Learning to Drive

“Americans are broad-minded people. They’ll accept the fact that a person can be an alcoholic, a dope fiend, a wife beater, and even a newspaperman, but if a man doesn’t drive, there is something wrong with him.” ~Art Buchwald

I suppose Art Buchwald, a columnist for The Washington Post, was speaking of himself. It’s true. Some persons who live in big cities never learn to drive. They use mass transit, taxis, or planes. Financially, they may be better off, because owning and operating a car is a big expense.

But usually a youngster, about sixteen, will think he has to learn to drive. All his friends are doing it. And sometimes parents are eager to let him because they think they can dump on him all the chores they’ve been doing.


“American youth attributes much more importance to arriving at drivers license age than at voting age.” ~Marshall McLuhan

In my birth family and immediate family my firstborn was the only person to get his drivers license at sixteen. The rest of us were older; some, much older. My mother was middle aged because back in her day women didn’t drive much. She waited until, because of my dad’s health, a drivers license was almost a necessity.

If you are the one learning to drive, before you do anything else, go to the DMV, pick up an instruction manual, learn the rules of the road, then take a written test to obtain a learners permit. The parent should then go to the family’s insurance agent and add the novice driver and his vehicle, if applicable, to their auto insurance policy.

States are getting stricter about age and responsibility. They may require a youngster to stay in school if he wants to operate a vehicle, be accompanied by parents not friends while he’s learning, and perhaps log a 1,000 hours behind the wheel before he can get a license to drive.

“Nobody is going to drive with him other than me or his mother. What he learns now will stick with him all his life—so, he’s got to learn the right way. The right way is no other kids in the car. That’s it.” ~Roy Wesley Sr


“About half of new car buyers say longer-term dependability is a key factor in choosing which vehicle they want.” ~Joe Ivers

My son was attracted to cars from the time he was little and seemed to learn by osmosis. Or watching us drive. Neither my husband nor I taught him. He just knew how to handle a car in and around our place. He got a job and bought his own. A classic. A red two-door hardtop convertible coupe 1965 Ford Mustang. Then, without consulting us, he bought his own house, a new brick veneer ranch. With acreage. Furnished it nicely. Before he married and started a family of his own. Independent.

My daughter was not into cars. So her experience was different. Concerned for her safety, I bought her a guaranteed preowned late model SUV 4×4, fully loaded with self-dimming rearview mirror, so she could learn in the same vehicle she would be driving. But she had to wait until she got her license to secure her own title, registration, car tag, and insurance. Some states may even add on ad valorem tax, personal property tax, wheel tax, or other taxes and fees, and require state inspection. Beware: owning and operating a motor vehicle is costly.

“When people are choosing a car they’re going to take in to consideration the safety factors and the environmental factors.” ~Sarah Mitchell


“I know a lot about cars, man. I can look at any car’s headlights and tell you exactly which way it’s coming.” ~Mitch Hedberg

By all means, look in the glove compartment and find the owners manual. Learn where all the controls are on the dashboard. Headlamps, turn signals, fog lights, windshield wipers, heat and air, defrost, rear defrost, even the stereo or CD player—which you don’t want to be fiddling with while you’re learning to drive.

Look at the tires and the mags or wheel covers. Find out where the jack and the spare (“doughnut”) are located. You don’t want to have a flat tire, then when someone comes along to help, you’ve no idea where your equipment is. My brother-in-law wouldn’t even let his daughter (my niece) drive until she knew how to change her own flat. I considered that overkill until we had a flat in the middle of nowhere, and it was this little shrimp of a girl who changed the tire.

Look under the hood. Does the car have a serpentine belt? If it does, that belt controls everything. If it fails, your car will die. You need to know that.

See if you can tell the difference between where to put the antifreeze and where to put the windshield wash. Try examining the dipstick: the oil fluid and the transmission fluid. Can you read the gauge?

What about the air filter? In some cars it is easily accessible and you can even change it yourself, if need be. If you survive a dust storm or forest fire, and your car is spitting and sputtering, check the air filter. I change my own about every 12,000 miles.

Step inside the car, sit in the drivers seat, and close the door. If your car is an automatic, there are two pedals in the floorboard. The right one is the accelerator; the left one, the brake. If your car is a straight shift, there is a clutch to the left of the brake. The accelerator does not mean go, nor the brake stop. Though basically that is what they are used for.

