Yesterday was one of the most highly-anticipated days in our family’s calendar. And no, it wasn’t because the new kittens were scheduled for their rabies shots (although that was super-fun, too, of course. . . ).
I’ll give you a hint: yesterday was M’s 16-and-a-half-year-old-birthday. That’s right. She did the road test.
The procedures are definitely different from when Cute W and I got our driver’s licences way back in the olden days in Iowa and New Jersey, respectively.
First of all, that thing with how they let farm kids start driving tractors while they’re practically still in diapers? Seems pretty true. I know Cute W started out behind a wheel at age 14 or so. Then, by the time Iowa teens are old enough for a permanent license, most kids have been driving forever and have driven as part of the public school’s behind-the-wheel curriculum, so the state doesn’t even bother making anyone take a road test. Unless you screw up so badly in your behind-the-wheel class that you almost accidentally kill a classmate, in which case your behind-the-wheel teacher might add a special note to your paperwork that says “Please test.” So. Cute W’s road test went fine.
For me, I managed to lose my permit, so we had to get a new one, which delayed my Special Day considerably. Then we showed up to the road test with a car in which the testing driver instructor couldn’t reach the emergency break, which was forbidden in NJ. I ended up having to come back another day, driving my dad’s coworker’s boat of a vehicle in heavy rain. Come to think of it, family legend says that when my mother took her road test, she was hugely pregnant with me and failed, then burst into tears, at which point the tester took pity on her and said that he’d pass her if she would promise to practice more.
Perhaps heredity was not on my daughter’s side.
In any case, let me tell you about the new-driver-in-2018-Upstate-NY experience. If you want a driver’s license ASAP and you don’t have any special considerations, you can get your learner’s permit as soon as you both pass the written test and turn 16 years old. Something I didn’t know until maybe 9 months ago is that new drivers can take the written test ahead of time at school (or, M and her classmates can at our high school, at least). You can’t be, like, a 14-year-old, but you can go a week or two ahead of time and take care of it during a free period at school, so it’s one less item to stress about. When they pass, the student gets a piece of paper as proof, which they can bring to the DMV along with the other paperwork on their birthday to get the permit. We had heard vague rumors that the Clifton Park DMV is more pleasant than the Schenectady DMV, and you can go to any DMV, so that’s where we went. The wait was reasonable (I’d say the visit was less than 30 minutes altogether) and people were pleasant.
Once they’ve got their permit, teenagers are supposed to get 50 hours of driving practice, 15 of which should be in the dark, and part of that can be official behind-the-wheel instruction. They also need to take a 5-hour driver’s education pre-licensing course. Martin, Harding, & Mazzotti offers one for free, but the class fills up fast. Your best bet is to take note of the registration date and mark your calendar. The mom who first told me about this option suggested that I might want to actually set my alarm to register at midnight. It wasn’t quite that extreme, but I registered soon after registration opened, and the mom who was trying to get her daughter into the same class with M tried an hour later and it was closed. M didn’t love her 5-hour class, but she was very fortunate because she happened to meet up with several of her soccer friends there, just because they’re all the same age and were coordinating for one of the few dates when they were all free. So that worked out well.
As for the behind-the-wheel practice, well, it was stressful, which I believe I’ve mentioned. Early on it is very difficult to remember and articulate the super-obvious things about driving, like that when you’re navigating and saying “Take a left turn,” you assume that the person driving will know that you are implying that this turn should not happen if there are oncoming vehicles. And when drivers are brand-new, it just takes them a while to figure out exactly how to occupy their space on the road, judging when they’re too close to the shoulder or too early to turn into the parking space or too close to the car braking in front of them. There was a lot of me trying to stifle gasps and stabbing my palms with my fingernails. And she really is a pretty good driver, but it’s still scary. Also, I really started noticing how stupid and terrible other drivers are, even before she started driving at all. And that felt like it kept getting worse. One day we debated which of us should drive, and for some reason, I drove instead of M, and then some teenager literally ran directly in front of two lanes of traffic as all of our cars started revving up as the light turned green on Route 9. I didn’t even see the kid at first–I just heard honking to my left, and it was enough for me to wait a beat or two to figure out what was going on. “Mom,” M said, “if I had been driving, I would have killed that kid.” She was pretty outraged at him. And I agreed that even though he was basically trying to get himself killed, she still wouldn’t have wanted to participate in his death or injury in any way. Not too long after, M was driving with Cute W and someone came driving right at them going the wrong direction on our one way street. She pulled over and didn’t even think to honk, which made me laugh, later, because she always urging me to honk at bad drivers and I tell her I’m too busy saving myself to think of honking. Anyway, you don’t realize how many dangerous situations you’ve been encountering while driving until, every time it happens, you think, welp, what would have been an accident if I were a new driver.
