Category Archives: Article

Series of posts which together form part of an article, or sometimes longer single posts which have a specific focus

Fear of 4 Wheels – Part 13

I’m not superstitious, if I was, I’m sure I’d end up owning a lucky pair of socks or something.  I certainly don’t place any mystical relevance on numbers, although some numbers are clearly magical.  So when I came to write this blog post, and realised it would be the thirteenth, I wasn’t worried.  I didn’t feel anything would be particularly unlucky about it.

Which means, I guess, my terrible driving on the driving lesson that preceded this blog is all my own fault, and has nothing to do with the universe having a morbid sense of humour.

This blog post is like one of those American TV cop serials, where they show you a scene with your favourite character from the show in some deadly situation, which is surely going to lead to their death, or worse, losing their job, and a moment later those inevitable words cross the screen – 48 hours earlier.  So now you know how the last few moments play out and the rest is just designed to get you there.  I’ve told you the lesson was terrible, my driving was shocking, and so now, all we have to do is complete the journey and you’ll know why.

In the American TV dramas the technique is usually a lazy way of injecting some tension into an otherwise boring story.  In my case, it’s a lazy way of letting anyone who wants to skip the content know that the lesson didn’t go well (in my view), so you can get back to doing whatever you were before you started reading this.

48 hours earlier

I drove to and from work on the 8th and 9th July, and home from work on the 10th before the lesson started.  They weren’t particularly edifying examples of good driving.  Stuff still isn’t smooth enough, I’m still stalling for no good reason and even worse, because I’ve done the route a few times now I’m taking it for granted.  I’m driving what I know is there, rather than thinking about what is coming up.

2 hours earlier

So I was waiting on the sofa for my instructor to arrive, already a bit down about how the week had been going driving wise.  I was sort of hoping she would cancel again, but given how little time I have left until my test (er, perhaps 4 weeks or something), I knew she wouldn’t, and that I’d have to spend a couple of hours working hard.  I had forgotten though, that we were going to go into Derby, specifically so I would be driving on roads I didn’t know all that well.

She reminded me as soon as I got in the car.

I almost got back out of the car.

I managed not to – after all, how bad could it be?  It was pretty fucking bad.

I am being hard on myself, because there were some parts of the lesson that were excellent, enjoyable even (in a terrifying steering wheel death grip kind of way), but it wasn’t all great.  It was a pretty warm day, although overcast, so I was already warm when I got in the car.  After the first hour, I was drenched in sweat and felt like my face was the same colour as beetroot through a mixture of embarrassment and pure concentration.

We started out easily enough, heading out towards the A50.  I’ve been on the A50 a few times with Greté driving, but it never really occurred to me that a three lane, 70mph limit A road would look very much like a motorway when you’re in the driving seat.  I had falsely assumed we’d be heading into Derby along the A52, but no, it was the A50.

This is the junction onto the A50.

A50 Junction

And this is a close-up of the A50, note how it looks like a motorway.

A50 Close Up

Now as it happens, I navigated that roundabout pretty well, and after a little bit of slightly panicked urging from my instructor, got up to 65 on the slip-road and onto the A50, where-upon I proceeded to drive at 70mph for quite some time.  That included overtaking a few vehicles and basically having a great time.  Apart from the Steering Wheel Death Grip which left my hands slightly swollen and sore after the lesson.

Sadly, the fun didn’t last, and we eventually left that road, maybe via some other ones, I can’t be entirely certain, I remember a slip-road and perhaps a long curving road of some kind, and another fast A road, and then I remember getting into Derby.  Which is when it all went to shit.

I will be honest, I don’t understand the advice I’m being given by my instructor, and I’m going to have to spend 10 minutes at the start of the next lesson asking her to go over some of the basics again.  Approaching roundabouts, if I was going at a speed I felt was okay, she thought it was too fast and I wasn’t leaving enough time to slow down and change down through the gears.  So next time, I changed down nice and early and slowed down, and I was too far away and should have left it until later.  I wasn’t changing up gear fast enough, and then I was doing it too quickly, I was changing down too early, and too late, braking too hard and not enough.

