At the time of writing this, I’m forty-two years old. As you know, forty-two is the answer to life, the universe and everything, so what better time to start to learn to drive? I covered some reasons why I left it so late here. This post though, is about the process of learning. I’m bad at starting stuff, but once I’ve started I’m usually pretty good at finishing. It’s taken me a long time to start to learn to drive, and I had a couple of false goes over the last few years. I half promised myself I’d learn before I was 40, and then I said I’d learn before I was 42, both of those deadlines came and went.
For me, more than half the problem is that I over-think the situation. Those of you who know me will find this utterly hard to believe, but I over-analyse most stuff, dig out all the possible issues, and then present them as a bunch of negatives. It makes me quite good at my job (especially when I then go on to present solutions to those issues), but it sometimes makes it hard to actually get stuff done especially outside of work where the pressure to deliver is lower.
So I talk myself out of a lot of things, because of the potential issues. I don’t mean the risks of actually driving, I mean, in this case, the complexity of sorting out lessons. For a long time my provisional driving license was an issue, until Grete sorted that for me, and then it was questions about who to book lessons with, and how, and when to fit them in, and how and when to book the theory test, and how the whole thing would work, and endless iterations of those same questions.
It’s very easy never to click ‘book lessons’ when those things ramp up in your brain. I actually got to the point of getting some quotes last year, from BSM, and almost booked, until they sent me some spam SMS messages to my mobile phone (mandatory field on the quote form), and that smallest trigger put me off booking with them, and the whole process collapsed.
Eventually though, there comes a moment where I finally commit to something in my head. At that point, the issues, complexity, problems, risks and blockers all just vanish. I’ve committed, and I will proceed. Such a day arrived three or four weeks ago, when I finally just logged on to the AA website, bought 10 hours worth of lessons, and booked the date for the first one.
So, on Wednesday 8th May, at 5:30pm, I finally sat in the driver’s seat of a four-wheeled, petrol-engined car with the intention of starting the engine and driving it for 2 hours. For those of you who’ve had driving lessons, you know how this goes. The instructor takes you through the cockpit drill, tells you how a car works, covers the basics of mirrors and the like. After this stage, I guess how it progresses depends on your instructor.
My driving instructor likes to get her pupils driving. Her theory is once you’re moving, you’ll learn everything else you’ll need to know. So she drove us to a quiet spot, sat me in the driver’s seat, had me adjust everything, and then we set off.
What followed was two hours of a mixture of fear, exhilaration, panic, confusion, euphoria, confidence sapping mistakes, confidence building successes and armpit sweat. With my driving instructor talking in one ear, and me pretending to look in the mirrors (really, I was just looking at the mirrors), we pulled away from the curb, slowly pulled back in again and jerked to a complete halt. Brakes. Must be more gentle on the brakes. The first lesson continued with that theme, with me never quite getting to grips with slowing down gently.
But I’m jumping ahead! We pootled along a road I knew quite well in a quiet estate, and met my first road junction in the 42 years since I arrived in this world – a mini-round-a-bout. My instructor said, ‘we’re going straight across’, which is a phrase I have been using for many years. This however, was the first time my brain ever formed the thought ‘I wonder if she means I should just drive straight over the middle’. Luckily my hands, taking control because my brain had apparently shut down, turned the wheel and we navigated the deserted obstacle with reasonable ease. Before I had a chance to fully realise I had just navigated a round-a-bout, my instructor coaxed me to a juddering sudden stop, and we were sitting in front of a right hand turn.
Thankfully, it was into a weird single lane traffic calming measure in which I had right-of-way and there wasn’t any traffic anyway. I gently rounded the 90 degree bend and off we went. It was at this point that I worked out where we were headed. We were about to rejoin the busy B6002, which when we had left it 15 minutes before had been host to two lanes of almost stationary traffic. It hadn’t changed, and as we approached and began to slow, I heard my instructor say, “We’re going right.”
