One summer when I was a kid my friend Jack, who'd just turned 16 and got his driver's license, took me for a spin in an old pickup truck. He was so happy to be licensed, he was showing off.
He roared through the gears, accelerating to the max, grinning at me as if to say, "Hey, I'm in control, don't worry!" Pretty soon he was doing over 65 mph in a half-paved residential area, frequently jumping the truck from one side of the street to the other to stay on the paved portion.
At about 70 mph, one of those jumps didn't quite work and we rolled end-over-end.
Strangely, I remember the crash as a kind of intense stillness, each millisecond freeze-framed: upside-down looking out the window; Jack's face at odd angles; a guy standing in his yard watering the lawn, his head turning in apparent slow-motion as he watched us flip by.
We went quite a ways before crunching to a stop. I crawled out a window. There was blood. An ambulance came. Sirens. An emergency room. I remember lying there, looking up at the bright operating lights as someone in a white surgical mask stuck needles into my torn scalp.
Jack survived, too.
The really astonishing thing, however -- looking back after all these years -- is that this experience didn't seem to make a safe driver out of me. A couple of years later, at the age of 17, I was picked up doing 90 mph through Blythe, Calif. Some time after that, a cop nailed me cruising over 100 mph in a rented Caddy on the desert outside Yuma, Ariz.
When will we ever learn?
Recently I had a chance to reflect about all this while reporting on a local driving instructor, Patrick Norris. "Mr. Norris," as his teenage and adult students both affectionately call him, is an outstanding educator and I learned a lot even though I've been behind the wheel darn near 40 years now.
For example, while waiting to make a left I'm nuts to have my wheels already turned: They should be straight, so if someone bumps me from behind I won't be pushed into oncoming traffic. Upon such tiny matters of habit hang our lives and sacred fortunes -- and those of others.
Mr. Norris also reminded me not to rush out of intersections when the light turns green, in case someone is running a red; to check my blind spot and signal before making a lane change; to keep my hands at 9 and 3 o'clock on the wheel (not at 10 and 2 as I'd been taught) so if the air bag deploys it won't smash my fingers back into my eyes.
Something more is required, though, than the patient inculcation of good techniques -- important as these may be. Safe driving is really a question of attitude. Mr. Norris emphasized this often. If another driver makes a mistake or does something outrageous, he told his students, deal with it but don't get upset.
Don't "react in," as the psychologists say.
This is easier said than done, even for mellow middle-aged guys like me. I'm driving down the road at the speed limit, all cool and relaxed, and somebody cuts in or shouts that I'm going too slow or -- worse -- races past and right on through the red light I'm stopping for.
Often it's impossible -- in human terms -- to not feel angry about such behaviors, and I've noticed that not reacting can take a lot of energy, practice, and just about all the spiritual resources I can muster.
It helps if I can manage to empathize with the other driver, realize that he or she is suffering from tension and having a bad day. Then I can be thankful I'm not in the same fix myself -- at least for the moment -- and maybe even say a little prayer for the idiot.
Call me weird, but it works.
"Lately I've been doing a lot of praying," George E. Brown, 81, told me when I asked how he deals with the fact that his 16-year-old grandson, Chris Prangley -- one of Mr. Norris's students -- is now launching his driving career on highways where 41,480 people were killed last year and 3.25 million injured.
"I tell God the automobile is one of the greatest gifts," Brown continued, "yet what do we do with it? The majority of us allow anger and frustration to get behind the wheel. Instead, we should thank Him for this great gift, and be safe and kind and considerate. So what if we get cut off? So what if we're stuck in traffic? We ought to just sit back and say, `It's nice to be sitting here!' "
To foster this sort of good attitude, a new "graduated licensing system" for rookie drivers goes into effect in Maryland July 1. It increases training requirements both in class and on the road and, for teenagers, delays full licensing until age 17 years, 7 months. The bill's author, Del. Adrienne A. Mandel (D-Montgomery County), deserves our applause.
In the end, the simple, stark reality -- for me, anyway -- is that neither superlative training (in my high school driver's ed class, the gangly kid one row over was Jim Palmer) nor a midlife ethical awakening finally made a relatively decent driver out of me, but something else entirely.
Fear of the law.