Bad Driving Decisions During the Development of My Pre-Frontal Cortex, and Why I’m a Scared Dad Now
In a world replete with gun massacres, kidnappings, terrorist attacks, shark attacks, natural disasters, and terminal illnesses, we are hyper-aware that there are many ways to die. Yet getting behind the wheel of a car, something most of us do every day, remains by far more dangerous than all of these things combined.
Why do so many women think guys are idiots? Because even by the age of 18, we still have on average only a 75% developed pre-frontal cortex. That’s right, the one involved in judgment and decision-making. Guys do more stupid things. We’re so stupid we don’t even recognize it afterwards. Not at least until a long, long time later.
So why wouldn’t I be scared every time I hand my son the keys now that he’s 17 — and with a second son just a year away? In preparing myself, I’m rehearsing, thinking about poor decisions, and how I’m still here with my brain and body intact from sheer luck. When you add it all up it starts to look pretty scary. Maybe this helps?
1. Age 15: Scott’s Pinto Reaches 100
Even before I could drive, my neighbor-buddy, Scott, was a year older and also on the Cross Country team. He was a Missionary Kid, as responsible as it gets. He had a lawn-mowing job — he systematically saved up enough to buy the top-of-the-line Honda mower — which also led to his being able to afford things like a stereo loud enough to hear from the adjacent cul-de-sac, track lighting in his bedroom, and his Pinto (worth as much as his stereo). Yes, a Pinto. Famous for blowing up due to the proximity of the gas tank to the engine.
Scott mostly listened to Christian-only rock, which may or may not tell you about his judgment. But even otherwise responsible Scott would find stretches of road on our way to school where you could go wide open. Scott would easily pin the needle to 90 in these sections. By the time it hit 100 the Pinto was shaking, and so was anyone in the car except for, presumably, Scott.
2. Age 16: Upon First Seeing Double
I was driving my parents’ Mazda GLC near Richmond’s downtown at Marymount Park. My junior-year best friend, Mike, sat shotgun with beer he had stolen. I was spending the night at Mike’s, so we had a much later curfew than we would have if we were spending the night at my house. Nevertheless, we were bored and thinking about heading back to the burbs when Mike started up a conversation with a homeless man. The guy said he was The Shepherd and ended up in my back seat because he knew where to get some pot. Down a sketchy side-street we waited — a long time — debating what ifs. What if he: is passed out? is dead? actually does come back with a bag of nasty, stinking pot? comes back with nothing? We were about to split when he returned with…wait for it…nothing.
We shared the whiskey we paid for him to buy. He threw up, opening the door just in time. A true professional. On cue, he passed out. Mike laid him down near where we found him. Driving back, the double yellow lines were quadruple. I couldn’t blink them back to normal. I knew if I could just get home that I would never ever drink and drive again. We got away with everything.
3. Age 16: Age-Appropriate Hit-and-Run
It was one of those end-of-the-year parties held at a latchkey kid’s apartment with a fridge full of stolen beer. For some reason I had been granted permission to drive my parents’ Chevy Mark III conversion van. (Dad was out of town.) Conversion vans are hard enough to drive sober. You sit on top of and above the front tire. So it was no wonder when I agreed to pick up the three girls and bring them to the party that I cut the wheel too hard pulling out and hit a parked car.
Two other guys had joined me for the ride. One said, “That’s pretty bad, dude.” The other said, “Get the f — out of here!” And of course, that’s what I did. Right in front of several witnesses. My mom would shortly be calling me at the party. I didn’t even know she knew where I was, much less the phone number. Moms are amazing.
4. Age 17: Passing a Semi on LSD in the Rain
You need a good eight hours away from your parents to properly dose and not freak out with paranoia. Start in early fall on a Saturday. Start with big plans. Like with two neighborhood buddies. Let their names be Ted and Robb. Let them join you and drive to the Rock Quarry in Goochland County where you will jump ridiculous numbers of feet into ridiculous depths of water while tripping on LSD. At least you and Robb will. Ted will just bear witness. Scale down to the water’s edge, Black Sabbath booming from your jam box. Yell at each other about how many hits you’ve taken and is it working yet. Look up when you see the two cops peering down. Scrabble to the top.
