Covid crash course: learning to drive in a pandemic

Jada Montgomery and John Leonardo

It was a cold and gray early morning for Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School graduate Summer Carver; tensions were high as her driving instructor came to pick her up for perhaps the biggest test of her life. She was about to take her driving test to obtain her license. Regardless of her nerves, she convinced herself to keep calm and most importantly, stay positive. 

It’s really all you can do when it comes time to take the test,” Carver said. 

With sweaty palms and lots of nervous jokes, Carver met her driving administrator who kept to himself mostly. She suspected he simply didn’t want to be there either. 

“Reminder- I was this man’s first driving test on Friday before Labor Day Weekend,” Carver said. “He wanted out just as much as I did.” 

Even after taking a wrong turn while coming back, Carver was proud to say she passed on her first try. Excitingly opening the doors of the Rahway DMV to get her license, she was unfortunately met with the grueling two hour process of waiting in line and taking pictures. It all paid off though as she finally obtained a physical copy of her license.

“The sun was shining and the day had taken a turn for the better,” Carver said. “The rest of the day was full of celebration and happiness. I took a drive by myself with the windows rolled down, music playing, and genuinely felt pure bliss. All my hard work, mainly on parallel parking, paid off and all the freedom I wanted stood right in front of me.”

Like Carver displayed in her anecdote of getting her license, she finally got a strong sense of freedom right then and there. As soon as one gets their license, they get this metaphorical ticket to freedom. Without needing an adult to be dependent on, teens can now have access to so many things. This act of obtaining a driving license marks a monumental moment in one’s teenage existence. 

However, how does this experience change for teens living through a pandemic?

In a time marked by redefinition of character, making mistakes, learning from mistakes and most importantly a taste of freedom from their parentsteenagers now are stuck at home and are forced to go against these core ideals at every turn. 

At face value, driving might not seem to be worth the hype, but it’s not the act of getting behind the wheel itself that makes driving so alluring; rather, it’s the freedom that it affords teenagers.  For those that get the hang of driving, it opens up countless opportunities for young people, including SPFHS senior Dylan Bordman, who drives himself to and from his multiple jobs. 

“Sometimes I drive for fun, but most of the time, it’s out of necessity,” Bordman said. “I can’t go to work in places like Watchung completely by foot.” 

Without their permit or license, some teens in the SPFHS community are also more susceptible to being stuck inside dysfunctional homes, especially since many schools and workplaces closed due to COVID-19. For teens in toxic homes, driving can be a vital escape. For many others, just going on a “drive to nowhere,” can be almost therapeutic. Driving around in your own car absolutely adheres to social distancing guidelines, and the change of scenery can be massively beneficial for teens’ mental health. Students can get a taste of the freedom they would feel if COVID were no object, playing their music from the stereo and just feeling grounded by the changing environment.  

COVID has also had huge complications on those who are learning to drive, and those seeking their driving permit. 

“My driving instructor got COVID, which delayed the process of my sister and I getting our permit,” sophomore Owen Higinbotham said.

Besides the fact that driving instructors and classes have the potential to shut down entirely therefore delaying the process of learning to drive, some students see some positives in learning in this new era as well. Higinbotham notes that he finds the empty parking lots, and his parents’ increased free time, incredibly helpful in preparing him for his driving test. 

“COVID has done a lot for my driving habits now that I’m home,” Carver said. “I found that I’m going for Dunkin’ Donuts and drives around town a lot more than I used to. I don’t go outside anywhere for obvious reasons, but I just like to listen to music and drive around to get a break from this mundane routine COVID has put me through.”

On the other hand, five months after senior Tracy Bagdonas obtained her provisional license,the world shut down. Suddenly, Bagdonas’ car keys were the last things on her mind, for dropping friends off at sports practices, driving to school, or stopping at local restaurants for a Friday night dinner was rendered impossible. Now, on the rare occasion she does drive, it is seldom with another person and if so, it’s usually a family member or a very close friend.  

“I honestly don’t drive much anymore,” Bagdonas said.

Though the prospect of driving is now dim for the majority of the SPFHS community, there are still many positives in this very new and intriguing era. New drivers can use this prolonged period of time to get in as much experience before obtaining their permit or license. Especially with a lot of adults working from home, now is the perfect time to ask for help and practice with more experienced drivers.

One thing to take from each experience previously shared is that the youth of the SPFHS community is fortunately very diverse in opinions and experiences surrounding driving. Although COVID has quite literally separated us from one another, the SPF community was able to take something that everyone eventually goes through like driving and something no one wants to go through such as driving in the midst of a pandemic, and bond over their similarities while also hearing out their differences.