WHEN I WAS 16 years old, my dad taught me how to drive. I sailed down the street in the family sedan with my foot on the accelerator as my dad barked commands to hit the brake. My mother sat in the back seat, clenching her teeth in fear.

This memory came flashing back to me the other night on Mount Royal Avenue as I told the driver of our station wagon, my 16-year old son, to "Slow down! Slow down! Slow down!"

You experience a welter of emotions when your first-born gets behind the wheel of the family carriage. Fear is right up there. As your vehicle closes in on a car that has stopped sideways in the middle of the street, you tell yourself, "I have had a good life." You press your foot to the floorboard, as if applying the brake. You miss the sideways car. The kid's depth perception turns out to be better than yours. So are his nerves.

Another feeling that pops up during this process is a strange mixture of denial and provincialism. You have this urge to grab your kid and take him back to the small town where you learned to drive. Back where there was virtually no traffic. Back where everything seemed safer. Back where everybody moved at a much slower pace.

But then you find yourself on I-83, in the rain, and the car in front of you has put on its flashers and gone into a crawl. This means your kid has to zip into the fast lane, joining the stream of experienced expressway jockeys. That is when you have to accept that this small-town fantasy is not an option.

During these practice outings I try to remember words of consolation passed along by parents who have recently weathered the experience of a teen-ager getting a driver's license. "Your life will get simpler," one mother told me, explaining that she no longer had to make those late-afternoon pickups at athletic fields or late-night runs to the movies to fetch her now driving daughter. Her husband later confided that he and his wife did have to talk their newly mobile daughter out of driving up to Canada for the weekend to visit a boy she had just met.

I also remember the words of another dad whose son recently became a driver. "You will lie awake at night," he told me, "waiting for the sound of his key turning the lock in the door."

I am not teaching my kid to drive, I am supplementing the training he received in a driving school. As someone who believed there is only one correct way to drive -- my way -- at first I was skeptical of the state law saying strangers should instruct my flesh and blood in the art of driving. Now, however, I think it is a good idea.

First of all, communication between parents and their teenagers can be volatile. Teens tend to think their parents are always bossing them around. Parents tend to think their teens aren't heeding words of parental wisdom. Add in those times parents and teens feel like rubbing each other out, and you do not have a good teaching climate.

So I was pleased to cede the duty of passing along some driving basics to Don Johnson and Dick Vitale. The star and the sports announcer appeared in videos shown to my kid's driving school class. Don told the group he was a big believer in wearing seat belts, even though you won't see him wearing any in his "Miami Vice" years. Dick told the fledgling drivers "YOU NEED TO BE CONFIDENT BABY!" Or something like that. I didn't attend the classes.

The driving school experience did teach me something. For example, while sitting in the car watching the class emerge from Town & Country Driving School, I learned that all beginning drivers, not just your kid, look too young to drive. Moreover, I saw that I was not alone. There were other parents waiting in cars for their kids. They, too, are making this leap of faith. They, too, are going to be hit with a massive increase in car insurance premiums.

Now, as I ride around with my son, practicing for the fast approaching day when he goes to the MVA, passes the test, and gets his driver's license, I hear bits of his newfound wisdom. When we began practicing several weeks ago in empty parking lots, I was the sole source of knowledge. But after attending about 10 classes and going out on the road with a driving school instructor, he has become a more confident, better-informed driver.

As a matter of fact he even has pointed out shortcomings in his dad's driving habits. My failure, for example, to come to a complete stop at a stop sign, as is required by state law. My slovenly habit of changing lanes without signaling. I smile tightly at these chastisements and remind myself this learning to drive business can be a two-way street.

The other night as my son and I rolled along, some of the neighborhood kids spotted us. They were surprised to see my son driving. If they only knew how surprised his father was.

We have our good and not-so-good outings. A few hours after narrowly missing the car on Mount Royal, we masterfully negotiated the traffic on Northern Parkway, the parking lot at the Rotunda shopping center and the drive-through window at the Falls Road McDonald's.

"How did it go?" my wife asked when we returned home.

"Pretty good," I replied. "He is getting used to this driving routine. And so, I think, am I."

Pub Date: 4/26/97

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