I’m not sure you really know what true fear is until you’ve merged onto a highway with a 16-year-old driver whose learner’s permit is fresher than some condiments in your fridge.
My son, Tommy, had driven on Cedar Crest and Hamilton Boulevards, as well as back roads, but he had only tackled Interstate 78 in one session with Dan Weaver, his driving instructor through Carbon Lehigh Intermediate Unit 21.
Tommy assured me Sunday he was ready; I wasn’t sure I’d ever be.
“Look for a gap in traffic,” I said as he pulled onto the entrance ramp. “If the gap is next to you, speed up and merge, if it’s behind you, slow down and wait for it so you can move over.” He did fine, but 78 is a picnic compared to some highways – you know who I’m talking about, Schuylkill Expressway.
When I started driving there were about 226 million people in America. Now there are nearly 312 million. When my son is behind the wheel it feels like they are all on the road at once, and too many of them are freakin’ crazy.
Local numbers bear me out here. According to Ron Young, PennDOT District 5 spokesman, daily traffic on I-78 East at the Lehigh Street interchange more than doubled since 1990. At the Route 412 interchange, I-78 westbound traffic has increased from 11,538 vehicles a day in 1991 to 29,713 vehicles today.
Weaver, who has been teaching driving for about 40 years, said the volume of traffic, plus motorists calling and texting behind the wheel, has made it so much harder for young drivers than when we learned to drive decades ago. “Everybody’s in a hurry today, people do crazy things,” he said. “It says ‘Driver’s Ed’ on the car and people will [still] blow their horn at us.”
Since Tommy started learning, I find myself dissecting my own driving. When you do something daily for 35 years you give little thought to the mechanics of it.
What I’ve realized is awareness and anticipation are everything.
Weaver said the biggest mistake young drivers make is that they don’t recognize potentially dangerous situations: the brake lights of a parked car about to pull out in front of them on a city street, a truck delivering mail around the curve on a country road. “I tell them, ‘You’ve got to keep your eyes moving, don’t just look straight ahead,’” he said.
The stakes are so high. At the kickoff of Lehigh Valley Hospital’s Distracted Driving campaign last October, Dr. Gavin Barr, an emergency medicine physician, pointed out that driving is the most dangerous thing most of us do regularly.
I told Weaver he must have nerves of steel to do this for a living. He said he loves to drive and he loves to teach but there’s one more thing.
“I’ll tell you what the big difference is -- the brake on my side,” he said. “Most parents would love to have a brake on their side.”
And we wear down the carpet on the passenger’s side pretending that we do.
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