In the five months since my son acquired his Learner’s Permit, his driving skills have improved measurably. This is reflected in his confidence when he takes the car keys from me, adjusts the driver’s seat and side mirror settings, and engages the ignition.
No longer a novice, he has tackled all of the tasks on the license road exam with aplomb. In addition, he has driven on city streets, country byways, and two-lane state roads safely and without incident.
And now as we close in on the date for him to schedule his license test, we decided last weekend to embark on his first trek down an interstate highway.
My home is a six-minute drive to the nearest exit onto Route 3, best known as the highway linking Boston to Cape Cod. For my son’s foray into highway driving, we decided to travel 10 miles south, towards the Cape. Then we would turn around at the exit 7 miles from the Sagamore Bridge and return to our starting point.
I had cautioned my son that the toughest part of highway driving is often merging onto the freeway, attempting to blend in with high speed traffic while establishing a safe rate of speed. This day was no exception.
Despite exercising caution and using his side mirrors, my son had to ease up on the gas to slide into the right travel lane behind a pickup truck and in front of an SUV. Once we were firmly established on the highway, my son noticed that his adherence to the 65 mph speed limit did not dissuade most other vehicles on the road from passing him, usually at speeds in excess of 80 to 85 mph.
“They’re blowing by like we’re standing still,” he said to me at one point.
“I know,” I said. “It’s Massachusetts. Just stick to the speed limit and follow the traffic.”
Which he did, for the most part. On occasion, in an attempt to keep up with the other vehicles, we found our speedometer approach 70, at which point I’d delicately remind him to ease up on the pedal.
When traveling at high speeds, it can be a challenge for inexperienced drivers to decelerate when taking an exit ramp. My son experienced this when it was time for us to leave the highway. Along the steep curve of the off ramp, he was slow to engage the brake and we came somewhat close to the traffic island that served as a barrier for the off-ramp.
“That comes up fast,” he said.
“That’s okay,” I said. “You just need to learn to slow down sooner.”
This exchange reminded me of the skill section of the Parent’s Supervised Driving Program that recommends inexperienced drivers practice merging on and off highways between 10 and 12 times, minimum. Nervous parents need to be reminded that patience is needed, and repetition is necessary for their teens to master these skills.
After crossing the overpass to reverse direction, we had better luck getting back on the northbound on-ramp. This time there were no vehicles obstructing our merger back on the highway.
One problem that did arise, however, was the disparate speeds of the other motorists. Like many highways, Route 3 north has two travel lanes. And in the right lane, on this day, there was a work van moving forward at just about 50 mph. This stood in contrast to the aforementioned speeders in the left lane. My son was somewhat flummoxed, so I advised him to remain in the slow lane for now, as it was his first time out.
“After you’ve done this a few times,” I assured him, “you’ll be able to safely pass these slow cars and then get back in the right lane ahead of them.”
And so we made the rest of our trip back to our initial exit at a slightly slower rate of speed. This time my son handled the exit and off-ramp flawlessly, and was able to navigate the local roads back to my home without any problems whatsoever.
He said it had been somewhat difficult to drive that fast for the first time, but that highway driving was in many ways easier than taking local roads around town. For one thing, he noted, there are no pedestrians or bicyclists to watch for on the highway, and no traffic lights requiring intermittent stops and starts.
We have now covered most of the driving situations contained in The Parent’s Supervised Driving Program guidebook, which remains a trusted resource for me during this period of transition. My hope now is to take my son out for a driving lesson at night, so he can experience those unique conditions. Then, in the weeks to come, when the exam date is scheduled, we will revisit the earlier tasks such as parallel parking, hill starts, etc. in order to sharpen those vital skills.
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