Whenever your 18-year-old daughter is traveling back roads far from home you better be talking safety. Iâ€™ve railed against rules-heavy safety lectures for years, but when it comes to your own kid, suddenly I see nothing wrong with exerting some command and control.
At least taking a stab at it.
Checklist reviewIn this case, the mission was one of those teenage declarations of independence. And as history teaches us, declarations of independence usually carry with them an element of risk. This one was no different.
Kate was on a mission, your typical determined teenager, to drive to visit her boyfriend at his college some 200 miles away. MapQuest pegged the driving time at four hours and six minutes.
So before mission launch, naturally we reviewed the safety checklist:
Gas tank full? Yes.
Cell phone charged? Yes.
Seat belts buckled? Of course.
Global positioning system operational? Not installed in this typical college freshmanâ€™s used compact.
Should we rent a car with GPS? â€œDad, youâ€™ve got to be kidding.â€
Co-pilot, navigator, another warm body along for the ride? Negative. No room at the inn. Boyfriendâ€™s roommates wonâ€™t allow it. Everyone eligible bailed. Pick your flimsy excuse.
We reviewed the MapQuest directions. Too complicated for my liking, vague, confusing and open to multiple interpretations, like some OSHA regulation. Too many turns, merges, towards, becomes â€” as in MD-5 becomes MD-5 S becomes MD-235 S. Twenty-eight steps, all told.
Teenage risk perceptionKate was supremely confident, of course, a naturally determined teenage adventurer. â€œI get it, Dad. Not a problem.â€ When she pulled out of the driveway I was tempted to call a veteran safety guy I know, who used to send his daughter off on an eight-hour drive to her school. What were his parting instructions?
Then I thought of Peter Sandman, the risk communications expert, who recalled in anISHNinterview his eldest daughter once informing him: â€œDad, if Iâ€™m optimizing only for safety then Iâ€™ll never get out of the driveway. (Peter was paraphrasing Iâ€™m sure.) I have to compromise safety with getting somewhere.â€ Said Peter: â€œShe was just flat out right. No one wants to optimize safety by shutting down.â€
Donâ€™t you hate it when the kids are â€œjust flat out rightâ€? You canâ€™t shut â€™em down; you just turn â€™em over to the angels, as my brother says, whoâ€™s raised a couple of teenage boys.
Confidence interruptedKateâ€™s mission from Philadelphia down to the southern tip of Marylandâ€™s western shore on the Chesapeake Bay went according to plan for, oh, about three hours. Then my cell rang.
â€œUh, Dad, I missed my exit.â€
Outside it was becoming dark. I knew she had left too late. I stammered to her mother: â€œWhyâ€™d you let me let her leave?â€
Suddenly our dining room turned into NASAâ€™s mission control, or the command bunker from the TV series â€œ24.â€ I only wish we had the counter-terrorist unitâ€™s ultra-tech computerized tracking equipment. Instead, an old road atlas map of Maryland would have to do.
â€œOK, where are you?â€ I asked, my failing baby boomer eyes squinting at the impossibly small route numbers. Turns out she was somewhere between Odenton and Bowie. I was ready to abort the mission. But getting her to re-trace her steps, in the dark, to get back home would be no less risky than getting her on the road to her destination. Time for another safety check:
Windows rolled up? Check.
Doors locked? Check.
Cell phone battery OK? Check.
Night vision contacts in? Check.
Back on courseFrom our mission control dining room table, her mom and I directed her, like some wayward astronaut in the night, back on course. But to confirm she was indeed on the right road (of course there were no road signs when needed) sheâ€™d have to pull into a 7-11 and ask at the counter. This was not my idea of â€œoptimizing for safety.â€ I didnâ€™t like the picture in my mind of this 18-year-old girl, tanned and looking fresh from spring break, stopping her car anywhere in the dark.
â€œKeep your cell phone with you, Kate. What are you doing?â€ â€œIâ€™m getting out of the car.â€ â€œNow what are you doing?â€ â€œIâ€™m waiting in line.â€ â€œAnd now?â€ â€œStill waiting, Dad.â€ Any silence longer than a few seconds seemed like minutes.
How would Peter Sandman have handled this? Or my other safety friend with his daughter?
We ended up on the cell phone with Kate for two hours, confirming road signs, mileage markers and the towns she was passing through, until the moment she drove into the Pizza Hut parking lot and saw her boyfriendâ€™s car, waiting to lead her the rest of the way. â€˜
â€œAre you sure itâ€™s his?â€ â€œYep.â€ â€œCheck again. Do you see him?â€ â€œDad!â€
I put away the map and stared at the clock. It was after ten. Somewhere between the angels and the GPS, I thought, there are things about safety you just canâ€™t control.