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Rules of the Road

by Julia Sneden

The other day I bit the bullet (or maybe more like kissed the carburetor) and bought a new car. It’s one of those snazzy little hybrids, supposed to get 48 mpg in town, and 44 mpg on the road. If it just improves on the 19 mpg guzzled by my ancient Pontiac, I’ll be happy.

When I said “little,” I misspoke. The new vehicle actually has more headroom than my old car, and drives at least as well as any car I’ve ever had. I’m not wild about the pale, silvery-green color, but it’s certainly easy to spot in a parking lot: just look for the car that looks like a piece of peeled celery. There aren’t too many of those, out there.

I had no sooner handed over my check and driven out of the parking lot than I had a chance to test the brakes. A car immediately ahead of me in the right lane decided to make an abrupt left turn without benefit of blinker. A swift stop kept me from plowing into his side, but only by inches.

Shaken but proud of my good reaction time and pleased with the car’s performance, I sailed along at a perfect 35 mph, thanks to the large, digital, vivid green numbers on my dash. It’s much easier to stay within the speed limit with those numbers staring at you, rather than having to squint at the old needle-on-a-dial speedometer. For someone like me (known to my kids as “Granny lead-foot”), that kind of in-your-face reminder is important.

I wheeled into the parking lot of my local supermarket and parked neatly, but I had to haul out the manual to figure out how to turn off the motor — excuse me, both motors (electric & gasoline). Gone are the days of turning a key in the ignition.

Your car now knows when you’re within three feet of it, thanks to a little rectangular plastic box known as an electronic key. You don’t even need to touch the fool thing. This plastic gizmo, the size of a small matchbox, is read by the car from the depths of your purse or pocket. Get near the car, and it chirps and unlocks the doors. The electronic key also makes it possible to start the car with no more than the push of a large button on the dash.

Pushing the button to turn the motor off, however, does not work unless you have first hit the “park” bar, a fact I discovered only after I had rifled several pages of my owner’s manual (with the engine idling all the while I searched). Putting on the parking brake seemed irrelevant — the car’s starter button was waiting for “park” (which is not located on the tiny gear knob).

I did find that the plastic “key” is a real boon when you approach the car with your arms full of groceries. Instead of having to set them down while you rummage in your purse for the key, the car knows you’re nearby, and chirps its welcome. Presto! You can open the door or trunk without further ado.

I was then ready to start home. I put my foot on the brake and reached for the starter button, but somehow in that process, my hand joggled the windshield wiper control, and the blades sprang into action. Try as I might, I couldn’t find the position for OFF. There were lots of tiny symbols on the lever, hard to see unless I squinted, and even then, none of them looked promising.

So there I sat in the parking lot on in the bright sunshine, windshield wipers vigorously swishing back and forth. I hauled out the manual again. It did not explain any of the symbols, but it did say in big letters, “DO NOT OPERATE WIPERS ON A DRY WINDSHIELD, AS IT MAY DAMAGE THE GLASS.” I felt panic rising as I reached to shut off the motor, which wouldn’t shut off because I had released the “park” bar when I put my foot on the brake. I moved my hand to hit the “park” bar once more, and as I withdrew it, I again hit the wiper arm, which instantly stopped the blades.

I made a mental note to sit right down with the manual when I got home. Unfortunately, unloading the groceries blew that resolution out of my brain. I hope it doesn’t start raining the next time I’m on the road.

On the way home, I decided to listen to the radio, but when I hit the Audio button on the steering wheel, up came a screen on the monitor in the center of the dashboard (center of the car, that is, nowhere near to being in front of the driver). I figured I didn’t have time to crane my neck and read the screen which seemed to have lots of options, so I just turned the radio off and hummed to myself.

I have a granddaughter who is a new driver, and she has heard (and delivered) many caveats about teenage drivers who text-message while at the wheel. I am quite aware of those dangers, but let me tell you, they can be as nothing compared to trying to figure out the various screens that come up on the monitor halfway across the dashboard of my new car. I decided to ignore them.

When the big graphic display of my battery suddenly turned from blue to brilliant chartreuse, however, it got my attention. I pulled over and once again took out the manual, but I couldn’t find one word about color-change-alerts. The car did seem to be running all right, so I cautiously drove on home, heart in mouth and tears in eyes. A call to my patient salesperson confirmed my hope that there had been no cause for alarm. Colors change all the time, he said, and don’t worry about it. Some consolation, that.

I have determined to take the manual five pages at a time, and flat-out memorize them, so that I am not a danger to anyone who drives within a half-mile of me. The real problem is that the manual is of minimal help. The text rarely explains what I need to know. For someone of the read-it-and-learn generation, this is a real dilemma. I’m sure my grandkids could figure out exactly what to do, hands on, the way they figure out how to manage their computers. I suspect that there has been a quantum shift in the way the human mind works — and we old folk are back somewhere close to the dinosaurs.

Perhaps this situation will give rise to a whole new profession for retirees who need or want to work: editing the various manuals for cars, tvs, computers, clocks, etc., turning them into the kinds of instructions we oldsters understand. The only problem would be getting one of us to figure out the instructions in the first place, so as to translate them for the rest of us.

Until such a time, I’ll keep on struggling. I really do like my new car, and I remind myself that it’s good for my old brain to try new things. But if you see a little old lady in a parking lot, standing by a car that looks like a piece of peeled celery, crying her eyes out, be kind. That’ll be me.

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