We did sign up for one hour of professional behind-the-wheel instruction, with Steve at Easy Method, because M’s friends had recommended the lesson highly as a way to get prepared for possible road test pitfalls. They were tough to get hold of– I left two phone messages that were never answered, then finally got a response via email –but M liked her lesson, and she and Steve came into the house briefly so that he could explain what they did. What followed was a rather hilarious call-and-response driving catechism with nuggets like:
S: “Momma told you not to. . .”
S: “What do you want to hit?”
. . . and so on. For these two, for example, his point was that if you’re trying to turn onto a street, kids tend to see an oncoming vehicle and sort of latch their eyes onto it and keep staring at it, when they should be looking around and looking for the openings between cars and without pedestrians, bikes etc–looking for nothing because that’s what they want to hit. Or something like that. Some other advice from him: when you’re watching your kid drive, stop watching out for things and start watching your kid to see if your kid is watching for the correct things; when you get to a stop sign, stop before the sign and make it such a full stop that you can feel the car settle, then inch forward if you need to increase your visibility; and look through the turn before you execute the turn. I’d say it was definitely helpful, and if I were made of cash I might have chosen to outsource much more of the process.
Okay! So the day was approaching, and the next step was to make an appointment. This stressed me out quite a bit, because I knew that M wanted to take her test ASAP, but there wasn’t much listed when I tried to schedule online for Schenectady. I didn’t really want to have to travel far for the test, but I was also afraid that I’d get closed out of appointments because of the encroaching holiday. I didn’t need to worry about this. There were plenty of appointments available, but they weren’t always online. At one point I called the phone number, but when I tried that automated system two weeks before she was even eligible for the test, the recorded voice was still making appointments for only two days away, saying, in that oh-so-slow robot voice, “If you would like to sign up for Wednesday, December 5th, at 8:45 am, press 1 . . . . if you would like to sign up for Wednesday, December 5th, at 9 am, press 2. . . . if you would like to sign up for Wednesday, December 5th, at 9:15 am, press 3 . . . . ” I decided that I should just hang up and think about it later. Sure enough, later the online appointments were updated, and we had our pick of times at the Schenectady location.
The Schenectady road test location is, to quote the DMV, at “Brower St between Altamont & Van Velson (look for sign on right ).” Okay, y’all, I thought I would be really clever and take M for a drive there ahead of time, so we could sort of case the neighborhood. This was a flop. The only free time that we’d carved out for this turned out to be Sunday afternoon, when there was suddenly a wintry mix of precipitation. I wanted to bail right away, but M still wanted to go. We went against my better judgement, and soon the wintry mix was coming down harder, which isn’t even good practice since they’ll cancel the test if the weather’s bad. We got to the correct area and didn’t see any obvious spot to take a test. There was a garage nearby that had the DMV sign that says it can do state inspections, so I figured that it must be there. We left and didn’t come back until appointment time. And, guess what? It wasn’t the garage at all. You literally just park on the side of the road and wait until the tester approaches your car. Here’s the sign:
Not obvious, y’all. Also, it was freakin’ cold and blustery outside. I had expected a waiting room and a bathroom. No such luck. Whoever was the unlucky licensed driver accompanying the test-taker would just get out of the car and shiver on the sidewalk. We were queued up behind two other vehicles, and we spent most of the the time analyzing the driving techniques and resulting facial expressions of the test takers before M. Also, each test ended with the same signature move, which was that the car would pull in, nose-first, into a rough parallel park between two cars across the street. This was cause for a great deal of analysis. We had heard that M would definitely have to parallel park for the test, but we’d also heard that she’d just need to park behind a car with plenty of space behind her. The key was to approach it properly and to avoid hitting the curb. And yet, here was this wackadoodle improper parallel parking as the conclusion of the test experience. I fretted, but M was confident that her intel was good: this last parking job wouldn’t even count. I hoped she was right. When it was M’s turn, I high-tailed it over to the CVS to find a restroom and purchase a congratulatory or consolatory pack of gum for M.
She passed! The test itself only took a few minutes, so fast that M was afraid that they were returning to the starting point early because she’d already failed. She received a temporary license and will get the real one in the mail in a couple of weeks. I was going to write a bit about her first outings as a new driver, but this is already long, so that’s for next time.