. We have two: Beastette (a powerful yellow Polaris; at the time of its purchase I owned “Beastie,” a Ford Expedition) and Little Red (a slightly lower horse-powered red Honda). A sticker on Beastette indicates no one under age 16 should operate it. Another indicates you should not ride double. Both of these are important considerations if you operate an ATV off road or on slopes where an ATV can tip over. (When clearing our house site of trees, I managed to back Beastette into a hole and tip it over on myself. It hurt.)

When the kids are small we plop them in front of us and take them on ATV rides. They have to wear their bike helmets (the better to dent my chin with) and we never go superfast. The kids like bumps, so I make a point to run over all the rocks in the road. Starting around age 8, I let them do the driving, with me sitting behind them and early on with hands also on the steering bars—it takes some muscles to turn an ATV, and in case of danger I can knock a thumb from the throttle and squeeze the brakes.

They learn to steer; they learn to anticipate places where they need to go slower. I even teach them how to use hand signal turns. And once the older one was strong enough (roughly age 12) I allowed her to drive the ATV on her own, but only on “decent” trails, and I’m right there with the other ATV. They learn to drive responsibly. In a couple more years, I’ll let her go off on her own—as long as we have an agreed route and expected time of return.

Red Rover
This summer we tackled driving the car. The older is almost 13 and taller than her grandmother. There is no physical reason she can’t handle a car. She’s reasonably mature, and I’m in the passenger seat to coach, praise and if necessary throw the car out of gear and apply the emergency brake, since unlike a driver’s ed car there is no dual set of brakes. Our roads are dirt, not smooth, which inhibits going too fast—helpful when driver reactions are not yet honed.

I have been driving for almost fifty years. Much of driving becomes habit or muscle memory, both of which form from practice. I don’t have a how-to driving manual I can pull out to teach my grandkids, and the lessons I gave my younger son at camp are almost fifteen years old. And some things are entirely new.

When you first get into a car, what do you do? If you are like me you adjust the seat and then check the mirrors, first rearview mirror and then side mirrors. When I taught my son, the only seat adjustment was forward and back. Maybe you needed to adjust the tilt of the seatback if someone really tall had been in the car and cranked the seat backwards to make up for long legs. Now, in addition to those two adjustments, my car seat has up and down, tilt of the front of the seat, lumbar support – and everything is power. What used to take one minute of explanation and experimentation, this time required me to crouch next to the open driver’s door and guide her fingers to the right places to push various buttons to provide the correct seating for her.

Because of driving ATVs, we could foreshorten training about which way to turn the ignition key, but I forgot until the third time out to tell her to use the same foot for accelerator and brake – and interestingly when she converted to the right foot only approach, her braking became smoother.

When you first start to drive there are so many things to learn and many tasks must be done sequentially or simultaneously: accelerate smoothly, brake smoothly, learn where the right and left sides of the car are, learn where the tires are, signal turns, make turns without over- or under-steering, how to execute a k-turn, how to adjust windshield wipers, turn on/off lights (radio is forbidden during driving lessons).

We used rocks in roads to learn about where the tires are (try to run over that rock with your left tires), where the front bumper is (try to stop just before that rock), where the middle of the car is (drive so the rock will be in the center of the car), the space of the side mirrors (drive so the mirror just touches the evergreen).

My kids did a lot of backing up. I discovered with a rearview camera, backing up became much easier for children of the video game era, and we didn’t need to spend proportionally as much time as I had with a previous generation.

An hour a day seemed to work well. With plenty of skills to practice, we could keep it interesting and fun given I really didn’t want to go too far off my property given the illegality of the activity.

Mama Blue
The capstone activity for year one was moving from an automatic to manual transmission. I’ve always preferred manual transmissions (except in rush hour traffic), but I taught my children how to drive with automatics because it was one less thing to worry about. However, I insisted they learn to drive standard transmissions because that knowledge might save a life in case of emergency.

So for the last day out, we switch from my car to Jan’s, a basic Subaru Forester with manual transmission. I start the lesson by demonstrating all the things she will do wrong. As I’m explaining, I purposefully stall the car. It startles her and I laugh and explain what happened. I next do the airplane takeoff routine: applying lots of accelerator while keeping the clutch engaged. “Whoa!” she says. We discuss how to fix that problem. Lastly I get the car to do the herky-jerky when it’s in too high a gear with too little speed.

I explain what the clutch is doing in terms of her multiple-speed bicycle. I don’t know why I never thought of that analogy before, but she catches on quickly to what happens in a stall, airplane takeoff and the herky-jerky. Then it’s her turn. We switch seats and after she adjusts the seat and belts herself in, she figures out how to adjust Jan’s mirrors. Next we go through the gear box shifting up and shifting down, and I describe differences she might find—in that case of emergency—like some cars require you to push down to get into reverse.

