by Brian on March 20, 2009

in A Parent in Israel,Only in Israel

My son is now a driver.

Those six words are probably as significant, if not more – at least to him – than becoming a bar mitzvah. When you’re 13, you get counted in a minyan but other than that it’s just another day in 7th grade.

But 17…that’s the year you transcend being a mere passenger to taking command of a 3,000 pound metal death machine and hurtling it through – and against – the most dangerous waters in the world: the Israeli highway.

I’m so proud.

Fortunately, Amir is very good behind the wheel. He makes complete stops, always signals, and keeps to the speed limit – things that, after more than 30 years on the road, I am sometimes less pedantic about.

He ought to. After 49 lessons, Amir is surely ready for anything the streets of Jerusalem throw at him.

I of course am a nervous Nelly in the car with him, though I try my best not to show it. When I jerk my head back and forth, I’m not checking the intersection for oncoming cars. No, I’m just stretching my neck a bit, keeping it limber.

Learning to drive in Israel is very different than back in the old country. The most obvious: the driving age is 17, not 16. And, unlike in California where I grew up, you can’t get a learner’s permit before you take the test. You can’t even start lessons until you’re of age.

And they’re expensive too. For those 49 50-minute lessons, we paid NIS 90 (about $22) each. The test is nearly $100 and it’s pretty much unheard of for a student to pass on the first time. I heard of at least one Israeli who had to take that darn exam 11 times before getting her license (I would have given up on 8 and resigned myself to taking the bus).

Fortunately, new immigrant drivers who already have a license from a Western country only have to take one lesson before the test and don’t need to pass a written theory exam. Jody and I both passed the first time through.

Israeli testers are a tough bunch. You fail if you make just a single mistake. Amir pulled out too far on his first go and the examiner tapped the brakes. Buzz…you’re out.

The whole process has made me more tolerant of the tens of “learner” cars that prowl our southern Jerusalem neighborhood, slowing down the already clogged streets and generally driving me to distraction.

When I was 15, we had lessons in school. They were free. And we spent half our time in a simulator. This was before video games were widespread, so getting to play what was essentially an educational arcade video game was a real treat.

I nevertheless only received a B+ in driver’s ed. It dragged down my entire GPA and ruined my chances of being selected as class “brain” for the high school yearbook. Maybe that was a good thing.

A couple of weeks after getting my license, I scraped into a poll at the entrance to a local drive-in movie theater (does anyone remember those?), forever blighting our nearly new Dodge Custom Coronet. Don’t worry, though, you can get in the car with me. I’m quite proficient these days. Really.

Once you get your license here, you can only drive with an adult for the first three months. So we’re taking every opportunity to let Amir get behind the wheel for the experience.

But having a teenager driver, well, it drives up the insurance significantly. Like, $1,500 a year on top of the $900 we’re already paying for just Jody and me. And mind you, we have a 14-year-old vehicle already, so we barely even pay beyond the mandatory liability coverage.

Fortunately, the insurance company has a special deal. If your child drives no more than 60 hours a year (approximately 5 hours a month – perfect for army age kids who are only home every other weekend), the price drops to just $250 a year.

How do they track how many hours – the honor system maybe? No way. This is hi-tech Israel. Every time Amir gets in the car, he’ll have to send a text message to a special number. When he gets out, he SMS’s again. Bizarre, but I guess it works.

In the back of our car there now hangs on the window a yellow “New Driver” sign. Apparently it’s mandatory. I had thought it was meant to torture the average impatient Israeli by making it harder to honk and scream if they know it’s a newbie.

I admit, I sometimes became one of those ugly Israelis. But no more. After all, it could very well be my own son in one of those cars.

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