Amanda Marcus Rakoff knew she could do it. She'd conquered the perils of parallel parking, aced the tricky three-point turnaround and mastered the intricacies of backing up. Now nothing stood between the Towson High School junior and her long-coveted freedom except The Test.
So last Friday, on her 16th birthday, Amanda headed to the Motor Vehicle Administration branch office in Bel Air for a classic American rite of passage: getting her driver's license. And she was already anticipating how great it would be as she stood in line at the MVA.
"I will drive to the party tonight, and I'll drive tomorrow, and the next day and the next day and the next day," Amanda declared.
For many parents, of course, those words produce a certain level of dread. Last month, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton shuddered at the thought of her daughter, Chelsea, getting her driver's license.
Chelsea, who turned 16 yesterday amid offers of free cars from radio stations, has been taking some lessons from her father at Camp David on the weekends, although the White House refuses to say when she'll take her test.
Her desire to drive "is something I'm living in fear and trembling of," Mrs. Clinton told Barbara Walters in an interview on ABC.
But in a land where malls and cars are shrines of civilization, driving is a sacrament for everyone from a kid in Towson to the president's daughter. It is also risky -- especially for 16-year-olds.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety,
inexperience behind the wheel and immaturity "produce a pattern of fatal crashes among 16-year-olds" that includes the highest percentage of crashes involving high speed, a single car and driver error. Crashes among this age group also involve the highest number of passengers.
That's why insurance rates skyrocket when a teen joins a parent's policy. The rates can double, particularly when the 16-year-old is a boy.
But plenty of families cough up the extra money, not because their 16-year-olds can't wait to drive, but because having an extra driver in the family can make everyone's life easier. That's certainly the case for Amanda, who shuttles between her mother's home in Hamilton and her father's home in Rogers Forge every other week. A license would make the back-and-forth much easier. And with access to her father's Camry, she also could chauffeur siblings, take friends to school, go out on Friday nights and drive to her dance class on Saturday.
"It's kind of good to have an extra driver in the family to take everyone where they have to go," she says."
In the old days, 16-year-olds learned to drive at school or with a parent. But driver's ed classes have gone the way of the Edsel in most public schools. And though parents can still take their children out to practice, they aren't allowed to be their sole teachers anymore. In Maryland, anyone under 18 must take an approved driver education course, which includes 30 hours of classroom instruction and six hours of behind-the-wheel training.
So kids old enough to get their learner's permits, available to anyone who's reached 15 years and 9 months old, head to area driving schools with names like Easy Method, Nice and Easy and Drive-Rite.
Amanda and her friends learned to drive at the Town & Country Driving School in Towson, where instructor Pat Wiglesworth is a veteran at steering teen-agers through their lessons. They practice on parking lots and quiet streets before they hit the Beltway. Then Mr. Wiglesworth goes with them to take their driver's test.
Mr. Wiglesworth is the kind of unruffled, solid guy you'd want for your math teacher. He's the father of a 16-year-old son (who somehow hasn't found the time to get his license yet) and has an easy way with kids. He doesn't panic when a student mistakes the brakes for the gas. He listens to an oldies radio station while explaining how to parallel park.
On a misty Thursday night, 19 students cram into Town & Country's small classroom on Regester Avenue to study a 1982 driving textbook that previous students have enlivened with off-color footnotes.
At the head of the class, Mr. Wiglesworth calmly quizzes the students on pinging sounds, dipsticks, wiper blades and the Orioles. The kids, slouched in their seats, look weary but pay attention.
During a break, Sam Baron, a 16-year-old junior at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, relates one close call while driving in a parking lot with his dad. "I almost hit this one kid, but he was all right."
And once Sam's dad, "a really good driver," grabbed the wheel from him to complete a turn. "It kind of got on my nerves," Sam says. But then again, if he hadn't, "I probably would have hit the curb."
The bus incident
When it came time for Carol Gorsuch to get behind the wheel with Mr. Wiglesworth, she asked, "Are you sure you want to take me out?"
Last summer, Carol, a 16-year-old junior at Towson High, rammed a transit bus in front of the Caldor store on York Road while she was practicing driving with her mother and siblings. She stopped for a red light, but didn't notice a bus stop just ahead. The bus stopped; Carol panicked and hit the gas. The dual air bags of her mother's Taurus station wagon instantly inflated. But there were still injuries: Carol's mother broke a wrist and her sister broke her nose. Four other siblings and a baby in her mother's care were uninjured.
While Felicia Gorsuch-Healy rocked her injured daughter in her arms, Carol cried. In the ambulance, she apologized over and over again to her family.
At the time, Carol had a learner's instructional permit and had driven frequently with her mother. After the accident, she says, "I felt kind of weird, as though I was never going to get my license, [as though,] 'My life is over.' "
But less than two weeks later, Carol was driving again, with her mother's encouragement. Ms. Gorsuch-Healy had a T-shirt made for her eldest daughter. It says: "I don't stop for buses."
Since the accident last June, Carol and her family have faced mounting medical bills and letters from the lawyers of those who claimed to be on the bus and injured at the time of impact. But it has not prevented Carol from completing her requisite hours behind the wheel with Mr. Wiglesworth. She has long since graduated from the Dumbarton Middle School parking lot to downtown streets and suburban highways.
"I ran some red lights by accident. Other than that, it was OK," says Carol, who is getting ready to take her driver's test.
Her mother has no qualms about Carol's driving skills. But Ms. Gorsuch-Healy, a mother of six, has changed her mind about one thing: "I'm not going to teach my children how to drive anymore. I'm going to let their father teach them."
Sweating at the MVA
Once or twice a week, Mr. Wiglesworth heads to the MVA with students who are ready to take their test. But no matter how many times he's been through this, he always sweats the outcome.
"I get nervous. Oh, my God, I'm always a nervous wreck," he says.
During Amanda's test, he agonizes as if she were a star figure skater executing a triple Lutz, not a turnabout. "Please stop for that stop sign," he prays aloud. "Good girl!"
When Amanda emerges triumphant from the driving school's Ford sedan, Mr. Wiglesworth rejoices with her. "Give me a hug," he says.
She heads back into the branch office to have her picture taken for her provisional license, issued for drivers aged 16 to 18. She takes her hair down from a twist to pose. Because she is under 21, the photographer takes a profile shot, which is designed to prevent underage drinkers from sneaking into bars. Amanda isn't thrilled with the photo, but she's overjoyed with the license itself. And as she drives to Towson High from Bel Air (zooming through one yellow light a little too late), one word comes to her mind: "freedom."
Amanda spends her first weekend as a licensed driver driving and driving some more. She drives around Loch Raven reservoir with friends. She picks up people and drops them off. And all the while she shouts to herself, "Hey, I'm driving!"