Assuming you have a fuel injection system, to start the engine all you have to do is turn the key (or push a button in some cars). You do not have to give the car gas. If you do, you’ll flood the system and make the car stall.

Probably the car has anti-locking brakes, which means, if you have to stop on a dime, you stomp on the brake and hold it, not pump it. The parking brake is usually engaged, after you park and turn off the ignition, to keep the car from rolling on an incline. If you hear strange sounds while you’re driving, or the car handles funny, take it to a mechanic.

I’m not trying to insult your intelligence. I’m telling you these things because I didn’t always know myself. When I was a teenager, and my uncle asked me which pedal was the brake and which was the clutch, I didn’t know. When I was learning to drive, once I was headed downhill with my foot on the accelerator while my husband was screaming, “STOP THE CAR!” Why? “You don’t need to give it gas to go downhill. Gravity will take care of that.” On one car I had, a mere boy heard the sound my wheels were making, and yelled at me on the street, “Lady, you need brakes!” That’s what that sound means? News to me.

Everybody has to learn whatever they know sometime, some way, and I am assuming you know nothing. Get acquainted with the car so that you know what everything is, where it is, and what it is used for.

By all means, find out what kind of gas the vehicle takes. You don’t want to put in diesel if it takes unleaded. There is no need to put in premium if simple gas will do. Watch out for ethanol. Some cars can handle 10%; some have a reaction. Never purchase E85 (85% ethanol) unless your car takes flex fluel. I use only high detergent gas (Chevron, Conoco, Shell, Texaco, et al) because it eliminates hesitation, knocking, pinging, loss of power on a hill. If you don’t use good gas, sooner or later you’ll have to use an additive like Gumout fuel injection cleaner.

At some point, in today’s world, you’ll have to learn to pump your own gas, probably. You may want to get someone to help you. Everything is a mystery the first time, even if you’ve seen others do it. Make sure the pump part of the handle is released before you remove the nozzle from the car. This sounds simple enough; but I once saw a young driver remove the nozzle still pressing the spigot lever, and, of course, gas was streaming everywhere—on her clothes, in her shoes, over the concrete and the tires. Need I say this can be very dangerous!


“I love driving cars, looking at them, cleaning and washing and shining them. I clean ’em inside and outside. I’m very touchy about cars. I don’t want anybody leaning on them or closing the door too hard, know what I mean?” ~Scott Baio

If you have the money, you can take your vehicle to a professional car wash or go through one of those automatic car washes. Be careful. Driving in and out can be tricky.

I clean my own car. I buy Turtle Zip Wax (wash and wax) at Auto Zone, add a few drops to a bucket of warm water, wash the vehicle by hand, rinse, and wipe in my own driveway. I vacuum the interior at a do-it-yourself car wash and clean the seats, dashboard, and upholstery with Tuff Stuff foam cleaner. You can add fragrance, but Tuff Stuff smells good to me.

When you park, try not to let your car door touch the neighboring car. Those little scratches can be annoying. Try to avoid potholes: they can mess up your tires, throw your front end out of alignment, and maybe even break a shock absorber. Stay away from fresh tar. If the DOT is working on the road, try an alternate route.

One day, carelessly, I flew through some standing tar and sprayed it all over the lower part of my car. My husband spent the evening trying to clean it with kerosene. Girls, you don’t want to do that to your husband.

If bugs or birds mess up the finish or the front grill, wash it right away. I buy bug wash in summer and de-icer in winter for the windshield wash. Caring for your vehicle properly will motivate you to handle it with care while you’re on the road.


Check the owners manual and do whatever it says. When you get an oil change, the service provider will probably put a sticker in the upper left corner of your windshield, telling you to come back after 3,000 miles. Today’s cars can go much longer between oil changes, perhaps 6,000-10,000 miles. Check the manual.

Generally, you get a tire rotation every other oil change and a tire balance every other rotation. But check the manual.

Keep a record of everything you do to the vehicle. The next owner will thank you.


“Patience is the ability to idle your motor when you feel like stripping your gears.” ~Barbara Johnson

Thank God the automatic transmission was invented before I learned to drive! I don’t think I could have done it the old-fashioned way, on a straight shift, as Olivia Walton did. Yes, I’ve driven a few straight shifts in my day, but I learned on an automatic, and an automatic is my preference.

