There's no such thing as a perfect driver, but there's a perfect automobile trip--when you obey the law, and arrive safely.
--Driving Instructors' Credo
"I don't know how you do this job," the girl says. "It would be scary."
"Yeah," the man says. "Some individuals are really scared."
"Don't you get scared?" she asks.
"Naw," he says. "It's not in my vocabulary."
"What if I swerved?"
"I would grab the wheel and bring it back over." His tone is comforting.
In fact, Patrick Norris, driving instructor, has just done this. Meghan Huggins, 16, novice driver and sophomore at Wheaton High, had wandered over the line, and the instructor's left hand--with a calm, quick flick--had corrected the mistake.
He hadn't scolded, berated, panicked--had simply asked gently: "What are you doing over there? Aren't you watching the lines?"
His attitude seems to be that it is the job of novice drivers to make mistakes, be corrected, learn. Indeed, with nothing more said, Meghan drove for the next hour without again crossing the line.
Throughout, Mr. Norris maintained--much like a psychologist, and quite unlike many nervous parents--an unwavering positive regard for his student.
"Easy," he would coach. "Slow up . . . gentle . . . keep your foot on the brake. . . . Excellent!"
The work, which Mr. Norris approaches with a deft blend of charm and firmness, is life-and-death stuff. Near the point where Meghan had briefly crossed the line on Muncaster Mill Road in Montgomery County, another youth had died in an accident May 8.
"He'd just left school," Mr. Norris tells Meghan sadly. "He ran head-on into another car."
Soon they pass another death spot, where flowers have been placed at the edge of Cashell Road. On May 2, a 21-year-old motorcyclist died there when he crossed the double yellow line to pass a truck.
"He was doing 110," Mr. Norris says. "Why would anyone want to do 110 on a motorcycle?"
"So tomorrow I'm going on the highway?" Meghan asks.
"You'll be fine," he assures her.
"I get scared of the big trucks. I feel they're going to fall over."
She prepares for a right turn.
"My cousin," she says almost casually, "he was riding his motorcycle real fast down Connecticut and his bike slipped and he hit a stop sign and it cut him in half."
Angel of Hope
America's roads and highways are a vast web of death, destruction, injury. A war zone where 41,480 people were killed in action and 3.25 million wounded last year. A mobile psych ward where 180 million licensed drivers vent frustration, fear and rage in speeding multi-ton steel projectiles that impact with the force of a 2,000-pound bomb.
Last year, 513 more died over the Memorial Day weekend; this year's statistic isn't yet available.
Youngsters, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, are disproportionately victims: Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for people 15 to 20 years old, and the fatality rate for teenage drivers is four times that of drivers 25 through 69.
In an effort to slow the slaughter, a tougher licensing law goes into effect in Maryland July 1. "I have three grandchildren, and these kids spend more time in cars than any generation before," says Del. Adrienne A. Mandel (D-Montgomery County), author of the law. "Nor did my generation see that negative, aggressive behavior that's out there today."
Into the ferocious maw of gnashing metal and raw emotion, instructors like Patrick Norris try to safely lead the untested battalions of fresh "novice" drivers--children, really, 15- and 16-year-olds, their faces still unlined in the morning sun.
"Mr. Norris is the best I've got. He's a father figure to many of these kids," says Robert Maxino, co-owner of Easy Method Driving School in Kensington, one of the largest outfits in the country, with tens of thousands of trainees annually.
A former uniformed federal cop, the popular 59-year-old instructor had retired six years ago when he answered an EM ad. He discovered he had a knack for working with young people, and a passion for promoting order, safety and sanity amid chaos.
"I like people," Norris says, "and I like to see the end results. When I take a kid out for the first time, I can look at their face--and they are so happy! A lot of them can't imagine themselves driving, because they're so scared. 'I can't believe I did that, Mr. Norris,' they'll say."
Often, he talks frankly to parents afterward about the attitudes and capabilities of their children. "I tell them the realities, that they need to monitor the individual. 'When you see something you don't like, you correct it on the spot.' "
Parents seem to appreciate him. "This trying time for me as a parent, having two novice drivers," Patricia Lee Kindl wrote the school, "was made more calming by knowing that Mr. Norris was instructing them."
"Some kids are very nervous with their parents," Norris says. "One told me his mom was holding the dashboard the whole time. Another said her dad never took his hand off the hand brake."
