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Son's new driving permit is a license to grow up ... and apart

My 16-year-old son stared at the computer, a picture of intensity.

His focus was so complete that he wasn't distracted when I entered the room. Sure, the half-eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwich sat just to his left but, for once, his study approach did not include music or television. Clearly, the A grade he sought would not elude him.

Finally, I thought, he has begun to take his education seriously.

Wrong. He was studying get his learner's license. I should have known.

It was the coming-of-age event I had hoped would never come.

Yes, I dragged my feet on granting him this rite of passage for nearly a year and a half because the thought of my son behind the wheel is as appetizing as lima beans. However, he's enrolled in drivers education this semester so the day of reckoning had arrived.

I thought we would just make an appointment, go down to the office and then watch my gray hairs instantly multiply. When I got my permit — back in the Paleozoic era — I spent about five minutes reviewing the handbook and waltzed away with a laminated license in about the same amount of time. Cake.

Progress makes it more challenging for today's teens. In watching my son's travails in getting a permit this week, I discovered that the state of Florida now requires a lot more time and money from applicants.

The first requirement is completion of the four-hour Traffic Law and Substance Education Course. It's $29.95 and when they say four hours, they mean it. The online course software is set up so that you can't rush through it.

Among other things, the course raises awareness among teens about the dangers of combining drugs and alcohol with driving. I asked my son if he intended to drink and drive before he took the course.

He quickly said, "No," correctly answering the first question on my personal driving test. He added, however, that it made him more aware of the consequences. Whatever works.

I also paid $14.95 to have the completion certificate e-mailed to us. And for an additional $10, he took an online practice test that practically ensured he would pass the actual exam. And that's on top of the $40 lab fee that the school district charges for drivers education.

Forget Powerball, I need to open an online traffic school.

On Tuesday, he finally took another step into manhood — not to mention another bite out of my wallet — by becoming a registered Florida driver. I'm $27 poorer and no less concerned, but at least his picture turned out great.

Because I lament my situation to total strangers, I met a local Allstate agent named Kevin Swanson who sent me a DVD about how to talk to teens about safe driving. It came with a parent-teen driving contract. While putting expectations in writing may sound cumbersome, I think it's going to be more effective than saying, "Don't do anything stupid."

You can't ignore the fact that, according to a 2008 Allstate study, the Tampa area ranks as the nation's deadliest metro region for drivers 16 to 19.

But I have to admit that relinquishing driving duty is about more than safety concerns. For the last couple of years, I've taken Matthew and his 15-year-old brother, Ethan, wherever they wanted to go. Party in Keysville? Sure. Meeting friends at Busch Gardens? Done. Late night quinceanera in Tampa? No problem.

While other parents rush their kids to the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles because they are weary of playing chauffeur, I cherish the role.

It's what my dad did for me back in the day, and he even dropped us off down the street from the rec center dance so we could avoid embarrassment. Only years later did I truly appreciate the effort.

I loved turning my Camry into a limo, and not just because I fear them driving. The car is the one place I can gain their undivided attention. We have our best conversations there. The car is where I learn about their music, their clothes and their tastes. And because I'm willing to pick up anybody, anytime, anywhere, I also get to meet their friends.

All of that will be gone when my kids start driving.

I wonder if I can get them to chauffeur me around.

That's all I'm saying.

Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Tampa Bay section. Reach him at hooper@sptimes.com or 226-3406.

Son's new driving permit is a license to grow up ... and apart 01/08/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 8, 2009 11:10pm]
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