In recent weeks, with the summer heat upon us, we have seen a disturbing upsurge in the number of cases of children and pets left in hot cars, sometimes with fatal consequences. Clearly, some folk need to be educated about the dire impact of extreme heat on young nervous systems. Many more probably just need better systems for jogging their own memories, so that they don't absent-mindedly drive off to the office, forgetting about the kid in the back seat whom they were supposed to drop off somewhere en route. Over the last few decades, all kinds of "safety" measures have been adopted in the automobile industry, many aimed at making that smartcar smarter than you are. Have they done more harm than good?

When I was a kid, cars didn't have lap-belts or shoulder-belts, let alone airbags. Air conditioning? Forget it! Interestingly enough, I did have a carseat, at least until I was about two or three. It hooked over the front seat, in the middle (yes, cars usually had bench-style seats in the front, so you could comfortably seat three people), where both my parents could keep an eye on me. The three older kids sat in the back, bickering over who had to sit in the middle over the big floor-bump. The doors did lock, but there was none of this instant locking business to keep children from escaping once the doors were closed. And in summer time, sans air-conditioning, we usually travelled with all the windows wide open, so a child who was so inclined could easily have escaped. I don't recall ever trying, though I did sometimes clamber over the front seat to get from the back into the front, or vice versa. And apparently I did once toss a pair of running shoes out an open window while we were barreling along some high-speed road or other. And yes, once I was about six or seven, I think I did sometimes get left in the car while mum or dad ran into the store to get something. The point is, I could easily escape if I wanted to.

In the first place, the car windows would be wide open. I wasn't strapped into a carseat by that age and I knew where the doorlocks and doorhandles were so I could easily get out of the car if I felt overheated or impatient. Not that I'm saying it's a good idea for a young child to get out of a car and wander around a busy parking lot, you understand! And of course, if we're talking about pets, most pets (Ikea monkeys notwithstanding) don't have the wherewithal to open car doors.

Then too, it was a more innocent time. Many people didn't bother locking their house doors during the day, let alone their cars. And there didn't seem to be the same hysteria about sexual abuse or abduction of children by strangers or noncustodial parents. Sure, I got the standard admonitions like "Don't talk to strangers." And as I was a rather literal-minded child, I'm sure a lot of kindly adults in the neighbourhood (who were still strangers to me) or salesclearks in shops were a bit bemused as to why I was so timid and fearful and often wouldn't even reply to a direct question! But nowadays, in this age of "helicopter parenting", is it possible that some folks are carrying perfectly normal apprehensiveness to paranoid extremes?

It doesn't help, of course, that parents are often parenting in a kind of fishbowl, always worrying that if they utter a harsh word to a child, or swat the kid on the bum after he's just trotted in front of a still-moving car, or if they've dressed the baby in a jacket that looks just a teensy bit too light-weight for a cold winter's day, that maybe someone will call Children's Aid on them and junior will be hustled off to a foster home and eventually adopted, whereupon they won't set eyes on him until he's twenty-one - if then!

So are cars and drivers and children in vehicles safer than they used to be? At least back then, people didn't talk on cell-phones or text while driving! The specific risks out there may vary a bit from one generation to the next, but I suppose they're always there and you just have to decide how great they are.

Cold Wheels

Apr. 4th, 2012 01:44 pm
I have never taken driving lessons. Never. Well, unless you count learning how to put on the handbrake in case someone forgets when stopping the car to open or close the garage door.

The elder of my two older sisters was able to pretty much finance all her postsecondary education (to the PhD level) with scholarships and summer jobs. Since she was so well-off and would no doubt be in a position to buy her own car any day now, our parents decided it would be a fine idea to get her some driving lessons once she was old enough to learn. My brother also excelled academically and earned his PhD but was never quite as prosperous, probably because he had a number of expensive hobbies and tastes. But our mother said it was different for boys and he was sent off to lessons too. That left the middle sibling without parentally-provided driving lessons and she was left to learn on her own time and her own dime, after she had left university. Ironically, it was she who ended up doing all the driving and fetching and carrying for Mum after Dad died and Mum moved into a retirement home.

By the time I was of licenceable age, I might have been able to persuade my parents to foot the bill for driving lessons, but somehow I had little incentive. I was the last of the kids left at home. We were no longer a big bustling family with different people dashing off in different directions and if I needed to be driven anywhere, Dad was usually available. Or I would walk or take the bus, which gave me better opportunities for people-watching.

I bristle whenever I hear someone smugly proclaim that "Driving a car is a privilege, not a right." It's even written in the front of the Ontario Drivers' Handbook. Did my father consider it a "privilege" to wait out in the car for me to get out of a rock concert which was supposed to finish at 11 PM but in fact did not let out until 12:30? Is it a "privilege" to drive around all day doing errands for other people? Or to go round and round the block looking for that elusive and sometimes expensive parking space? Yes, I realize that a car can be useful for things like camping trips and other forays out into the country. And for people in certain jobs and with certain shift schedules, it's virtually a necessity. But as far as I am concerned, driving is neither a privilege NOR a right. It's a task, a sometimes-useful skill, a responsibility. And frankly, it's a responsibility that most of the time, I am quite happy to be without.

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