He smiles, calmly.
"All the kids I've taught, I've never had a problem with any of them," he says. "I've never met a bad kid."
How I Learned to Drive
When Mr. Norris pulls the little blue dual-control Easy Method car into the driveway to pick up Eva Marie Kenealy--an energetic 16-year-old just finishing her sophomore year at Our Lady of Good Counsel High--her father, Mike, is waiting.
And he watches anxiously as his daughter, after the standard "cockpit briefing" by Mr. Norris, carefully backs out the driveway, turns and heads down the wide residential street toward the main drag.
"I wanted to shake Mr. Norris's hand," Kenealy will explain later. "I sort of wanted to make sure this guy knew how much I love my daughter."
"Now gently let the car stop," Mr. Norris coaches as Eva Marie approaches a stop sign. "Turn the wheel a little to the left. Easy. Nice and gentle."
"Oops," she says.
"We're going to Georgia Avenue in Wheaton to take Meghan home," Mr. Norris says. Meghan, sitting in back, is belted in tight.
"Georgia Avenue," Eva Marie muses. "Do you have any idea how crazy the nuts are on the roads in Wheaton?"
She peers left and right, getting ready to turn.
"You know I've never driven before," she says, referring to main roads.
Mr. Norris is unperturbed. "Now you can't see," he explains. "So creep up, stop again. Now that's a 'safety stop.' Look left, right, left--and go. . . . Turn a little more. . . . You were a little late on turning the wheel back. . . . That was good! Remember now, scan 12 to 15 seconds in front of your vehicle."
"Yup!" she says, straining for confidence in the face of serious traffic.
Her progress is slow, a bit uncertain. She's hugging the right side of the road, and she corrects her course from time to time with small jerky tugs at the wheel.
Mr. Norris never flinches. As they roll along, he discusses the fine points of backing out of driveways. She talks about driving down Georgia Avenue with friends. He coaches her through a left.
"I'm probably going to end up with road rage," she observes puckishly. Eva Marie is breathing heavily--is it the effort of driving itself or, perhaps, the realization that lives are in her hands?
"You can go right on red here," Mr. Norris says as she jerks to a stop at Georgia. "This is a very dangerous stretch. Two people got hit here recently. People are doing 50 out there."
"I know these people will get mad at me," she says apprehensively.
"Well, that's okay," Mr. Norris counsels. "If people would manage their time and space, a red light wouldn't make them late."
She makes the turn tight, her knuckles white on the wheel.
"You're doing fine," Mr. Norris coos. "Relax, don't squeeze the wheel. Have a firm grip, but don't choke it." As she slows for a light, he explains how to brake smoothly and avoid the "boomp" at the end by releasing a little pressure on the brake at the last moment, then reapplying pressure.
"I'll talk you through it," he reassures.
This time, the stop is fairly smooth. The light changes, she's off again.
"The guy behind me is just driving me nuts," she complains. "Hey, hey, hey!" Someone has just cut sharply in front of her.
"Well, that happens around here," Mr. Norris says. He adds that the important thing is not to get rattled. "You never get mad at a driver. Get mad at his action, but not at the individual. Never run up to them and say 'You should do this and that.' You never want to irritate them."
As Eva Marie proceeds down Georgia, Mr. Norris gives the girls tips on how to survive a carjacking ("Drive into a firehouse if you can" is one idea), and other general information.
Traffic thickens. "Oh man, God, how am I going to drive down this street?" Eva Marie wonders.
"Right in the middle, nice and gentle."
She stops hard for a yellow.
"Jesus!" Someone in a sport utility vehicle has roared past, shouting at her out the window.
"Good job," Mr. Norris says. "If you were at the 'point of no return' you would have gone on through, so you wouldn't end up in the middle of the street."
"Whew!" Eva Marie exclaims from time to time, hyperventilating.
"It's no big deal to be nervous," Mr. Norris says. "You can still control how you apply your knowledge."
They wait behind a bus as a blind man slowly gets off.
"A lot of young people, they have to develop patience," Mr. Norris says.
"Patience is a virtue," Eva Marie says.
She seems calmer now. She's begun talking herself through situations--"I can't see, so creep up a little"--without prompting.
"We're going to go into downtown Silver Spring now," he says quietly, "where the traffic is a little heavier."