Because all the streets, junctions and roundabouts were new to me, every single one of them was my own personal hell.  Things I thought I knew how to do just fell apart.  I stalled, I panicked, I sat at junctions far too long, didn’t go at roundabouts when I was clear, blocked traffic in narrow streets by stopping to let people go when I should have kept going and keeping going when I should have stopped.

I was soaked with sweat after 30 minutes.   It was just a nightmare, there’s no funny anecdote, no light relief, just a raw reminder that if you drive the same roads over and over again and do them ‘okay’, it doesn’t mean squat when you go somewhere you’ve never been before.  On top of the confusion about the advice I was getting, that just made the whole experience miserable.

There were some okay moments in the mix, a couple of steep hill starts and tight left turns went well, I stuck to the speed limit, and responded to traffic well in some situations.

But if you want an example of the kind of two hour journey it was, at one stage, about 80 feet from a mini-roundabout I was approaching too fast, my instructor said, “Mini-roundabout coming up, your examiner won’t point out any junctions you’ve missed”.  I lamely replied, “I know, I saw the sign but just …” and then had nothing.  What could I say.  I had seen the sign, and in my head I knew what it meant, but I had just assumed it would be further away.  It wasn’t, so I braked hard (not dangerously so), and then tried to navigate the route.

Later on, we used another large roundabout junction, and I screwed up the lane choices a couple of times, which resulted in us having to go fully around the thing once, and then she corrected my steering to get us into the right lane the second time.

On the way home, she told me to follow signs to a particular town until I knew where I was and then just drive home.  I did, it wasn’t bad, and we came back along the A50 at speed again, with a few more moments of overtaking.  But I’d lost the excitement, and ended up just sitting behind a truck for the last few miles doing 60mph, hoping my junction would turn up so the torture could end.  I didn’t want to overtake because the way things had been going, it’d be just when my junction came up, and we’d miss it.

As a final kick in the nuts, when I finally pulled off the A50, and made it to the next roundabout I ended up in the wrong lane again, and had to go down the A52 for a bit before being able to head home.

By now my confidence was drugged, beaten, poisoned and shot, like the victim at the start of our American Crime Serial, so the streets around my house proved too hard even for me, and I turned into our street too quickly, and then braked too hard when someone was coming the other way further down.  Fantastic.  I think my instructor tried to make me feel better by saying it had been good, but I’m pretty sure she was just trying to be nice.

When I park the car on the left side of our street, there’s quite a large camber, which means getting out of the car can be a bit of an effort (basically, climbing uphill).  This time, it was a monumental effort.  My left leg just buckled under me, and I limped off home trying to say thanks and see you next week.  Neither of my legs wanted to work, they honestly felt like lead, my arms felt like I’d been carrying 200lbs of weight around, and my brain was a kind of hazy-mush.  I imagine it looked a little like blended avocado.

I could barely speak to Greté for an hour after I got in, and not long after eating our evening meal, I just went to bed.  Worn out physically from the A50 driving, and mentally from the shocking performance elsewhere.  Right now, I can’t imagine anyone ever passing me in an exam, and I can’t imagine why I’d ever want to subject myself to that kind of torture again.

Maybe next time there’ll be some laughs.

Fear of 4 Wheels – Part 12

Rather than write a blog post every time I sat behind the wheel, last week I decided to write up how I felt after each trip out in the car, and do a sort of mini diary.  It went well on Friday and Saturday, but then I was ill on Monday and Tuesday, so didn’t get as much driving done as I’d hoped.  However, here’s the three entries before today’s driving lesson.

Friday 28th June

Drove from the office to Tesco, including the uphill t-junction I’ve been avoiding up until now.  Nothing too scary, and a route we’ve done literally hundreds of times over the years, with me as a passenger.  I pulled into Tesco, parked in a bay (forwards) right next to one other car, stalled when his reverse lights came on and I panicked and forgot to get the clutch in.  Otherwise the drive over was excellent.  After shopping I reversed out of that bay.  Way, too, fast – but then drove home successfully, and put the car on the drive at a much slower pace than the previous 3 attempts.  Overall, felt pretty good after this, especially given I’d missed having a lesson this week.

