Ramona Walhof

Cars, Teen-agers, and Insurance

by Ramona Walhof


            From the Editor: The following article is taken from Remember to Feed the Kittens, the sixteenth in the Kernel Book series of paperbacks published by the National Federation of the Blind. It begins with Dr. Maurer's introduction:


             Dealing with teen-age drivers presents challenges for any parent: What car will the teen-ager drive and how to acquire it? What about insurance? What about learning how to drive? Are these challenges the same or different if the parent happens to be blind? These are the questions Ramona Walhof, who is president of the National Federation of the Blind of Idaho, deals with in her story, "Cars, Teen-agers, and Insurance."

             As readers of earlier Kernel Books will remember, Ramona became a widow when her two children were very young. Now they are both young adults, finished with college and launched in their careers. As a matter of fact, each of them has wedding plans for this year. Here is what Ramona has to say:


            In 1983 I was thirty-nine years old, working as director of a state rehabilitation program for the blind, a single mother of two children ages twelve and thirteen, and it came time for me to buy my first car.

            I had saved money and thought I needed a van. I wanted to take my children places and include their friends. I wanted to take groups of students on trips. I wanted to take groups of blind people to activities of the National Federation of the Blind. I had sighted drivers available, so the time had come.

            I asked my assistant if he could spare a Saturday to drive me around and give me some advice. He said he would be glad to drive but wasn't sure how much advice he could give. This was reasonable. I knew I would have to look before buying. We spent the whole day looking at a lot of vehicles, most of which I did not want. Many were set up as campers or did not have enough seats. I wanted fifteen seats. I saw three vans I liked, and two were very plush. I was looking for something utilitarian.

            Near the end of the day we found a Plymouth Voyager that seemed right. We were pretty sure it was the only one in Boise, but I didn't want to offer too high. I had to learn about the negotiations. The salesman didn't really believe I was buying the van. He tried to talk to my assistant, who simply waved at me and said he wasn't buying it.

            I made my offer, which was cash, and I could tell they were interested but not ready to accept. The salesman disappeared to talk with his supervisor but said almost nothing. I believe I was the only serious customer in the store that afternoon about 5:00 p.m. I could not tell whether they were reluctant to deal with me because I was blind and female or for some other reason, but they were uncomfortable.

            Soon the supervisor came back and tried to talk to my assistant, who wasn't responsive. Then the supervisor told me that their price was a very good one. I said that maybe it was, but I would not go any higher. The supervisor wanted to know who would be driving the van, and shouldn't he or she have something to say about it? I answered that a number of people would be driving the van, but I was buying it, and he had to deal with me. Both men disappeared, and I called a friend, thinking we were going to come to terms and would need another driver.

            I wasn't sure whether the salesman and supervisor were more worried about the price or the blindness. Then they came back and agreed to accept my price. As we proceeded through the paperwork, I was becoming excited.

            When Harry and Jan arrived, the supervisor immediately began to talk to Harry as though the van were his. Harry directed the comments back to me. Harry was asked: "Aren't you her husband?"

            Jan answered: "No, he's my husband."

            They just couldn't believe a blind woman could or should buy a van. I was grateful to my friends who were members of the National Federation of the Blind and helped me deal with the attitudes of the salesman and the supervisor.

            Jan and Harry Gawith and my assistant, John Cheadle, knew exactly how to respond when they were addressed even though I was the customer. This made my van-buying experience easier and more enjoyable. We got the job done, and I then had to learn about insurance.

            Later I found that new cars are generally insured by the seller for forty-eight to seventy-two hours, but I didn't know that then. So Saturday night I thought I had to find insurance. Of course we did not want to wait until Monday to drive this wonderful new van. Harry would be driving the van some and had a good driving record. So I called his agent, who agreed that Harry could be the primary driver.

            We used the van as planned for more than a year. Then I changed employment and started a bakery, and we also used the van for deliveries. At that time in Idaho teen-agers could be licensed to drive during daylight hours at age fourteen. My daughter Laura was most anxious to take driver's education. I knew that starting to drive a fifteen‑passenger van was not a very good idea. Still that was the vehicle we had needed when we bought it.

            I found a driver's ed teacher who agreed to give her an extra lesson or two in the van, and my assistant was also willing to work with her. Soon Laura took driver's ed, and the teacher thought she was ready. She got her license.