It's nearly impossible to overstate the apprehension parents feel as their children venture forth into Washington traffic. Most have been in accidents, or know people who have.
"It's scary," says Mike Kenealy. "It's not so much Eva Marie; she seems to have a pretty level head. It's the other elements out there that frighten me--killer traffic, major highways, the speed.
"My youngest daughter is a crossing guard, and she watched a kid the other day blast through the crossing zone, he must have been doing 50 or 60."
Kenealy, 47, admits that he was a "fast driver. I sort of recall back to when I was 15 and 16, I had a little wild streak in me." Luckily he didn't have an accident, but a school chum wrecked a motorcycle and became a paraplegic.
"Another friend was hit by a car. It snapped his femur." Kenealy also recalls a family whose "twins used to commute in to school at St. Johns. One of them was killed in an accident. . . . It was one of the most devastating things. I'll never forget going to this guy's home, and helping lift the casket."
Now Kenealy hears his daughter come home with similar tales of carnage. Two school friends, he learned recently, spent months in the hospital after an accident. One of them, in Eva Marie's words, "has another surgery to go through. She really damaged her liver, and they took out her gallbladder. Her stomach is still open."
Kenealy plans to log 40 hours of driving with his daughter as required under the new Maryland law, even though it's not yet in effect.
Another parent, Anne Marie Prangley--her son Chris, 16, has also just finished as a sophomore at Good Counsel and drove with Norris the same day Eva Marie did--thinks of automobiles as "weapons. They're learning how to handle a car weighing several tons, something even much more powerful and potentially destructive than a gun."
She has confidence in her son, a straight-A student who hopes to attend the Naval Academy, but is still worried. There are so many tragedies. "We have a friend who's a quadriplegic, Vicki Popdan. She was a passenger, the driver was a kid, the car went out of control. She was a junior in high school. It was like a summer evening . . . "
Anne Marie's voice trails off. "They're friends of ours," she continues. "Just to know what that family's gone through . . . "
A guidance counselor at Good Counsel, Robert Arrowsmith, she says, gives a traffic safety talk each year before the prom. These informal remarks have a powerful effect, she adds, because Arrowsmith's nephew, Kevin, was killed in an accident when he was 17.
He was driving the car in which Vicki was riding.
"I mention my nephew to illustrate how such an event affects families," Arrowsmith, a Xaverian Jesuit, says. "I tell the story of how the parents are greeted by the police chaplain late at night on their doorstep. . . . With my nephew, we had to go identify the body at 2 in the morning . . . then going to the funeral home to pick out the casket. . . .
"The overall mood I'm trying to create is to get the students to think about their families, and that your family and your extended family here at school is concerned for your behavior because they love you, not because they're trying to ruin your fun."
Arrowsmith's older brother, a priest, was also killed in an auto accident, 20 years ago.
As for Vicki Popdan, Arrowsmith says, she was "in bad shape and did not remember her accident afterward.
"I don't know what she'd remember after all this time."
Heart of Darkness
Vicki's mom, Rosemary, answers the phone and gasps when a reporter identifies himself. She weeps with relief to learn that the call isn't to report another accident, because at that moment her two younger daughters are out on the road.
Rosemary had been waiting up late the night Vicki was injured eight years ago. Her daughter's curfew was 11, and by 11:30 she knew something was wrong. Vicki was a good girl, prompt and obedient.
"The police came to the door," she recalls. "I was sitting in a chair, waiting. They said my daughter was in a car accident, but they couldn't verify anything because they couldn't talk to her. She'd been taken to the hospital in a helicopter.
"My husband and two older daughters met us at Suburban. Vicki had just turned 17 the week before. She had a broken neck, she was on life support, she was not breathing on her own. She'd actually died twice: She was pronounced dead in the car before they took her out. She was revived and died again by the time they got her on the chopper. They revived her again."
Vicki had been at a carnival in Gaithersburg with Kevin Arrowsmith and another youth. "Kevin and [a friend] had picked her up from work at Pizza Movers in Olney. They left the carnival early and were on their way home. Something ran out on the road. Something happened.
"No one knows to this day what or why.
"Kevin veered off the road. He swerved, and when he swerved back to try and correct he missed the turn and hit a telephone pole. The impact was on the driver's door, and the station wagon folded around it. The impact to Kevin's head killed him instantly. [The other boy] was in the back, sleeping, and was injured. Vicki hit the windshield, hit the post on the side, and the force of the impact broke all the bones in her neck.
