Notes From a Single Mom: License To Worry

Stepsister starts driving and the nightmare begins

Marlene George, with the Women's Memorial March Committee, addresses the April 10 press conference.

Marlene George, with the Women's Memorial March Committee, addresses the April 10 press conference.

Probably the single greatest worry for parents of teenagers, ahead of dating, drugs and pregnancy, is when their adolescent children start driving. It is one rite of passage we parents celebrate reluctantly.

Can you blame us? Our insurance rates go up, car keys mysteriously disappear, the gas tank always registers empty. But tantamount to all that, we worry that we’ll lose our precious son or daughter, an inexperienced driver, in a fatal car crash.

We hear a siren in the distance, we wait for a phone call, we breathe a sigh of relief. They turn 16 and we turn neurotic.

Our paranoia over teenaged drivers is not unfounded. According to the California Highway Patrol, teenagers in our state are 42 times more likely to be killed on our highways than adults. And here’s another zinger from the CHP: Teens driving with a peer in the first year of their license are 70 percent more likely to be involved in a fatal or injury accident, especially at night.

Makes you rethink that whole giant-red-bow-on-the-brand-new-Hyundai thing, doesn’t it?

Technically, I shouldn’t have to worry about this nightmare for another three to four years. My oldest is 13. Sassing back and an obsession with text messaging should be my biggest age-defining concerns with her. But her newly minted 16-year-old stepsister just got her license. The ex and stepmother celebrated in giant-red-bow style and bought her a Mini Cooper. And I mean “mini.” I’ve seen dogs bigger than that car!

Now, thanks to a divorce and the ex’s remarriage, the greatest fear I have—my children driving—has been accelerated a few years.

I picture these three free-spirited blondes driving to the mall, the radio tuned into THEIR channel, blaring THEIR music in loud protest to all those years they had to listen to MY music, as they haphazardly negotiate the twisting, curving roads of their father’s town in that microscopic Mini Cooper. Giddy, clueless girls, a teenaged driver, winding roads, rocky cliffs, the ocean below . . . in my overactive mind, it’s a recipe for disaster.

And I can’t do a darn thing about it. I am the ex-wife, the persona non grata. I have no authority, no voice in Stepland. I simply have to have faith that my daughters’ angels will be working overtime.

Alas, there is some hope. In 1998, California enacted one of the toughest graduated licensing laws in the country. The minimum age for getting a permit was raised from 15 to 15 ½, and learners must get at least 50 hours of supervised practice. Once licensed, 16-year-olds can’t drive unsupervised at night after 11:00; and they can’t carry passengers under age 20, unsupervised, for an entire year.

Many other states have adopted similar graduated licensing laws, and up until recently, they had been keeping our children alive, with an overall reduction in per-capita crashes involving 16-year-old drivers.

But according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, more teen drivers ages 16 and 17 were killed in the first half of 2011 than in the first half of 2010. If that trend continues, analysts say it would reverse 10 years of significant declines in teen driver deaths.

Stepsister Jill is only 16 right now, which means my daughters won’t be able to joy-ride alone with her until she’s 17. Looks like I won’t be getting MY license to worry for about another 10 months.

Freelance writer Lynn Armitage is an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin. She will need to be medicated soon.