Losing Control

Philip Reed test-drives cars for Santa Monica-based Edmunds.com. He last wrote for the magazine about climbing Mt. Whitney.

I was driving south on the 405 Freeway when a car in front of me spun out and ended up directly in my path. This could be really ugly, I thought in that oddly calm state of mind that precedes disaster. I locked up my brakes. But then I remembered to lift off the brake pedal, and I steered around, unscathed. My pulse redlining, I realized I had just used an evasive maneuver I'd learned in a high-performance driving class. My next thought was unexpected: How would my 17-year-old son Andrew, who had just gotten his driver's license, have reacted to that situation?

Every culture has its own rite of passage to adulthood. In Los Angeles we hand our children the car keys and tell them to merge into a river of glass and chrome hurtling by at 70 mph. It's like throwing a child into a swimming pool. In the midst of panic, they are forced to discover survival skills. Sink or swim. Merge or die.

I've never been much good at letting my children learn life's lessons the hard way. Besides, on my daily 60-mile commute, I get a good look at the dangers of freeway driving. I've become particularly antsy while changing lanes. There's that awful stepping-into-space feeling as I look for an opening, signal and make my move, hoping some yahoo doesn't come flying out of the fast lane and send me into the ice plant.

My son's initiation was coming. Soon he would have to start driving himself to a new high school across town, navigating a maze of streets clogged by frantic drivers. I decided to send him to a class similar to the one I had attended--which had saved my neck on the 405 that day. It was called Fast Lane Teenage Defensive Driving School at Willow Springs International Raceway in Rosamond, by Edwards Air Force Base. The cool thing is the instructors aren't CHP officers preaching a gospel of rules and regulations. These teachers are race-car drivers who know everything about how to move a car through traffic at high speeds. Really high speeds.

Saturday morning found us sitting in a classroom beside the track at Willow Springs. When the teenagers were asked why they were in class, one girl said, "I'm here so I won't die on my way to school." Later, her mother explained that she would be driving three busy freeways to school--"the 55 to the 5 to the 57." I whistled, impressed. "Yes," she agreed. "It'll be hair-raising."

The instructor, veteran race-car driver Danny McKeever, had the folksy, seen-it-all delivery of an airline pilot. As he talked, he turned the disembodied steering wheel from an old Lotus and drew diagrams of "contact patches" on the chalkboard. The contact patches showed how the weight of the car is distributed between the four tires. When we drive a car, he told us, we are really "tire managers."

"You will all have to learn where the limits of the tires are," McKeever told the teens. "How far can you push the limits without losing control of the car?"

Losing control. There's that phrase so often associated with raising teenagers. I don't like losing control of my car, and I don't like losing control of my son either. But letting go is what I have to do. My job is to make myself obsolete as a parent, to teach my son how to survive without me. I have to let him find the limits by exceeding them.

The young drivers paid close attention to McKeever for two reasons. Outside, on Willow's big track, race cars screamed past, doing 125. The kids also knew that they, too, would be out there pushing the limits of their cars. They would practice losing control so that they could learn how to regain it.

The classroom session adjourned, and the teenagers hurried to their cars for the driving part of the class. First they learned how to steer and brake as they drove through a series of cones. Then they moved on to the skid pad--an open expanse of asphalt where they could spin and slide without fear of hitting anything. A water truck wet down the surface so that the tires would "break loose" at lower speeds.

The screech of tires and the roar of engines filled the hot desert air. The blistering sun drove me into the shade where the parents gathered, watching. While their sons and daughters flirted with controlled disaster, the parents recited a litany of uncontrolled horrors and close calls on the freeways. The parents know everything about the lurking danger on California roads. The teenagers know driving is a blast. Herein lies the essential rift between age and youth.

One father told us a harrowing story of getting a panicked phone call from his wife. Their 15-year-old, who didn't even have her license yet, had taken the family car and was broadsided at a stoplight. He sped to the scene and found their crushed car in the intersection. "The car was destroyed," he told us. "And I just stood there, staring at it, just completely convinced she was dead."

I put myself in his place, imagining Andrew trapped in the wreckage, imagining myself standing there with a pounding heart. It's every parent's nightmare. But the story had a happy ending. He heard his daughter's voice calling him. He turned and saw her being helped into a nearby ambulance, unhurt but on her way to the hospital for X-rays. He had brought her to this class, he told us, so that she would learn control.

Driving home after class, with Andrew at the wheel, I thought about how, on these freeways, we are always microseconds from death, and how we've traditionally tried to motivate young drivers to slow down by showing them "Red Asphalt III" and other road-carnage movies. Instead, I had let Andrew explore the limits of a car so that he would respect them. Was it the right choice?

"Did you learn anything today?" I asked. "I mean, come on--something that will really make a difference?"

"I knew a lot of that stuff before," he said. "But doing the exercises over and over again taught me how to react."

Yes, that's it. There will be no time for thinking when his moment of truth comes. Reactions rule. And if the required reaction is counterintuitive--get off the brakes, steer into the skid--you need to program that into your psyche long before your number's up.

Not long after the class, I stood on our front lawn and watched Andrew drive to his new school, heading into traffic on a street choked with coffee-hyped drivers and vein-popping road-ragers. Some were chattering on cell phones. I realized I could no longer always help or protect him. As Andrew confidently merged into chaos, I felt some consolation knowing that, if disaster stepped in his way, he had the skills to avoid it and continue safely down the road.

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