Everyday Driver Education
“You could have taken that corner faster.”
I’m pretty sure the professional driving instructor, from whom my son had recently completed his requisite six hours of official training, did not share feedback of this kind.
“Trust the car more,” I continued. “Your inputs are smooth, and as long as you look through the turn and hold the line, you’ll be fine. Especially when you’re driving uphill.”
“Better traction uphill.”
I wasn’t encouraging my son to drive at the limit of traction--we weren’t on a track, and I would never teach him to drive recklessly--simply with more confidence and control.
He responded well to this feedback, and the rest of our lesson, which led us past Alice’s Restaurant and back to the 92, proceeded more briskly than the first half. He’s always been a quick study.
Like many other nascent drivers, my son first took the wheel in an empty parking lot. Over three weeks (and about four hours of total seat-time), we navigated every non-potholed square-foot of that lot, initially with much lurching and stalling, then crawling in first gear, then, once my son grew familiar with the friction zone and basic controls, accelerating to street speeds and downshifting smoothly before turns.
Once we were ready to leave the lot, I drove him to “campus”. We left our house early on a Saturday morning and headed to Skyline Boulevard, a squiggle of road which traces the highest ridge shrugging between San Francisco Bay and the ocean. Beloved among driving enthusiasts, motorcyclists, and cyclists alike, Skyline leads to several other scenic and fun-to-drive roads, most of which terminate at the legendary Highway 1.
I pulled into a turnout along an early straight. “Your turn, kid.”
Why did I teach him to drive on such roads, in such a car?
To you, Everyday Driver reader, the fact I taught my son how to drive in this manner may not surprise you. Indeed, on more than one podcast episode, Paul and Todd have identified Miatas (among other nimble manual-transmission vehicles) as good first cars for teens. Still, my pedagogic (pedal-gogic?) approach is hardly mainstream. It is, however, something I planned carefully and carried out for specific reasons. By the date of my son’s driver-license test, I intended for him to:
Develop a keen awareness of driving dynamics. What better way to understand how a car rotates, shifts balance, and responds to modulating the throttle and brakes than on twisty roads in a small, mostly-analog, rear-wheel-drive car? In stock form, Miatas are perfectly-suited for developing this sort of awareness, and the modifications I’ve made to my car--coilovers, lighter wheels, grippy tires, and several chassis-stiffening improvements--only amplify one’s inputs. Even with a slow steering rack and early 90s power steering, that roadster carves through corners sharply. And without gobs of power (with very little power, in fact), the Miata is a relatively safe car in which to mash the throttle without whipping the rear end around and getting into serious trouble.
Know how to drive a manual-transmission car. Being able to drive a manual-transmission car, in my opinion, is an important life skill, even in the age of ZFs, PDKs, and CVTs. What if the kid has to serve as a designated driver in an emergency and his passenger’s car is a four-speed Pontiac Fiero? Also, according to my extensive research on the subject, driving a manual-transmission car can be fun.
Pay attention and avoid distractions at all times. Not many people would think of a never-played tape deck and manual window cranks as luxuries, but in this context, I sure do. Allow me to explain:
I don’t want technology to distract my son when he’s behind the wheel. All the screens and smartphone-compatible head units which are ubiquitous in more modern cars have their merits but can siphon attention from the road. Adults have a hard enough time keeping their eyes on the road and their thumbs on the wheel (and off their smartphones); for teens, what with developing frontal lobes and all, texting friends or checking social media accounts can prove irresistibly tempting--including while they’re piloting multi-ton machines at 75mph.
It’s not simply the lack of technology that helps my son focus on the road ahead; the demands of driving a small, “darty”, manual-transmission car snaps one to attention. One cannot not pay attention while driving the little beast, lest one end up in the wrong lane (or worse).
Look, I know the kid will drive (has already driven) more modern cars. As with anyone learning new skills, though, developing good habits early can pay dividends (in the way of keeping those good habits--and both hands on the wheel) over the long term.
Learn the limits of a car under safe conditions. Any driver should know what a car can do--and, more importantly, know how to control a car--at speed, which is why I enrolled my son in an intensive “safe teen” driver course (more on that later).
Have fun and (hopefully) develop an appreciation for driving
Without pressuring him, I wanted my son to enjoy the experience of learning how to drive. If he turned into a driving enthusiast, all the better.
So did I only teach my son to drive Skyline after a brief stint in a parking lot?
Not at all. Soon after securing his permit, he did spend a requisite six hours of instruction through a licensed driving school, and Jeddy--whose car is a blue Prius C with one of those second brake pedals in the passenger footwell--is a great teacher who prepared my son to drive competently on city streets and highways.
Even so, I wanted to make sure my son would be able to avoid crashes and control a car in emergencies. After doing some research, I enrolled him in the Safe Teen Driver course offered by Sears Point Race Experience (yes, that Sears Point Raceway). Not only did my son learn how to evade hazards at 60mph, steer out of a skid, and engage ABS, he also had a blast. This course was expensive but invaluable. I would doubtlessly benefit from participating myself, and in fact, a few parents took the course alongside their teens.
My son experienced a lot of city driving as well (we live in San Francisco), and we ventured to several other scenic routes in the general vicinity (including some epic drives along Lucas Valley Road and Highway 128).
Finally, a week before his driver-license test, we explored what we predicted would be his test route, as both of us were unfamiliar with the streets surrounding the Petaluma DMV, an hour’s drive from our house.
Did the kid pass his test?
Yes, driving his mother’s Honda Fit. He passed easily, losing a few points only for driving too slowly (he was nervous as hell). Turns out, he’s a very good young driver.
What did I learn as his teacher?
I learned that I could be (mostly) patient with my son, and overall, the experience went well. I am no professional driving instructor, and I doubtlessly neglected to teach the kid some important lessons and skills, but having taught and tutored other subjects did come in handy. Nor am I a "hot shoe," but it's not like I was training my son to shave milliseconds off his runs down the corkscrew at Laguna Seca; I was teaching him to become an everyday driver, a discipline I'd like to think I'm pretty good at.
I will remember our lessons fondly--as, I think, will he, and that's something for which I’ll always be grateful. Time will tell, but I think this experience prepared my son, who is, happily, an enthusiast, to drive on his own.
The morning after he passed his test, as he pulled the Miata from the curb on his way to school, I beamed a few thoughts to him.
Then, I hope you’re ready.
And, as he turned onto the street at the end of the block, Don’t take those corners too fast.
Erik JP Drobey lives in San Francisco. He currently works as the sous chef and sausage meister at Wursthall, to which he commutes via "the twisty way" each morning. Erik chronicles some of his culinary and vehicular adventures on Instagram as @zjpd.
The views and opinions expressed here are his own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.