Dad's driving advice
Video games call for quick reaction to surprises. Driving demands the same skill.
PORTLAND, ORE. — The time has finally arrived for me to set aside a small portion of each day to accomplish a task that will have consequences stretching across thousands of miles and continuing for decades into the future: I am teaching a 17-year-old how to be a safe driver.
This is the final stage in my personal basic training program for teaching my daughter to deal with life as an adult. It's a simple five-step system that emphasizes good manners, positive attitude, critical thinking, solid communication skills, and responsible driving habits. I call it the Shaffer Real-World Pentathlon.
The motor vehicle component of the system starts with a simple premise. I told my daughter that anyone sitting in the driver's seat should look out the windshield and think of the car as part of a giant, full-impact video game. This perspective may seem daunting to a beginner, and it should. Video games are full of surprises and require a player to stay alert and react quickly. At video game tournaments, you never see participants talking on cellphones.
Adopting the video game philosophy also requires aspiring motorists to reject the Hollywood philosophy. My family thoroughly enjoyed watching Charlize Theron and Mark Wahlberg racing their Austin MINI Coopers through crowded streets and subway tunnels in "The Italian Job," but that kind of action needs to stay confined to film production venues. I'm a low-velocity guy and happy to say so. I don't even like to watch horse racing because those jockeys are just going too fast.
In a society that glamorizes risk-taking and reckless behavior, the blunt truth about safe driving is that it never generates any excitement, and those of us carefully obeying speed limits and warning signs are never going to receive public acclaim. There are no Congressional Medals awarded for not having an accident in more than 30 years. I did, however, inform my daughter about the intense satisfaction that comes from maintaining a lower-than-average insurance premium.
She's doing pretty well so far. Technology is a big help. Someday when I write my totally biased history of the world, I will rank power steering and the automatic transmission alongside TV and space travel as the greatest achievements of the 20th century.
I was horrified on our third day out when a golden retriever bolted in front of the car, but my daughter hit the brakes smoothly and without panic.
She also did a great job of safely passing a cyclist on a narrow road who was – I'm not lying – talking on his cellphone.
Happily, there are some situations she may never face. My parents had a Mercury sedan in the early 1960s that always got vapor lock on the highway to Boy Scout camp. We had to pull over and pour water on the fuel line to get it restarted. It gave many family outings a little "Grapes of Wrath" moment.
My daughter does have one ominous goal. "Someday," she told me, "I should probably know how to drive a stick." Probably so, but that's way down the road, and for now I want to stay in the slow lane.
• Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.