When my 18-year-old son called one evening from his food-delivery job to ask how far he could drive on a flat tire, I almost blew a gasket.
“Not very,” I chuckled nonchalantly, before fully realizing what he had said. “Wait! What? No! Not at all! Nowhere. You can’t drive at all on a flat tire!”
“OK,” he said. “Pulling over. So what do I do?”
“You change the tire,” I told him, calmly now.
After a few seconds of silence, the realization hit me. I had never taught him to change a tire. No one had. How could I blame him for his brazen ignorance? This was a kid who grew up playing video games in which characters could drive cars with four flat tires almost indefinitely.
Even as I was telling him how to do the task, he seemed uninterested. Isn’t this what Triple A is for? he mumbled. I sputtered but soon realized, it wasn’t that he was lazy; it was just that he didn’t care. Owning and operating a car simply wasn’t high on his list of priorities.
When I was coming of age in the Midwest in the 1980s, kids lined up at the DMV at 8 a.m. on the day of their 16th birthday to get a driver’s license. We savored our newfound freedom and independence. My chariot of choice was a 1967 Plymouth Valiant, a two-door sedan with a three-speed manual transmission (on the tree, no less) that cost me $400. I treated her like a lover. I could change the oil. I could tune her up and replace the spark plugs. I could do any number of minor repairs. How could any red-blooded teenager of any era feel any differently?
Alas, when the time came for my son to get his full license, he forgot to mention it.
“Did you pass the test?” I asked him a few weeks later.
“When? Why didn’t you tell me? Where is it?” I was clearly more excited than he was.
“I dunno. I think it’s on my dresser upstairs.”
He just didn’t care. And apparently, he’s not alone. The number of teen drivers has been in steady decline in recent years. There are now fewer 16-year-old drivers on the road than at any time since the 1960s. Why is a matter of some debate.
Some say it’s economics. Kids today have less disposable income. Others think the trend is a result of social media and the pervasiveness of always-on communication. My children and their friends are always connected via the twin tethers of smartphones and messaging apps. There’s often no need to drive across town to share gossip or homework assignments. Ride-sharing services like Lyft and Uber also play a role. Teens in our town use both services constantly. And why not? They’re cheaper and more convenient.
Other skills associated with cars and driving also seem to be fading. My son and I sparred constantly over his lack of interest in learning to read a map and to navigate via such analog anachronisms as street signs and highway markers. On road trips, the question “What exit are we looking for?” was always met with the response, “Whatever exit the GPS tells me to take.”
It drove me crazy.
“What happens when you don’t have GPS?” I chided him. “What happens when the GPS is wrong?”
“Father,” he lectured me, “I probably won’t even have to drive at all in a few years. The cars will all drive themselves.”
And he is right. Life has caught up with science fiction for people our age. It’s likely that skills such as reading a map and changing a tire will be as useful as celestial navigation and shoeing a horse were to our generation. More nostalgia than necessity. Driverless or not, though, until cars start flying, they are going to be on tires that will occasionally fail. And I will be damned if my offspring are ever going to be among those people standing by the side of the road waiting for someone else to come change those tires. It’s just not right.
Scott Norvell, a former executive at News Corp., is now chief operating officer of Screen Anthology, a film production company based in Brooklyn, N.Y.