Learning to Drive in Your 30s: The Horror Is Real

08 May 2014
The thing is, I always wanted to learn to drive.

I grew up in a regional area, and learning to drive was the right of passage. Losing your virginity? Forget it. In suburban NSW you could produce a thousand teen comedies about kids desperate to get their licence. It was all anyone talked about for the final couple of years of school. Of course I wanted in on it.

However, my father decided that teaching us kids to drive would be spoiling us. (Also spoiling us: paying for school excursions, orthodontia and optometry, HSC tuition, textbooks...basically anything that wasn't mandated by law). I had to sit blinking back tears as friend after friend recounted their driving successes, failures, and that sublime day when they got their Ps. I left home soon after, and that was that. I tried to put a brave face on it; driving was hopelessly suburban, bad for the environment, totally out of whack with the inner urban lifestyle I craved. Eventually I made it to the inner city, where driving would have been as much use as speaking Latin, and came around to my own way of thinking. I was happy here. I was never going to learn to drive.

Until I found myself as a newly qualified youth worker, unable to get any jobs because I couldn't drive. Then we had a baby, and moved to Newcastle, and I was trying to get a baby, uni textbooks, and groceries on and off the bus on my ageing legs. The hell with this. Enough. It was time, once and for all, to learn to drive. Most people I spoke to were happy to teach me, but wary of letting a learner drive their car (I know I wouldn't allow it), so I had to buy a car of my own.

I've always had a great eye for a bargain, and managed to pick up a much better car than I thought we'd be able to afford. But when it came to pay for the thing - well. Every cliche you've heard about how women are treated in car yards came true. I brought a more knowledgeable friend with me to look over the car and drive it home, but for boringly complicated payment reasons, we required our husbands to show up. When it was just me and her, the salesman was curt, evasive, distant. When the men showed up? New best friends! Handshakes, introductions (we got neither), speaking only to them even though it was clearly explained I was choosing and paying. I'd have taken my business elsewhere, but this really was a great deal on the car. At an age when most people are acquiring the BMW or Jeep they've always dreamed of, I had bought my first car.

Baby I'm ready to go

I started learning in the standard way, learning basic car control in empty car parks and the abandoned BHP site.  But it was still...weird. When you're 16, new learning experiences are flying at you from all directions; driving is just one more. By the time you're in your mid thirties, not so much. I know things. I can cook from scratch, know the difference between an adversarial and an inquisitorial judicial system, can perfectly apply nail polish on my other hand. (I don't understand Senate preference redistribution, but I don't think anyone does - frankly, I suspect even Antony Green is bluffing). But driving? Do people actually do this? Bit by bit I made slow, plodding progress, from "we'll try another lap...this time, try to go to the left of the bollard", to "I think you're ready for quiet roads", to the white-knuckle day I picked my husband up from the airport, 25km from town at 80km/hr. But it was so weird, and so hard, and platitudes didn't help. A word of advice - please don't tell someone learning to drive later in life that even Snooki/Justin Beiber/Nathan Tinkler has a licence. It will not reassure them that any schmuck can learn to drive, but make themselves feel like a schmuck for being unable to master a skill every other bozo can accomplish.

But parking, now. Good Christ in Heavens above, parking. The same weird brain wiring that sees me heading in the wrong direction and falling of the low step in a beginner's aerobics class came through in my parking. I didn't get it. And just when I thought I didn't get it, I started to get it less. Neither professional instruction nor well meaning friends could fix my body's stubborn refusal to work out which way to steer when reversing. Finally the breakthrough came...the day before the test. I know one normally doesn't book the test till they're ready, but with a six week wait at the local registry, I booked in advance and hoped for the best.

The night before the test, I couldn't sleep. Had anyone ever written "I am a fish" over and over on a driving test? I was terrified I'd forget my newly acquired skills. As I waited in the registry on the big day, I wondered why I was so nervous. Unlike most 17 year olds, I've had loads of scary waits; to face army and civillian interview panels, for test results, waiting to walk in to my wedding, waiting outside the OR to be gutted like a fish and have a human being yanked from my insides. But I just don't handle anticipation well. The tester was nice enough, but the test itself was bizarre, like being a taxi driver with a passenger who stubbornly refuses to admit they've no idea where their house is: turn down here, turn left there, stop here, start again. I've lived in this area most of my life and never got a sense of where we were going. I never relaxed, and was very relieved when it was over.

Now, these posts always conclude with success, the final pass, "I got my P plates in the end and you can, too". I did not pass yesterday, in fact failed in the first sixty seconds. Passing the shopping centre near the registry, a double semi trailer swung around the corner and in to my lane. Ironically, after months of being told I had a tendency to drift to the left (a legacy of years of cycling), I was now too far on the right. I over corrected, the instructor, possibly unnecessarily, put his hand on the steering wheel, and that was me done for. I was miserable, and felt the foul stench of failure clinging to my pores.

My driving test failure face.

In time, I came to be more philosophical. If I'd fluked a pass yesterday, I still would have issues with parking and reversing; now that I know I can do it, I'll spend the next few weeks till the new test focusing on getting it right. I'll get a couple of lessons, which is a bit rough on our budget, but if you could help out with a few dollars by the link below, that would be great - and it's all for a good cause, since as soon as I can drive I'll be looking for youth worker jobs and volunteering for Meals on Wheels (really looking forward to that, actually). My next test is at 9am on a Saturday...next to the busiest sports ground in Newcastle...with about 2000 kids turning out for winter netball and football. So I'll really know if I'm ready. Hopefully I'll have a triumphant finish post soon.


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