Automatic gears, whether on the steering wheel, dashboard, or console, usually are marked P (park), R (reverse), N (neutral), OD (overdrive), D (drive), 3, 2, 1 or something like that. Overdrive (OD), which does not go through all the gear changes, allows the car to cruise at reduced RPMs and saves gas. In the old days it was an option even on straight shifts; it meant you didn’t have to engage the clutch to change gears. Unless you live someplace like Bluefield, West Virginia, where there are redlights at the top of the hill, you can use OD around town or on a straight-away. You can switch to drive (D), 3, 2, 1 when you need the transmission to gear down: driving through hillcountry, hauling a load, or towing something. Check the owners manual.

If you have a 4×4, put the car in four-wheel drive only when the road is wet with heavy rain, mud, or snow. Four-wheel drive will not work on ice. You can skid on ice with it as easily as you can without it. I skidded in my SUV 4×4 with the four-wheel drive engaged. Fortunately, I was able to turn the front wheels into the curb. It was the curb that stopped me not the four-wheel drive.

“Intelligence is like four-wheel drive. It only allows you to get stuck in more remote places.” ~Garrison Keillor


“Car accidents are the leading killer of teens in this country. Teens are just learning to drive and face many distractions, so they’re at a very high risk for accidents. We want to help teens learn good, safe habits from the very beginning.” ~Mario Andretti

I’ve seen untrained drivers ed instructors (coaches, civics teachers) take teenagers immediately to the street and put them behind the steering wheel when they aren’t yet acquainted with the vehicle. I disapprove, and I don’t see why insurance companies give those students reduced premiums.

The best way to learn how to handle the car is to go to a big empty place (assuming you have land, even a barren lot or field) and practice using the accelerator, the brake, and the steering wheel. My husband took me to a dirt racing track during off season; I circled until I understood what it felt like to operate a motor vehicle.

I took my daughter to the paved parking lot of a public school in summer, when no one was around. She practiced nothing but moving, steering, and braking till she was tired of playing parking lot.


“Oh, man. If I had magic powers… I would hope that I would use them for good. I think I would. But I would do something pretty trivial like making traffic disappear.” ~Nick Stahl

Once you’ve conquered controlling the vehicle, instead of letting it control you, then you can think about tackling traffic. When I was learning, and my husband was becoming tenser each day, I told him, “Take me to the DMV. Let me get my license, and I’ll learn on my own through experience.” So he did.

When my daughter was learning, I took her to a back road that ran along side a body of water and let her drive about thirty miles between two cities. That was exhilarating! She’d never done anything like that before. But I still didn’t feel comfortable with her driving in town.

One day we were out on a sleepy stretch of interstate, so I pulled over and gave her the wheel. “It’s not busy here. You can do it.”

I showed her how to set the cruise control and how to up the speed only slightly to pass other vehicles on the interstate. She drove about sixty miles, until she was approaching a major city. She almost had a panic attack. “I can’t! I can’t do it!” She was already in the right lane, so I directed her to the shoulder and took over.

The next day a similar thing happened. She drove a few hundred miles of interstate, hit a big city, with about six or eight lanes of traffic headed one way, and panicked. Again she pulled to the shoulder, and I took over.

Don’t force learning. If the person isn’t ready, he’s not ready. The student should be able to tell the instructor when and where he feels comfortable driving.

“I’m learning to drive at the moment, so that’s taking all my time.” ~Rupert Grint


“The last time I was pulled over was in 2005. I was going 55 in a 35 mph zone—which I don’t understand because you can barely even idle at 35 mph. Anyway, I was ordered to go to traffic school. It was an 8-hour class and really painful.” ~Danica Patrick

Watch for traffic signs, and do whatever they say. If a redlight has a sign posted saying, “No right turn on red,” it means no right turn on red. If a street has a stop sign, stop; if it doesn’t, because it is a through street, then don’t stop. If a sign says yield, yield—don’t surrender. If a street is marked one way only, it means one way only; find out which way you ought to go. If a speed is posted 35 mph, don’t excess 35 mph.

I was driving in another country where distances were measured in kilometers. The posted speed limit was 30 kph (c 18 mph). A back-seat driver was fussing me. “Why are you driving so slow?” I reminded her of the posted sign limit and the posted camera signs. “Well, no one else is driving this slow!” No, they weren’t. Natives were traveling at normal highway speeds, so I sped up—a little. I never got a camera ticket.