“Ain’t you kids got nothing better to do than listen to 15-year-old Black Sabbath?”
It’s fine just to shrug your shoulders.
“You kids were saying something about ‘hits’? About taking ‘hits’ of something?”
Say, “No, sir. No way.”
“I think I was saying ‘tits’,” Robb will think to say.
When the cops laugh and ask if you know whether or not this is private property, say you do not. When they say to leave and never come back, heed this. Follow the muddy path back to the freeway. These three things should happen more or less at once. (1) Thunderstorm, raindrops slapping windshield; (2) freeway; and (3) hallucinating.
“Now I’m tripping!” you yell.
“Me too. This is weird!” Robb responds.
“Be careful, Chad,” says the entirely sober and quiet Ted. “Take your time. We are in no hurry.”
But after miles of floating behind a truck going like 40, wait for when no one is coming from the opposite direction and floor the GLC. It will take several moments for the Great Little Car to pick up enough speed to be parallel with the semi. When you do see headlights, keep it floored. Robb will scream. You will swoosh safely in front of the truck as the headlights pass by.
When Ted says something like, “You almost killed us,” say, “If you guys would just shut up and let me drive!”
5. Age 21: 1000 miles in a single day alone
Ah yes, the good old days when life was simpler and we didn’t have distractions like cell phones and texting. Technology can’t stop a man’s poor decisions. Why did I think it was a reasonable idea to drive from Richmond to Little Rock in one day? So that my next day driving to Waco was only five hours? Somewhere in western Virginia I was fumbling for the right cassette, lost direction, and nearly drifted into a guardrail. I made it to my aunt and uncle’s unscathed, though. Brownies and vanilla ice cream and a few minutes of Jackson Browne on Steve’s old record player.
6. Age 22: Crashing on the Natchez Trace
Spring break at my granddad’s Tupelo lake house had come to an end. Sam Goff and I had read and fished for a week. The fish were safe again. Sam and I packed up for Texas. The two-lane was wet from the previous night’s rain. Sam was speeding up to near 70 — too fast for the Natchez, which is best driven at the posted speed of 50 even when dry. Sam stirred around in the console looking for a CD, and drifted across the double yellow line.
“Sam!” I said.
He looked up, startled, and yanked the wheel to the right. This caused us to begin fishtailing. So he yanked it back to the left.
“Pump the brakes,” I said. “Pump the brakes.”
He slammed the brakes. And so we flew across the left-hand lane, skidded sideways 20-feet down a grassy embankment, and slammed into pine trees. Sam screamed as the back windshield shattered.
Somehow, the only thing harmed was Sam’s confidence. The car was driveable, and I drove us the rest of the ten hours home without a back windshield.
7. Age 24: Cutting in front of a passing semi
It was on a Kentucky highway that I was to make my own windshield-shattering mistake, driving from Lexington to Atlanta on a four-lane. Two lanes of traffic moving in each direction. Traffic was relentless. It was the kind where you speed up to pass the exceptionally slow, only to find aggressive people tailgaiting you, only to move over courteously and get squeezed by someone else moving exceptionally slow. You can’t get back over because the stream of aggressive passing cars never ends. Several times, I waited and waited for cars to pass, finally inserting myself in my wife’s 1991 Nissan Sentra (an oil-guzzling piece of junk). With a quick appraisal in my driver side rearview, I thought I had plenty of time to move in the passing lane in front of the truck. Remember that statement that used to be on rearviews: Objects in mirror are closer than they appear? Turns out, the truck was a LOT closer than it appeared. It hit our bumper. We began turning sideways, into the oncoming truck. Smash, the driver side window exploded in my lap. My wife screamed. I stared into the truck’s grill. We were still moving but there was simply nothing to do. The truck ground to a halt.
My door got caught in the truck’s grill — the random grace that kept us from flipping.
All that happened to me — a dude who went to Seminary at the age of 21 — while my pre-frontal cortex was still developing. Rehearsing for inevitable life events can help prepare you. Transitions when a kid leaves home, for instance. Control, and how little we possess. That’s just one thing parenting teaches you, among hundreds of others. You are not in control. And nothing brings that into focus like what happens on the road.