The Fastidious and the Furious

Teens are schooling their parents in driver education—for a good cause.

Illustration by Tom Jellett

I was a very good driver by age 14. My sister took me out on the dustless road south of our small town in Nebraska for my first driving lesson, and I was able to stay on the road, shift without shredding the clutch, not hit the other vehicle on the road that day (a grain truck), and pretty much not roll through the two stop signs I encountered. “You’re a natural,” my ever-supportive sister told me. “Meaning you’re ready for a joyride to Omaha,” the devil on my shoulder whispered. 

There’s no physical proof that joyride ever happened, so let’s move on and get to the point here: Things were different when (and where) I got my license. I had farm-kid friends who were dumber than their animals who were legally driving to school at age 15. I had to study for an hour and not be blind to get my license the day I turned 16. Three times in my 20s I learned about traffic laws after an officer asked for my license and registration.

But here in the Virginia of 2018, my son just went through a lengthy, fairly expensive, and witheringly rigorous multi-layered driver education program that, after he turned 15 years and six months old, forced me to ride along with him for 40 unnerving hours (10 of which I endured after dark). Then, to add insult to incessant injury prevention, I had to accompany him to a “ceremony” a month after he could legally drive to officially receive his license. There my son and I watched six public-service videos that were older than my son and as artless as me, followed by a county judge spending 15 minutes describing the grizzliest accident scene he had ever witnessed.

Then, then, my kid starts critiquing my driving when he’s my passenger. “You’re holding the wheel wrong.” “You’re following too closely.” “You should have turned your turn signal on earlier.” “Do you want me to teach you how to park?”

So, for the last year or so, I’ve been longing for the good ole days in a far-away place where getting a driver’s license wasn’t such a big deal. Then, the angel on the other shoulder chimes in: “This is wonderful that this kid has had so much training prior to him driving the five miles to high school on a busy, winding road—a road that, although I never say it, scares me to death.”

The good ole days really weren’t the good ole days, at least behind the wheel.

Especially in Virginia, officials with the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles and Virginia Department of Education explained to me. Prior to a major overhaul of the state’s driver education programs, Virginia (especially rural Virginia), was near the top nationally in teen accidents. Matt Butner, a communications officer with the DMV, laid out the history of Virginia’s ever-toughening driver education program. In the years leading up to 2000, Virginia experienced a spike in the number of fatalities among drivers ages 16 to 20. After a study by a team of investigators at Virginia Commonwealth University, they released a report identifying the key factors behind most teen accidents and proposed a host of specific changes to licensure laws and driver education requirements. Virginia legislators then moved decisively in a bipartisan manner (I’m not joking here) to pass into law more stringent restrictions and education guidelines for teens driving and learning to drive. 

Butner and others were quick to point out that Virginia’s driver education programs have been stronger than many states since the 1970s. For example, as part of the education component of driver education, all Virginia students have had access to 45 hours of classroom driver education in 10th grade in lieu of 45 hours of health education. (Those 45 hours are not all that fun, I learned from my son.)

Virginia has continued to be on the leading edge in the rigor of its laws and programs. For example, while Virginia teens can’t get their permits until they’re 15 and a half years old, 10 states still give them to 14-year-olds. (Most states’ minimum age is 15.) Virginia is one of only 11 states in which you must be older than 16 to receive the restricted teen driver’s license.

But for those of us who are new to the state’s driver education programs and laws, and whose only point of reference is their own experiences elsewhere, Virginia’s training gauntlet for young drivers is as impressive as it is exhausting and annoying. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so thankful for something about which I have spent so much time grousing and carping and even—while being driven at night by someone I don’t trust to operate our riding lawnmower—sniveling and whining and maybe whimpering.

And also, now that it’s over, I don’t know that I’ve ever been so impressed by the quality, comprehensiveness, and importance of something the government forced upon me and my family.

If only my 17-year-old son could be a little kinder to his first student. 

This article originally appeared in our February 2019 issue.

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