She’s ready and goes to start the car, but has forgotten that she needs to depress the clutch before the ignition will work. A lesson reinforced is a lesson learned. We’ve talked about the “friction point” of every clutch: that the secret is to find that point and then you can start the car without using the accelerator. That is what we practice: clutch only starts, braking to a stop without stalling, starting again. I have 3/8ths mile of road before reaching my property line. Along the way are some hills, so we learn that starting on hills we have to involve the accelerator. This allows her to experience her own airplane revving moment and one short stretch of herky-jerky before stalling. We start and stop and occasionally stall our way to the end where we need to use reverse to turn around.

Bless her: she remembers to signal the left hand turn from which she’ll back out.

No more backup camera. She learns to loop her arm over the back seat and that reverse is a bit higher gear than first and with the wheels turned she’ll need a bit of gas. The turn made, we start and stop ourselves back to the driveway, turn around and switch drivers so I can demonstrate shifting. First I do several upshifts for her, describing the process, the timing of gas pedal release, clutch, shift, gas pedal and clutch. Then downshifting with a very quick history lesson about synchromesh should she happen to meet a car that requires a full stop to engage first gear.

She’s back to driving and now she has to accelerate fast enough to allow second gear. The first time she operates the pedals and I shift. Next she operates pedals and puts her hands on mine when I shift. Next her hands are on the gearshift, mine on top. Last she’s on her own. We make it to second gear several times before reaching our turnaround. A couple of times she didn’t engage the gear and the airplane returned. Once we met the herky-jerky man. On the way back we repeat: start, second gear, stop; start, second gear, stop.

I decide she’s ready.

“This time,” I say, “we’re going to get into third gear and you are going to have to go fast enough to do it.” She nods, wary, a bit worried, I think, but I know she can do it. I point to a spot by which I want her to be in second gear. We’re off and she accelerates smoothly, shifts into second gear and eases off the accelerator. “More gas,” I tell her and she responds. I allow her to stay in second around a bit of a curve with a threatening boulder on the left side. “Now,” I say, “accelerate and shift to third halfway down the hill.” She does, and I see the creep of a smile, but again she doesn’t continue with sufficient gas after the shift and we’re starting to climb the hill.

“Okay,” I coach, “now a downshift.” She complies, chugs up the hill, around another curve and I have her accelerate, shift to third, apply the brake, downshift to second. She remembers on her own to signal her left turn, making the turn she comes to a smooth halt.

She sits back in her seat. “That,” she says, “was overwhelming.”

I give her a big smile. “Oh no, my dear, you did it all! So, it wasn’t overwhelming. But, I’ll give you that it was whelming!”

She drives home, obtaining and staying in third, downshifts before the left turn into the driveway and comes to a perfect stop before the house. School starts in a couple of weeks and she’s earned her bragging rights for the start of eighth grade: “I drove a stick shift!”

“Yes you did,” I say. “Yes you did.”

~ Jim


Gloria Alden said...

Jim, when my brother was fourteen or fifteen, he bought an old Model A and had it towed home. He worked on it until he got it running and then drove all over my grandparents farm that was on both sides of the road next to where we lived. Much of the time it was filled with siblings and cousins, with some on the running boards hanging on for dear life. He was a crazy driver going in circles at times, but oh what fun we had even though there were a few who fell off. Thanks for bringing back memories. Today many kids get their first driving experiences on riding lawn mowers or ATV's in rural areas.

Jim Jackson said...


It never would have occurred to me that kids get their first driving experiences from ride-on mowers, but I suppose you're right. I never had one of those, so they're not part of my experience.

~ Jim

E. B. Davis said...

I have mixed feelings about teaching underage kids to drive. It's like leading them into temptation. But it is also a useful skill and in an emergency situation, a lifesaving skill. That said, I would have been a great candidate. My parents were not mechanically talented. Before I got my license, I often had to start the car for them, my father in particular, because he was impatient and would flood the engine. Carburetors are almost a thing of the past. Before I got my license, I'd take two garbage cans out of the garage and position them in the driveway. Then, I'd practice parallel parking. Living in a rural area, learning to drive was greatly anticipated. It represented freedom!

Warren Bull said...

You have a great place to teach kids how to drive. My cousins who lived in a rural area first learned to drive a tractor.

Kara Cerise said...

You do have a great place to teach kids to drive. I learned in busy Southern California and practiced in parking lots and at the dump. My first time driving on the freeway was rather terrifying especially when a bird hit the windshield.

Learning to use a stick shift is a big accomplishment and most definitely "whelming."

Jim Jackson said...

Kara, When I had to teach my children in the city I used cemeteries when they were first starting. The main advantage is that most of the residences are already dead! ~ Jim