Vanishing Rite of Passage: Getting Your License at 16

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Nov 18, 2016

I recently coached both of my daughters as they got their driver’s licenses, and it was such a different experience from what I remember. Whatever happened to driver’s ed? At least in my town it’s run privately now, and it costs a fortune. And what about the absolute crazed impatience we experienced as we counted down the days to our birthdays?

This is the way it was, the male authority figure and his hapless pupils.

Since kids today are often indifferent about driving, let me take you back to those thrilling days of yesteryear. The process started at least a year before turning 16, because we had to get learner’s permits and take high school driver’s ed—taught by the basketball coach, as I recall. He had a second set of brakes on the passenger side of his Plymouth Valiant, and he sure used them. One of his specialties was giving us gory statistics about highway fatalities, a point driven home by a showing of the lurid "Signal 30." Watch it if you dare:

When you live in a wooded New England suburb miles away from the “action,” not being able to drive was a huge thing—especially in the dark days before cellphones. And kids who rode the bus to school (which had a huge student parking lot) might as well have had signs reading “dork” around their necks.

My twin brother, John, and I had the car—a 1962 Chevy Nova convertible handed down from our cool uncle, but it stayed parked at my grandparents’ house until I was legal. So to go anywhere required our mother to ferry us in her station wagon (also a Chevy). Definitely not cool.

The early Ford Falcon was an ideal driver's ed car.

I was a slow learner, and I still remember the disgust in Coach’s voice as he tried to get me to accelerate smoothly—and then brake. By then I had a learner’s permit, which meant I could drive with my parents. They were cool to my burnout techniques.

I well remember the study book for the written test. It was fairly intense, a lot about the “rules of the road” and who has the right-of-way—stuff my wife tells me I remember imperfectly.

The driving test (taken in the Nova) wasn’t bad, though the uniformed officer (complete with State Trooper hat) was a bit scary. I did my three-point turn, and perfectly executed the parallel parking—something that to this day I still do better than my wife.

Today, these primitive driving simulators would be replaced with virtual reality.

“Congratulations, son, you passed,” he said. Never were sweeter words spoken. And on the first try. My brother passed, too, and we jumped into the Nova, dropped the top, and drove 100 miles to the Rhode Island border—just because we could.

Soon we were driving to school. The captain of the soccer team also had a red Chevy Nova convertible, so it was not uncommon to find one his myriad girlfriends sitting in our car at the end of a day of academic pursuits.

My brother ended up wrapping the Nova around a tree a year later, demonstrating those very same burnout techniques. “Body work” at the time consisted of replacing the driver’s door from the junkyard, pulling out the crushed rear quarter panel with a dent puller, a quick sand-down, then a runny paint job with spray cans. We drove it like that for years, until the brakes went.

I wish I had that car today. It was followed by a string of $50 cars, which provided surprisingly dependable transportation—until they didn’t.

The whole “rite of passage” thing is a bit subdued now. Kids attach way more importance to their first smartphones. If you can text your friends or FaceTime them, maybe seeing them in person isn’t such a big deal anymore? My girls did eventually get their licenses, and I’m still getting used to seeing them behind the wheel.

It’s funny to think that their kids probably won’t drive at all. In the same way my girls hardly know what a CD is, my grandchildren will just climb in the back of their autonomous vehicles—gaining full freedom of movement at, what, 10? Driving, it’s soon to be a lost art.

Oh, by the way I recently tutored a 15-year-old from our church in elementary driving techniques. He's a natural, actually. His one flaw is his determination--the same as mine--to set land-speed records. So driving isn't quite dead yet.

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