Saturday 29th June

Drove from home to Tesco, including reversing off our drive.  Reversed too quickly, but the rest of journey was really good.  Need to spend some time just reversing our car around, it’s far more energetic than the car I’m learning in.   Pulled (forward) into a Tesco parking bay at a very slow, controlled speed which felt good.  Left Tesco, reversed almost fully out of the bay at the right speed, but too quick right at the very end.  Then too many mistakes on the way home, wrong gear, changing down too early, one awkward stall due to pressure.  Ended up putting the car on our drive too quickly again.

Wednesday 3rd July

Drove home from work before the lesson.  Quite confident overall, and feeling pretty good about my driving – this is probably when learner drivers are at their most dangerous.  One stall while sitting in traffic at a set of lights, but just restarted the car, and one stall on a hill start, as I stopped (i.e. before I had to pull away), but again, just restarted the car and didn’t worry about it too much.  Cyclists are tricky – I’m prepared to go as slow as required and give enough space as required, but it’s tough to do that when the 10 cars behind aren’t prepared to let you and start trying to overtake. Challenging.  The examiner will expect me to give cyclists 2 metres of clearance during the test, when no one else in the world will be prepared to let me do that.

Driving Lesson

I really am feeling much more confident about my overall driving.  I have enough skill to get the car moving without any fear; I know that if I’m sitting on a junction I’ll be able to pull out in the right sized gap.  Sure, I stall it once or twice a lesson, but that confidence that you’ll be able to move off means you can give up worrying about stopping.  I can’t stress this enough, if you’re learning to drive and want to get one thing right that will help, learn how to successfully get the car moving every time.

I was approaching junctions, roundabouts, and other cars too fast because I didn’t want to stop.  The mere thought of stopping, and what follows it (moving off) just meant I was tense.  Now that I know I can stop, stick the handbrake on if necessary, and then promptly get the car moving again gives me so much more confidence at handling everything else.

My junction approaches were better, my roundabouts were better, and ‘meeting traffic’ scored my highest yet.  My instructor took me down a few roads with cars parked on both sides, so very much a stop/start/stop/start process through blocked roads, and I handled it no problem, very pleasing.

As we came down through Beeston, I was chatting, and so when my instructor said ‘next left’ I just sailed on past it.  We were on a road we often used to go to work, and so I was on autopilot in some regards.  Given that I can’t drive yet (legally), being on autopilot this early is probably a bad sign.  Anyway, we ended up driving around a bit in that area, and down near Beeston Marina, when my instructor told me to pull over, so we could do a ‘turning in the road’ manoeuvre.  We’d been driving probably 40 minutes by this point.

After I stopped, I looked a few car lengths down the road and noticed I couldn’t read the number plate of the car ahead of me.  At which point, I realised we’d driven the last 40 minutes without my glasses on.  Luckily, I can see pretty well without them, I only need them for long distance and even then it’s a weak prescription.  Still, we both had a bit of a chuckle about that (well, I was chuckling anyway).

Hopefully I won’t make that mistake in my practical exam – which my instructor encouraged me to book straight away (having passed the theory).  She’s confident I only need about 4 or 5 more weeks; due to various timings I can’t do the exam in the first week in August, so instead, it’s booked for the 2nd week.

It’s a little terrifying to think that I might only need another 10 hours of lessons before I’m judged fit to pass the exam.

Subdued post today, I’m still ill and not feeling 100%.  Maybe we’ll get more laughs next time.

Fear of 4 Wheels – Part 11

I feel like I should publish a post that isn’t part of this series, to break all the Fear of 4 Wheels posts up. However, I’m not going to!  I’m writing this on the 27th June, which has been a very, long, day.  Both myself and Greté woke up very early today.  Both for different reasons.  For me, today was my driving theory and hazard perception test day.  I’ve not really slept well for the past few days, and this morning I was up at 6:00am.  Given the success of yesterday’s drive home, and the quiet roads, I thought I’d give driving in to the office a shot.