            I decided there would be some special rules. The state said Laura could not drive after dark until she was sixteen. I decided she must drive only with me or an adult driver in the van. When spring came and the days were longer, I began letting her take the van by herself on certain errands. Still she was not to use the van as transportation for her friends unless I was in it.

            One Saturday afternoon she went to run some errands and then to band practice. She was more than an hour late getting home. Her explanation was that a lot of her friends needed rides home, and she had this big vehicle. She could not refuse to help out. She had disregarded a very specific rule.

            I told her to consider alternatives, but she could not think of any. She had not thought of a telephone. She had not thought of stopping at home to pick me up or talk about what to do. She got one warning. I thought a van full of teen-agers behind a driver so young was dangerous. Teen-agers spend too much energy entertaining one another, which is distracting to any driver.

            Although Laura had had her license about six months, I wasn't sure she was ready for that. Laura must have believed me when I told her that a repeat offense would make her a retired driver, because it did not happen again.

            Another time Laura came home late and did not have to be questioned about the problem. She had taken the wrong approach to the interstate and could not get off. When she found an exit in the next town, she had no idea how to get back on the freeway.

            This is not a new experience for most drivers, but Laura clearly needed to learn the local interstate system, and I was not the best person to teach her. We chose a time when we were not in a hurry and took my son Chris along. Although Chris was still too young to drive, he was a good sign reader. We practiced on freeway entrances and exits, and Laura got over being frightened.

            Another tense moment occurred one Sunday afternoon when we were shopping at Sears. Laura said: "Let's park in the garage." Before I could suggest caution, she had turned in. There was no trouble parking the van, but when we were ready to leave, there was. Laura rubbed the side of the van against a pole and scratched it. She didn't know how to get away from the pole in the restricted space. As people began to line up behind us, she became upset.

            A stranger got out of one of the cars behind us and offered to help. Fortunately he knew exactly what to do and inched the van away from the post. With relief and an ugly scratch on our van, we left the garage, and Laura no longer had a fascination with parking garages.

            During that first summer after Laura got her driver's license, I took her with me on business trips to Idaho Falls (300 miles from Boise) and to Spokane (400 miles away). Perhaps I should say I used her as a driver on these trips, and we both enjoyed it. It was good experience for Laura and helpful to me. I could tell that she was gaining in skill and confidence.

            About that time they tore up the road in front of our bakery, and I decided to close it. Then we began to get numerous requests to borrow the van. Apparently people got the idea that we weren't using it much. We really didn't need so large a vehicle any more, so I decided it was time to trade for a smaller car.

            I took Laura and Chris to look for a small car, and we agreed on a GLC Mazda. The salesman had no trouble dealing with me, but many people behaved as though the car belonged to Laura. I thought she was too young to have a car, and I intended to manage its use. Laura may have faced some pressure from her friends and others, but she lived within the system.

            Now the question of insurance was more complex. Laura was not the primary driver, but she was the only driver in the household. Again I turned to a friend in the National Federation of the Blind. Mary Ellen Halverson and her husband were both blind and had a sighted son, who was the only driver in their household.

            Mary Ellen told me how they handled car insurance and gave me the name of their agent. I contacted that agent, who agreed, after consultation, that it was possible to name Laura as the secondary driver and my business associate as the primary driver. So that is what we did.

            Then Chris took driver's education and got his license. I made the same kinds of rules for Chris as I had for Laura. I was able to use him as a driver during the summer when I made trips out of town. He did not have to learn to drive the van, and he turned out to be quite a good driver. But the insurance agent was having a hard time saying that there were two drivers in the household, and neither was the primary driver.

            It was true, but it was so unusual that it was not believed. I wrote up a schedule of how I used the car in my business while Chris and Laura were in school. The insurance company listed the drivers as they should: business associate, primary driver; Laura, secondary driver; and Chris, secondary driver.

            When Chris was in ninth grade, he had a paper route. Although he could do it on foot or on his bike, he preferred to drive, especially on Sundays when the papers were large. When he drove, I would go along and put rubber bands on the papers.

            One morning a police car pulled us over. What, we wondered, could it mean? "Why don't you have your lights on?" the policeman asked. He didn't wait for an answer. He must have seen the newspapers in the back seat because he said, "Did you just pull out of a brightly lit intersection?" We had.

            "Don't forget to turn on your lights," he said and waved us on. He didn't even ask to see Chris's license. If he had, he probably would have had to write a ticket. It was still dark, and Chris was too young to drive in the dark. I'm sure it helped that I was in the car, and I'm sure Chris did not forget lights when he needed them after that.

