The State of Connecticut deems it not only appropriate but legal for children, at the age of 16, to learn how to drive. Yet, just as they are being given state's rights, they are at the height of irrationality. When my daughter turned 16, suddenly it seemed as though all the years we had spent together in relative harmony had evaporated (even the ''terrible 2's'' didn't match) and I found myself with a child I didn't always recognize. One minute she'd be pleasant, rational and loving - especially if I'd just come home with her favorite ice cream. But then, if I were to suggest she straighten her room or perhaps ask about her homework, she'd scream, ''It's none of your business,'' and turn sulky and brood for an hour. She was at the age of hormones and we, her parents, found ourselves walking the high wire, balanced precariously between laissez-faire and too much control. As if this weren't enough to contend with, the state entered into our parental control issue: ''Let your child drive!'' To say I was nervous is an understatement. I was terrified. How could this trigger-tempered girl/adult be rational with an automobile? The two or three times I took her driving, I clutched the armrest on my door, kept my foot permanently planted on my imaginary brake, and squealed, ''Watch out!'' every time we saw a moving vehicle.
Meanwhile, my heart raced and my mind worked on strategies, if that became necessary, for a quick takeover. Although thinking back, I'm not sure how, in a split second, I could have maneuvered myself from passenger to driver in my small Volkswagen. I also wanted to warn all the cars around us, especially those that were patiently waiting to move from behind us, or those who zoomed by to the right of us. It seemed to take a while for my daughter to find and then stay in the middle of her lane. Once there was a man in a black Mercedes who tailgated us for at least two miles. My daughter was driving at the speed limit. ''Don't worry about him,'' I reassured her, when I noticed her anxiously looking in her rear-view mirror. ''Just concentrate on the road in front of you. You're doing fine.'' But as an adult driver I know what it's like to be crawling, so I felt compassion for him. Yet, I also know how intimidating it is to have a tailgater behind; it makes my blood boil.
Mostly, though, I wished I had a way of letting this man know that my daughter, the driver of the car in front of him, was a ''learner.'' I was positive it would have made a difference in the way he treated us. He would have kept his distance, I am sure. A couple of months after this incident, my daughter passed her driving test. The state took her picture and gave her the license she needed to drive by herself. That was the time for true nerves of steel and equally strong stomachs. I had neither.
We set down rules and regulations as to where she could go and when. And in those first few weeks, I had a rule of my own, neurotic though it was. I had her call me when she got to where she was going and call me again when she was leaving. Now, I only had to worry about her inexperience on the road for a limited period of time. That's not to say I still didn't worry. I hung by the telephone imagining all kinds of horrible scenes, including a dreaded call from the police station, ''Your daughter has been...''
I did get a call once, but it was from her. She hadn't managed to stop the car in time when the driver in front made a sudden stop. She was lucky. She was going slowly, and since only his bumper was scratched, he let the issue drop.
It has now been about six months since my daughter passed her driver's test. She's 17 now and we're beginning to see glimpses of an age of reason. I've passed a test, too. I've grown more confident and less worried. She doesn't even have to call to apprise me anymore, at each stop along the way. But I can't help thinking that, if the state continues to feel that 16-year-olds are mature enough to sit behind the wheel of a car, they should also devise some system to help alleviate a little of the anxiety we parents go through as our children begin to drive. Why can't the Motor Vehicles Department issue learner's plates - the kind that attach magnetically to the front and back bumpers of a car - when they issue learner's permits? These plates should be mandatory until the new driver has had her or his license for six months. I am sure I would feel a lot more secure with anyone's 16-year-old learning to drive if everyone else on the road were made aware of any tentative or erratic driving. New York Times, June 25, 1989