I jotted this paragraph down when I got to the office.

I’m sitting here feeling pretty bloody good about myself, so I thought I’d throw down a few words.  I’ve been employed since I left university in 1993, but today, 20 years later, is the first time I’ve ever driven myself to work.  Greté was with me obviously, but I did the actual driving.  It’s pretty empowering, I can tell you (although I probably don’t have to, since you can all drive).

I’ll be honest, it felt even better than it sounds.  The roads were quiet, but there was still plenty of traffic, and despite a couple of white vans trying to run me off the road when their lane merged into mine, it was a good drive.  No mistakes, a couple of confidence issues, but lots of mirror use and plenty of control.  I was buzzing when I got to work – I was also shaking, so I had some shortbread that a colleague had brought in.  I think the shaking was part adrenaline, part low sugar (concentration burns my sugar faster than you might imagine).

Work itself dragged – because I knew at 6:00pm, twelve hours after getting out of bed, I had a theory exam to take in the centre of Nottingham.  I made sure we were there early, and I didn’t drive.  Thankfully Greté is used to and puts up with my tendency to arrive 2 hours early for everything I do, although we were technically only 1 hour and 15 minutes early.  We grabbed a coffee in Costa, bought a spare umbrella (yeh, thanks rain), wandered around for a bit, and then I headed in to the test centre.  As usual, I was more nervous about the procedural aspects of the test than I was about the actual test.  You know what my biggest worry was?  Would I have to pay for a locker or would they be free, and if I had to pay, did I have the right coinage.

Yeh, welcome to my head.

Luckily, lockers were free, the staff were great, the instructions were clear and about an hour after going in, I left.

This is the first exam that’s mattered since I left university in 1993.  So not only 20 years of employment and driving in for the first time, but 20 years since I sat an exam that could change my life.

The multi-choice was fine, there were 2 questions I’d never seen on topics I can’t remember reading about (minimum distance between you and the car in front when stopping in a tunnel, and another about soft tarmac), and out of the 50 I got 2 wrong (I found out later).  I’m tempted to think it was those 2 I got wrong, but it might not have been.  The hazard perception test was just, stressful.  You get no feedback as you go, and it’s possible to click too much or in the wrong way and score 0 points even if you spot the hazard.  The lack of feedback is simply terrifying and by clip 15 I was essentially a gibbering wreck.  The massive headphones didn’t help, and I was approximately too fucking hot by the time I left.

Was I clicking too much?  Was I somehow accidentally clicking in a mysterious pattern that the software would think was cheating?  Let’s face it, all software sucks, so it’s entirely possible it could get it wrong.

I walked from the test room with no clue if I’d passed or not, but by the time I got to the desk, the results were printed out and handed to me.  The member of staff doesn’t tell you if you’ve passed, so I had to read the certificate, about 3 times, before I convinced myself that I had.

I had passed my theory test.

I had successfully, passed, the theory and hazard perception test.

I have two years in which to apply for and pass my practical exam now.  I’m pretty sure my instructor is going to suggest I book a date in late August or early September at next week’s lesson (assuming she’s well).

It’s still only slowly sinking in.

The good news is that I can finally stop worrying about whether I need a stabilising bar when towing a caravan.

passed

Fear of 4 Wheels – Part 10

Short one today, I promise.  My instructor cancelled today’s lesson at short notice due to illness.  Judging by the overwhelming sense of relief I felt at that, I’m guessing I didn’t fancy going out for a drive anyway.

Although to be fair, I did drive home today from work (with Greté keeping me company), which wasn’t too bad.  Yesterday however was a different matter entirely.  It was the first time I’d driven since last Wednesday’s lesson, for various reasons, and it was like being back at week 1.