            By the end of her junior year in high school, Laura had been driving three years, and Chris one. Laura had been riding to school with a friend and her mother since the city bus did not start early enough in the morning and the school bus did not stop at our corner.

            We lived about one and a half miles from school, but there were always band instruments, piles of books, and other things to carry back and forth. Furthermore, schedules for two high school students were complicated. I never intended to let my high school kids drive to school, but it seemed the best way to go.

            We started reading ads in the newspaper to find a small used pick‑up. After looking at and driving several, we found a 1976 Datsun with a reconditioned second engine for $800. I decided to take a chance on it. It turned out to be the right decision. Laura and Chris drove that truck for three years. We replaced the battery, the tires, and the ignition and nothing else. Its performance was amazingly good. Now I had two vehicles.

            I wanted to insure the truck (liability only) with Laura and Chris as the drivers. The Mazda was still mine, and I used it far more than either Chris or Laura. The policy came back with Chris on one vehicle and Laura on the other. That's the standard way, and the insurance company didn't believe you could have two drivers and two cars in one household and not insure them with one name on each vehicle. With the help of our agent, the insurance company was finally convinced.

            After high school graduation Laura went to college at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston and did not need a car. We all agreed on that. Two years later, when Chris enrolled at the University of Idaho in Moscow, we decided a car was reasonable. Chris enjoyed driving, and other transportation was limited. The little Datsun pick-up, I was afraid, might not be reliable enough for the 300-mile trip several times a year.

            Chris and I bought a used Renault Fuego. That was a mistake. He loved it. It went fast. He must have controlled the speed, because I never heard about any tickets. But he drove it only one year. We couldn't get parts to repair the transmission, and that was the end of it.

            Chris had decided to do door-to-door sales during the summers to help pay his way through school, so I wanted him to have a car that could be worked on absolutely anywhere. The Fuego helped me learn this lesson. In high school Chris had shown no interest in what was under the hood of a car, but in college he did. We replaced the Fuego with a Ford Escort wagon.

            At first he wasn't sure he was a wagon man. He drove that Ford Escort for almost four years and put another 100,000 miles on it. He got good use out of the car. Those summers away from home selling books helped Chris grow up, and learning about engines, mechanics, tires, etc. was a part of it.

            Meanwhile I had traded the Mazda for a 1987 Dodge 600, which is a little larger. It carries six people instead of four. This is still my car today. By the time I bought it, I felt I had learned how to shop for a car.

            But Chris and Laura still had a few more challenges for me. When Laura graduated from college, she needed a vehicle. I decided that would be her graduation present and my last financial contribution to her education. She wanted a red pick‑up but did not want to pay the extra insurance premium. She had a teaching job at a school in the Chicago area, so we needed to move boxes and some furniture from Boise and from Boston to Chicago. We found a used Ford Ranger (blue) that seemed O.K. She drove it hard for two years and was able to trade it for a new Saturn.

            The four years of driving during high school were important to Laura. She was not a natural driver and needed the practice. If she had gone to college without that experience, she might never have become as good a driver as she now is.

            When Chris graduated from college, his Escort was worn out. I decided to get him one more vehicle for graduation. We chose a Toyota pick-up, which he is still driving. Chris is now employed in Boise as a head hunter and doing well enough that he has invested in a used Porsche. He did not seek advice or money from me.

            When I was a child, I never thought about needing to own or buy cars. Other children did, but they would be drivers. I knew I would be using public transportation or riding with other people. And for the first part of my adult life that was true.

            For the last fifteen years I have used my car regularly. I do not drive to work and never have. I now live about three fourths of a mile from work and walk most days. When Laura comes to Boise, my car is available.

            I did not teach my children to drive, but I played a part in the process. Since they lived with me, they heard what I had to say. I wanted them to be safe, considerate, and responsible drivers. When they were beginners, my presence in the car doubtless sometimes made a difference.

            Buying that first van was an adventure, and I was not prepared for the disbelief that a blind person could want such a thing. But it was the beginning of more flexibility in my life, just as the first car is for most people. It gives me one more alternative for transportation.

            In many ways cars in my family have been handled very much the same as in other families. Blindness adds a wrinkle, but it really doesn't change basic interactions. Will I continue to own a vehicle as long as I live? I cannot predict the future, but I have no plans to sell my Dodge. It is old, but I hope to get a few more years out of it. I'll cross the next bridge when the time comes.