The Joys and Perils of Driving With a 65-Year-Old Teenager At The Wheel

Dear Belladonna Rogers,

Joe, who’s 65, and I have been happily married for 40 years.  The one subject we seriously differ on is driving.  With two vehicles, we go our separate ways everyday, and never have to bicker.

But this week is different: we’ll be taking turns driving the 650 miles from Marks, Mississippi, to Chicago to see our parents.  Our driving styles couldn’t be more different.  I’m slow and cautious, while Joe’s a confident leadfoot whose preferred speed is 80 mph. He’s never gotten a ticket or had an accident, so he can honestly claim that he’s a safe driver.  But 80 mph exceeds my comfort zone. Every year we do this, I’m in fear for my life the whole time he’s driving. Help!

Nervous Nellie in Marks, Mississippi

Dear Nervous Nellie,

Driving styles are a vivid expression of the personality of the individual at the wheel. Powerful emotions that that are often suppressed in the rest of the driver’s life emerge on the road as almost nowhere else.  For those who learned to drive as teens – other than the anomalous Manhattanites in our midst who often never learn at all – getting behind the wheel will forever remind us of our first heady whiff of freedom. For many, that adolescent rush of liberation never entirely vanishes whenever the steering wheel is in our eager hands.

The open road is the physical equivalent of the web. On both, we’re sharing time and space with complete strangers. The force of our feelings, especially the main course of exhilaration along with the side orders of anger, entitlement, and a belief in our rightness — not to mention our righteousness —  becomes ever more pronounced.

The normal constraints that require us to behave as mature adults have become as rare on interstate highways as they have in Internet comment sections.  People who are unfailingly polite to their friends, co-workers, and neighbors can become careless of the feelings of others once they’re at the wheel or the computer’s keyboard. There, the only sign of their identity is their license plate — the vehicular equivalent of an ISP address on the web.

At the wheel or online, you’re no longer Joe Jones, the kindly face of your business or neighborhood.  You’re empowered as Left Lane Passer-in-Chief or All-Powerful Put-down Master (or Mistress) of the Comments Section.

A good and loving husband (or wife) can become a different person on the road, especially an interstate highway.

Since he normally has the car to himself, Joe’s driving habits may be so ingrained, and the exhilaration he derives from driving safely at 80 mph so much a part of who he is, that he may not be able to slow down.  He may be simply unwilling, or even psychologically unable, to decelerate on stretches of interstate where he can easily do 80 where the legal limit is 75. This may be an essential part of Joe’s pleasure at the wheel.  It’s like being young again.

One way to deal with his driving is to avoid peering at the speedometer.  If you don’t stare at it, you probably can’t tell how fast the car is going, except by knowing Joe’s own preference.  Try looking out the window and enjoy the stark winter landscapes of soaring trees bereft of leaves, or the towering magnolias still evergreen in all their majesty.  Cloudscapes are glorious marvels of nature, especially illuminated by the long, slanting rays of the late afternoon sun.  Or you could close your eyes entirely and delight in the music, and in anticipation of being in the company of your loved ones.

Your round trip will involve almost 24 hours in the car together. If you can’t avoid peeking at the speedometer, which is my first line of advice, an agreement before you leave home is my second.

“Joe, I’m looking forward to the trip with you,” you could say.  “We always have fun listening to our favorite music and it’s great to visit our parents.  But this year, let’s try to agree on some ground rules so we’ll both be happy on the road together.”

Don’t criticize Joe’s driving: given his blameless record, there’s nothing objectively wrong with it. You don’t want to make the discussion about something he does that you think is “wrong.”  That will only get his back up, cause him to become defensive and dig in his heels — in this case on the gas pedal.

The issue, in fact, isn’t his driving, it’s your reaction to it.  So take responsibility for your own anxiety and say:

“I know you’re an excellent driver but I don’t like it when you go over 80 mph.  It makes me nervous.  I know you handle the car very skillfully, but since we’ll be in it together for 20 hours, would you agree to drive under 75 for my peace of mind?”

In that way, you convey to Joe that you know you’re the nervous one and you’re acknowledging that you’re asking him to do something for you that’s both difficult  and unnatural for him.  The key phrases I suggest using are “I don’t like it when” and “It [not you, but “it”] makes me nervous.”

Now the subject isn’t something that Joe does but a response of yours that you recognize as a failing (feeling anxiety in a car driven legally at 80 mph by a safe driver).

He may say that he will get you to Chicago sooner, in which case you could offer to leave earlier so that he can drive more slowly and still arrive at the same time.

The key is to try to remain reasonable and fair-minded and not get into an argument about how dangerous you think Joe’s driving is.  If he exceeds the limit anyway, you can mention, gently (not in a shrill, exasperated tone) that he’s going faster than you two agreed he would.

Then there’s a third option: the Greyhound bus fare from Clarksdale, Mississippi (the nearest Greyhound station) to Chicago is $236.34 round trip, per senior. If you have an extra $472.68, it might make sense to take the bus. Buses today are equipped with free wi-fi, electrical plugs for cell phones and DVD-players, and are far more comfortable than the long-distance buses that plied the nation’s roads in decades past.

Assuming you do choose to drive together, the slower the music that you play in the car, the more slowly Joe may drive. You could also remind him that your parents won’t be around forever, and that you’d like to look back on these trips with warmth and affection rather than with fear and trembling.  Whatever you do, may this be your happy destiny:

Belladonna Rogers

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