Stalled pulling away, too fast in 1st, stopping short of junctions, stalling, jumping away like a rabbit, thunking to a stop, changing down gear too early, etc., etc.  Yesterday did not do my confidence any favours at all.  Today though, as I said, much better overall, and more use of the mirrors.  I guess the lesson there is, drive more often, so I’m going to try and drive home every night this week.

Tomorrow I have my theory test (and hazard perception test).  I’ve been revising hard (using a couple of apps on Android, one which I found only at the start of the week is and very, very good, while the other I’d been using for longer and is a lot weaker).  The best app so far, that I’ve found, is this one.  It has a really snappy title, “Theory Test +Hazard Perception”, but it’s very good.  I’m pretty confident about the multi-choice questions, but I’m still nervous about the hazard perception stuff, because it’s possible to get zero points just by clicking ‘in the wrong pattern’ or ‘too often’.

One last thing, there are a lot of cyclists where I live.  A lot.

Fear of 4 Wheels – Part 9

Not me

As the weeks go on, and the lessons get more serious and less accident prone, it gets harder to write these blog posts.  I wonder, how much fun can it be reading about how I drove around for 2 hours without any really funny anecdotes or near death experiences.  Then I remind myself that when have I ever worried about boring someone half to death with an unfunny story from my life, and why should I start worrying now.

After last weeks lesson I was sure I was going to get out and about in our car as much as I could.  You know what?  It’s hard, and I’m naturally lazy.  I don’t mean hard in a rocket science or pure mathematics way, I mean hard in a just plain hard work hard way.  Like moving 500 lbs of sand from one place to another – anyone can do it, but it’s just proper hard work.  I’m really, really good at making excuses and avoiding hard work, it’s one of my secret super powers (my top one is the Power of Passive Aggression).  So in fact, I only drove our car twice between the last lesson and this one, but that’s twice more than I expected.

I drove to the council refuse / recycling centre on Sunday and then I drove back from Tesco this afternoon before the actual driving lesson.  Greté (bless her cotton socks of patience) has been trying to encourage me, and be patient and nice, but as I said, I’m lazy and it’s hard!  Cry!  So anyway, I drove to the recycling centre (we got rid of some old furniture, two boxes of old electronics and cables, and some other junk), and it was okay.  I had my first traffic-light managed contraflow experience.  The driver behind me had a ‘learner driver stalls and doesn’t get through on the green cycle like you had hoped’ experience.  I’m pretty hard on myself at those moments, I’m not worried about the people stuck behind me, they were me once upon a time, but I am hard on myself.  I hate not being able to do something when I’m learning it, which is why I give a lot of stuff up very quickly when it turns out I’m not instantly any good at it.  Anyway, I berated myself while the lights turned from red to green and then pulled away very, very slowly, much to the increased agitation of the driver behind me.  Coming back was fine, and I even did a bit of far-too-fast reversing on-site at the recycling place, which was fun (for everyone, including the guy who was walking behind me at the time).

Also not me

I then pretty much cried like a spoiled child every time Greté tried to get me to drive home or back from the shops or where-ever.  I’ve had a hard day, I’m tired, it’s hard, it hurts when I press it, etc.  Today though, Greté had a medical appointment, and after stopping at Tesco briefly on the way home to pick up some stuff, I drove back from there.  It was a bit haphazard but right at the end, the last 4 or 5 stop/starts my feet had an epiphany.

I have known in my head for a few weeks that controlling the car speed in first gear is nothing to do with the actual revs or the amount of accelerator in use.  It’s all to do with the clutch.  I know this.  My feet however refused to believe, they still subscribed to the church of ‘if you use too much gas you’ll pull away at 100mph and drive into the car in front’.  So, from a handbrake start I have been trying to apply just enough accelerator to pull away while lifting the clutch.  But finding just enough is hard, and takes a lot of practice, and if you don’t get enough you stall.  If you feel like you’re almost about to stall you panic and hit the accelerator and lift the clutch and then bounce away like a rabbit chasing a frog.  The trick is to convince yourself that it almost doesn’t matter what the revs are (as long as you’re not killing the engine), if you lift the clutch slowly enough, you will pull away slowly, and if you put the clutch back in, you’ll stop accelerating.