Generally, obey the signs. And stay alert. One night in a strange town, I went sailing through a redlight because I wasn’t paying attention. Fortunately, no patrolman saw me, so I didn’t get a ticket, and no one was hurt, but someone could have been. It was eye-opening when my husband, sitting in the front passenger seat, pointed out what I’d just done. “I didn’t see it!” Watch what you’re doing. A mistake like that could be deadly.

“Traffic signals in New York are just rough guidelines.” ~David Letterman


One day after my daughter had tooled around the parking lot, she said, “Mom, you haven’t taught me how to back up.”

I showed her how. “Try it.”

She did. It didn’t come off well, even after several tries. Finally she conceded, “I’ll teach myself. Later.” So we left it at that. And she did learn on her own.

I’ve seen young people back up looking straight into their rearview mirror. I wonder, Who taught them that!

The appropriate way to back up is to put the car in reverse, pull yourself up in your seat, put your right arm over the back of the front seat (or the adjoining bucket seat), turn around, look backward, through your rear window (not mirror), steer with your left hand, and back up.


“Now that women are jockeys, baseball umpires, atomic scientists, and business
executives, maybe someday they can master parallel parking.” ~Bill Vaughn

Most people can pull in and out of a slanted parking space without much trouble. It is parallel parking that gives them grief.

One day around the National Mall, Washington, DC, I tucked my big car nicely into a normal-sized parallel parking place, when right behind me came a small sports car. That driver couldn’t, for the life of him, parallel park that little thing in that big spot. He tried a number of times before he gave up and drove away.

I laughed. After I’d done it so effortlessly.

No one had ever showed him how. And that is the reason most drivers cannot parallel park.

When I got my first drivers license, about fifty years ago, all I had to do was drive around the block. The DMV tester just wanted to know if I could take off smoothly and stop on cue without stalling the engine. When I moved to another state, the state troopers were fussier. They gave me not only a written test, but a road test. “You’re giving me a road test when I already have a drivers license from another state?” Yep.

I did fine driving through their circuit. When we returned to the DMV, I thought the trooper would give me my new license. No. He had one more hurdle for me. He told me to parallel park. I’d never parallel parked in my life. After several tries, he said, “You don’t know how to parallel park, do you?” No. “Here, I’ll show you how.” So he got in the drivers seat and patiently instructed me. Then he let me try. I copied him and got my license.

This is what you do. Depending on the size of the cars already parked, you pull up parallel, about nose to nose, with the car in front of the slot you want. You back in deep at about a 45°angle, then pull forward slightly to straighten out. Works for me every time on the first try.


“Once I got my driver’s license everybody treated me like I was an adult.” ~Candace Cameron

After a season of learning to drive, my daughter and I were driving late one night, within about an hour and a half of home, and I was so sleepy. I didn’t think I could make the last leg. She was wide awake. “I can drive.” By this time, I knew she could do it; but even though I would be in the front seat with her, I wouldn’t be awake. The last thing I said before I dozed off was “Watch out for those whales,” meaning tractor trailers.

The next day I drove her to the DMV to take her road test. She was encouraged when the female state trooper asked for the fee before she’d even tested her. That was a good sign, wasn’t it? “Of course,” I said, “they’re always wanting money. They’ll pass you.” I waited while the trooper squired her around the area, then handed her her license. Was she excited? You’d better believe it.

She turned into a right-smart driver, gaining real experience in a major American city.

One night she was on the freeway headed home when she had a blowout on the right front tire. I was about twenty miles away when she phoned me on her cellphone. I panicked. My mouth went dry and felt like cotton. I knew that particular stretch of road had no shoulder, multilanes of speeding traffic headed one way, and it was late. I thought of everything that could happen to a young lady alone. Of course, my sister would say, “Not alone. Jesus is with us.”

I took off toward her in my own vehicle; but before I reached her, a Good Samaritan with a big shiny truck had already changed the tire and put on the doughnut. I could see she had gotten the car safely off the road, onto the grass, before he came, and now she was ready to roll. I wasn’t much help at all.

On the way home we stopped to put air in the doughnut. The next day we had to buy a new tire. I couldn’t believe the old tire. It wasn’t in one piece anymore. It was in shreds. How had this young girl stopped that vehicle at high speed on a limited access, shoulderless, multilaned highway during a blowout? It was nothing less than a miracle.

“Behind the dim unknown, Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.” ~James Russell Lowell

Copyright © 2011 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit


About Christseekerk

Minister, Editor, Writer, Senior Citizen, Grown Children, Grandchildren. Interests travel, writing, reading, walking, golf.
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