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  • Writer's pictureLeigh Gerstenberger

Life Lessons from Behind the Wheel

Updated: Jun 30, 2020

Having just celebrated my 67th birthday, I’ve now been driving for over 50 years. Recently I was recently reminded of a life lesson that I received in 1969 while learning to drive in my hometown of Mt. Lebanon, PA a suburb of Pittsburgh.

Mt. Lebanon was a unique town in which to learn to drive. The main thoroughfare, Washington Road was a four-lane cobblestone highway (two lanes in each direction) with an additional parallel parking lane on each side of the street adjacent to the sidewalk.

At the time, streetcars traversed the route between the suburbs and downtown. The streetcars operated on tracks imbedded in the middle two, inner lanes of the cobblestone street sharing the roadway with the cars that also used those lanes. To board the streetcar, transit riders had to walk from the sidewalk across the outer lane of traffic and step up on to a concrete stanchion on which they waited for a streetcar to arrive.

These boarding platforms were surrounded by iron railing to prevent passengers from falling off the platforms into the traffic which was often quite heavy.  The platforms sported bright, flashing, yellow warning lights to prevent drivers who might be unaware of their existence from running in to them, as doing so would surely result in considerable damage to their vehicles.

This is the environment in which I learned to drive. 

As a new driver with just a “learner’s permit” I needed a licensed driver to ride “shotgun” so that I could get practical experience behind the wheel.  That responsibility fell to my mother, who at the time did not work outside of the home, so she had the distinct pleasure of accompanying me on my vehicular journeys as I learned to drive.

One day, early in the process, I was doing my best to navigate the cobblestones and streetcar tracks that constantly jostled our 1968 Chevy Bel Air Station Wagon back and forth across the two lanes of traffic.  However, my nerves were becoming particularly frayed as I swerved to avoid parallel parkers, streetcar platforms and the pedestrians who would dart into the road from between parked cars to board them.

After becoming extremely frustrated, mom instructed me to pull over and turn off the vehicle. After doing so she looked me directly in the eye and gave me a life lesson in twelve words that I’ve never forgotten. “Remember one thing. You drive the car…the car doesn’t drive you.”

I’m not sure exactly why but those words calmed me in the moment and have never left me. Over the years, I’ve recalled that advice in business situations and interpersonal relationships. I’ve shared this encouragement with colleagues and family members. For me, at the heart of this syllogism is the need to take personal responsibility for our actions.

Good advice when learning to drive as well as navigating life’s journey.

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