Spectator – Driving Tests

On my 15th birthday, I drove my mother’s Corvair to the courthouse in Magnolia, Mississippi, to get my driving license. I got everything right on the written test except for the blinking yellow light. I ticked ‘Stop’ instead of ‘Slow down, proceed with caution’. Then I went to the sheriff’s office to take the driving test. ‘Honey, I don’t reckon your daddy would’ve let you come down here if you didn’t know how to drive,’ Sheriff Guy said. With that, he signed the form and I got my first driving licence.

I’ve told the story so often I now sound like Sheriff Guy himself. If my audience is appreciative, I follow it up with the story of my British driving license. For years, I drove in England with a French licence and a Maryland licence, long past the legal time limit. Then something awful happened. My husband was made Minister for Roads and Traffic. ‘Oh lord,’ I groaned ‘I’d better get my British license now.’ ‘No,’ he said softly. ‘You’ll never pass. You’ll have to wait until I’m no longer there.’ The day he shuffled out of the Department of Transport, I signed up for driving lessons to brush up for my test. Those lessons were a revelation. Although I could top up the radiator and change a tyre, I’d rarely looked in the rear-view mirror except to put on eyeliner. I could’ve driven from London to Kathmandu without looking back. When I did look, I always saw outraged drivers shaking their fists because I was blithely hogging the fast lane.

Now, those stories don’t seem so funny. I’ve deleted tales of driving on the farm, age 13, from my redneck repertoire. I’ve asked my husband to stop telling how his sister, age 17, drove him and his twin sister, age 15, from London to Spain (mind you, she was Christobel Carlisle, a racing driver of some renown). When you have a son learning to drive, those stories feel like a flat tyre. Lamp posts swathed in flowers, roadside memorials, tell another story. Car crashes are the leading cause of death among 15 to 20 year olds in this country. In the past four years, the death rate among young drivers has doubled. Every hour, a person under 25 is killed or seriously injured in a car accident.

We spend a fortune emotional and financial making sure our sons and daughters are stuffed with A levels and decent manners. We celebrate rites of passage, including one at 17: the inalienable right to drive a car if you pass a test that doesn’t require you to know how to drive on a motorway, drive in a storm/at night/with three friends in the car. Every flowerdraped lamp post makes me think that a year of lessons teaching teenagers how to drive safely for the rest of their lives is more useful a curriculum than a year devoted to Philip II of Spain.

Which is why I’m signing my son up with a company called a2om (stands for Alpha to Omega Motoring) for driving lessons that are aimed at young boys and anxious parents. The founder, Nick Rowley, has created an enlightened curriculum that uses neuroscience to accelerate the development of the frontal lobe, that vital part of the brain than can anticipate risk and doesn’t fully develop until you’re 24. A friend’s son admits: ‘It’s the Oxbridge of driving instruction.’ Sam insists that the a2om course isn’t necessary, that he already knows it all, but I’m with Sheriff Guy on this one: I don’t reckon he’s getting the car keys until his frontal lobe is the size of watermelon.