Life in the slow lane

By SARAH WANG, senior

Five months into my senior year and six months as a seventeen-year-old, the most common question I was asked was not what college I’ll be attending next year, or what I’ll be majoring in, but rather, “Can you drive yet?” The answer to that question, astonishingly enough, is a resounding “no,” and I’ve gotten quite my share of odd glances for it. It’s not that I lack the time or the resources to complete the measly six hours – though I’ve certainly used that excuse more than a few times. The truth is, quite frankly, that I am afraid to sit behind that steering wheel.

Part of the reason for that is pure statistics: it seems that we are bombarded daily with news of the latest accident involving a teen driver. According to The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute, the fatal crash rate for drivers ages 16 to 19 is 4 times higher than that for drivers ages 25 to 69. Over 3,000 teenagers are killed each year in car crashes nationwide according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, putting car crashes at the number one spot for causes of teenage death in the U.S. Teens are almost ten times more likely to be in a crash in their first year on the road than most experienced drivers. The data is frightening, and the stigma of recklessness stamped onto teenage drivers by the news doesn’t assuage my fears.

More so than the statistics, however, the significance behind the decision of getting in the driver’s seat is what really frightens me. When you learn to drive, you approach a crossroads – it’s a crucial decision, a transition from adolescence to adulthood. The moment you sit behind that wheel, you are responsible for your own choices, your own actions, as well as their outcomes. It’s a terrifying offer of liberty.

As teenagers, we always whine and groan about parental restrictions: about having a curfew, about having to take this or that class, about being forced to study instead of being allowed to a party. However, the instant that you realize you are truly free from those restrictions, that your parents have almost no jurisdiction over you whatsoever, is frightening. Your parents’ dominance over you can be a cage, but it can also be a shelter. There’s something reassuring about letting your parents make all your decisions for you. Yes, you have less freedom, but if something goes wrong, you always have someone to catch you when you fall. Someone is always watching over you, making sure that you’re alright and keeping you safe from harm. If you catch the flu, someone will bring you to the doctor and make sure you get better. If you struggle in class, someone will help you get the tutoring you need. If you make the wrong decision, someone will set you on the right path. In many ways, you are not directly responsible for any of your actions; adults will shoulder some of the consequences of your missteps. Learning to drive is treading the invisible boundary between your shelter and unknown territory. No longer will a guardian shoulder your burdens; the responsibility is your own, both in the car and in your life. You can do what you want on the road, in places far away from your parents, but no longer will anyone shield you from your mistakes, nor can you blame anyone else for your decisions. Learning to drive is a ceremony marking your status as an adult. For me, and for more teenagers who would never admit to it, it is still too soon to undergo that ceremony.

Furthermore, driving is motion in more than one way: with the ability to drive comes the ability to go places, to move beyond where you stand right now, both literally and figuratively. That, too, is frightening. Have you ever considered this? Despite what we may believe, we’re in a state of stagnation right now. We live our little lives, studying for our tests, preparing for the SATs, dealing with the inconsequential drama of friendships and love- all the while staying still in this single town. Everything we do in this school is simply preparation for what we will do in the future, for college and beyond. Life is a long, long road, and we’re currently resting at a gas station while we prepare for the next segment of our journey. You can move within the gas station, but you won’t really go anywhere until you get back into the car. Once you get back into the car and learn to drive, you’ll once again be off on a journey to some unknown destination. Everything you do in that car, on that road, determines the course of your life. There’s an element of uncertainty to the whole process, and the human mind does not like uncertainty. We want to know. We won’t know where we’ll end up, however, until we reach the end of our journey, and that won’t be for ages yet. Learning to drive, getting on the road, initiates the beginning of a long journey into the unknown, and I, like many others, am unwilling to place my foot on that pedal.

Standing on the edge, here, on the threshold of adulthood, I can’t seem to muster up the courage to take the first crucial step to cross the boundary. Someday I’ll have to venture beyond my little sanctuary, and into the very large world with all its harsh realities, and chart the course of my life alone. Until I find my resolve, however, I think I’ll remain a backseat passenger for now, simply gazing through the window at the swiftly approaching horizon.

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