"At the moment of impact, she became a quadriplegic."
She spent all that first night in surgery, and was in a coma for weeks. That was May 25, 1991. At the end of June, her parents took her to a rehabilitation hospital in Colorado, where she remained until that November.
"Then we got back on the treadmill and began life all over again, sitting down," Rosemary says. "Vicki is completely paralyzed from the shoulders down. She has very limited use of a biceps in one arm, enough to help her drive a power wheelchair. She is mentally alert, except she can't move. Someone has to be with her every minute, 24 hours a day, to care for her."
From the time Vicki awakes each morning, it takes three hours to get her ready for the day.
The Good Counsel community raised money to have an elevator installed in the family's home, and to create a special room for Vicki. Rosemary and Tom Popdan--he's retired from General Electric--devote virtually all their time to her care.
Despite everything, Vicki graduated with her class at Good Counsel and has gone on to obtain an MA in English and creative writing from Johns Hopkins. She operates her computer with a mouth pick.
"She was the perfect kid," her mother says. "She had it all."
"Kids that age believe they're immortal, that they're in control, that it could happen to someone else but not them," she continues. "They don't believe how easily--in the blink of an eye--they're not in control, and their whole life is forever altered, and the lives of everyone who cares about them.
"Would you like to talk to her?"
Vicki's voice on the speakerphone she uses is robust, her attitude upbeat. "We were just a bunch of kids driving home," she says. "There was absolutely no drugs or alcohol involved, and we weren't speeding, either. We were in a big station wagon, a 1980 Ford Country Squire. We called it the Blue Canoe. Kevin owned it--it was such a boat, a tank!"
She chuckles. She doesn't remember the crash itself or the weeks afterward, till the moment she woke up alone in a darkened hospital room.
"I remember thinking, 'I don't know where I am, or how I got here, and I can't move--so I must be dreaming. I'll go back to sleep, and when I wake up again I'll be fine.' "
"People don't understand exactly how fragile human bodies are," she says, "and exactly how much force a car can carry. It's absolutely astounding. They think, 'I'm active, healthy, full of life.' It can be taken away from you in an instant, in less than a second."
How does she keep going?
"I was near giving up many times. I get a lot of support. My parents are wonderful, my sisters are just terrific, I have good friends and a great boyfriend--he holds me together. I wish I had a good life philosophy, like 'Be optimistic.' But I'm not an optimist, I'm not a pessimist. I'm just sort of a realist, I take things at face value:
" 'Well, this is what I have. What can I do with it?' "
A Voice Within
Michael Westbrook, 16--Mr. Norris's fourth student one recent day--is a more experienced driver than Meghan, Eva Marie or Chris. He breezes along confidently. His driving isn't perfect, but Mr. Norris doesn't nag.
The conversation ranges generally over sports, big houses, spoiled rich kids who get their cars too soon--just as it might if Mike were driving with his friends in the car.
Yet here and there, Mr. Norris introduces into the flow of talk--inconspicuously, incisively--a comment on driving, a gentle corrective reminder.
"I'm a sophomore right now," Mike says.
"Watch the lines, don't forget that van. I played a lot of sports."
"You played ball?" Mike asks.
"Basketball. Ran track. Played football." Mr. Norris's voice is casual, but his eyes are scanning the terrain ahead.
"That's what I did," Mike says.
"What position in football?" Mr. Norris asks.
"So you were scanning the whole field, just like driving. A guy comes into your zone, you've got your eye on him!"
It's as if Mr. Norris, in his quiet way, has become Mike's own inner voice--the whisper of conscience.
They pass a road marker.
"My mom got angry at me here when I was driving," Mike recalls. "I was going too fast. She said, 'Pull over.' And she took over."
Mr. Norris smiles broadly, his eyes never leaving the road.
"I love her for that," he says.
CAPTION: Driving instructor Patrick Norris: "Some kids are very nervous with their parents. One told me his mom was holding the dashboard the whole time."
CAPTION: Norris calmly guides Meghan Huggins, 16, as she drives on the Beltway for the first time.
CAPTION: Eva Marie Kenealy with Patrick Norris, top; Vicki Popdan, injured in a car accident and left a paraplegic, left; and Chris Prangley, successfully parallel-parking with Norris's help.