I had hoped, to be fair, that in my first ever driving lesson, I’d have been pretty much turning left only. I’m sure we could have gotten anywhere we needed to be with only left hand turns, and I was about to explain this to my instructor, when I realised the articulated truck to my right had stopped, leaving me a gap in one lane of traffic. This was it then, this was the moment I was supposed to check for a gap to the left, and then gently pull out and hope nothing crushed me like an out of place insect.
I stalled. Then magically, after restarting the car, I managed to find another gap and pull out, and gently pull away and to the surprise of everyone, not least myself, I changed into second gear. I was doing 15 miles an hour, on a B road, with traffic in front, behind and to my right. I wasn’t dead. The car wasn’t crushed. No one was banging on the window screaming at me. This was going to be okay!
I don’t remember much else for a little while, as we drove further into Stapleford, other than my instructor saying at least four times, and I quote, “this is a horrible junction, sorry”. I know we negotiated some junctions, some more right turns, and some straight ons, but frankly it’s a blur! It was all heavy traffic, 6pm, people trying to get home, me trying not to hold them up! Eventually we made it to another quiet estate, and my instructor took me through some t-junctions, road position, and some other critical things that maybe one day I’ll remember but for now, are merely a smudge in my mind.
I do remember learning how to do hill starts (both up, and downhill), and I remember feeling confident about gear changes.
But most of all, I remember braking hard, every time.
We drove around the estate some more, and onto, across and through some busier roads, but I wasn’t really conscious of where I was (despite knowing the area quite well), until eventually we approached what looked like a major road, and my instructor advised we were turning right. I noticed we had stopped at some lights, and in front of me were two lanes of traffic, a central reservation, and then another two lanes. Only after I had crossed the two lanes and turned right did I realise I had pulled onto the A52, and we were headed back towards the M1.
Slightly terrified about what was to transpire, I revelled in the brief feeling of safety provided by traffic-light controlled round-a-bouts in which I was going left in a feeder lane. Then, well, then I was in the clear, on a road with a 70mph limit, with cars accelerating away from me.
I took a deep breath. Told myself that I was a man, and this was a motor vehicle, and that I was in control of my own destiny, not living in fear of success, and I got the car into 5th and did ~50mph for a little while.
Eventually, we arrived at another round-a-bout (going left again, thankfully), navigated some more roads, made it to the A6005, and then, made it home.
I’ve been a passenger in motor vehicles, usually in the front passenger seat, for many, many years, so the process of learning to drive for me isn’t just about learning to drive, but it’s not about forgetting bad driving behaviour either (I have none), it’s about forgetting passenger behaviour, and that was about to become very evident.
We pulled back into my street, and pulled over to the left of the road, and stopped (hard, of course). At this point, for the past 20 odd years of my life, I open the door and get out of the vehicle. Safe in the knowledge that the driver will put on the hand-break, put the car in neutral, stop the engine, and only then get out of the car. I’ve done it a lot, I really have. Four times a day on weekdays and twice at weekends for most of my adult life.
It was the slight edge of panic in my instructor’s voice, which had been absent for all of the journey, that alerted me to the fact that although the engine was running, the car was still in gear, and the hand-break was off, that I was about to try and get out of the car.
I had removed my seat belt, and I was in the process of opening the door. Luckily, I still had my foot on the foot-break and the clutch all the way down.
We laughed, as I applied the hand-break and turned off the engine, but it’s the laugh of people who realise they almost destroyed two vehicles.
I disembarked, got graded, and walked into the house. At this point, two things were evident to me.
Firstly, I would not be writing a long blog post about my first driving lesson, because I could barely form any coherent thought beyond ‘must sit down’.
Secondly, having my right arm glued to my body for the entire 2 hour lesson meant my right arm-pit was utterly drenched in sweat. My left arm, moving between the wheel, gears and hand-break had fared much better.
I had survived my first driving lesson at the age of 42. It hadn’t been anywhere near as bad as I feared, and I had proven to myself that I could handle the basics of driving a four wheeled vehicle on the public highway without hitting anything else.
I needed a lot of tea.