My feet finally got on-board on the way back from Tesco, and I have Greté to thank for encouraging me to do that.

Absolutely not me

What it meant was that when I went out for the driving lesson, I was pretty much able to forget worrying about actually pulling away, standing start, slow start already in first, whatever, I just made sure I lifted the clutch really bloody slowly.  No stalls today.  None.  Pulled out into some pretty hair raising roundabouts as well, knowing I’d have enough time.

Now of course, since I’ve mastered that, the problem is I’m not going fast enough.  Now we’re pulling off roundabouts onto 50mph roads, and my instructor wants me to get up into 4th and 5th pretty quickly and she’s right, because if I don’t, even on the narrowest of single carriageways, some dumb ass idiots will overtake me because they might be late for Coronation Street.

So my feet are on-board, which is good, and I did another 3 point turn today (sorry, turning in the road), and nailed it.  That’s my second go at it, and I’m at ‘5’ on the 1-5 scoring chart the instructor uses.  Pretty bloody happy about that – so as long as my life in the car consists only of turning around in the street and pulling away from junctions, I’m sorted.

Most of the rest of my scores are between 3 and 5.  The 3’s are mostly around junctions and the 4’s are for maneuvers and general driving.  She’s still confident that it’ll only take around 28-30 hours of lessons to get me through the test, which I still find slightly terrifying.

One of the 3’s is for something like ‘meeting traffic’ or words to that effect.  I guess turning left into a narrow road, to find a car coming at me on my side of the road because the other side was stacked with parked cars counts as ‘meeting traffic’.  We stopped (my instructor did some braking although I think I would have been okay), and the person in the car just happily pootled past us and headed off.  I was quite calm overall, but it does remind you how bloody dangerous the whole driving concept can be.

In that vein, we were traveling at about 50mph along a dual carriageway towards a set of traffic lights at a pedestrian crossing.  I could see no one was present, so I continued at the same speed, anticipating no change in the lights.  What neither of us anticipated was a cyclist on our side of the road, coming around the wrong side of the barriers at the lights (so facing us, but on the road), waiting to cross, who then basically failed to get his foot out of the pedal stirrup.  He starting falling sideways into the road, and finally managed to get his foot underneath him and stop his collapse.  I went from 50mph to about 15mph in a pretty bloody short distance, with my instructor cursing, and drove around the cyclist.  He seemed oblivious to his near miss.

Speaking of cyclists, they’re definitely the most complex part of the drive for me at the moment.  The advice is to give them about 2 metres clearance if you’re going to overtake.  You can’t overtake if you can’t see far enough ahead, if you’re approaching a crossing, or if there’s not enough room to give them a couple of metres of clearance.  This is fine if you’re on a slow road, but we were passing one cyclist in a 40mph limit, with heavy traffic in both directions.  I was trying to slow down and not get too close, while looking for a gap, but because I was now doing 20mph, cars were passing me on the right side and overtaking, into oncoming traffic, with parked cars coming up in my lane as well.

That was an ‘exciting’ time for everyone, including my instructor who was giving me a lot of running advice at a time when I wasn’t really able to appreciate it.

There were two really good things about the drive yesterday.  The first one was that it was challenging, and my instructor knows she’s challenging me.  We basically drove into the centre of Nottingham along a route that was very busy and I’m very familiar with, and then along another route just outside the city centre which is equally busy.  They were both challenging but they gave me the confidence that when the time comes I will be able to make it into town without a complete breakdown.  At one point as we were driving slowly up a hill towards the centre, my instructor asked if I was nervous.  I said yes, but only because I knew what junction we were approaching.

The second thing was finally getting to 70mph.  We were driving along a road and my instructor asked, “What’s the speed limit?” to which I responded, confidently, “70mph”.  She followed with the killer, “what speed are you doing?”.  “50mph” was my meek response.

“Put your foot down then,” she said.  So I did.

Fear of 4 Wheels – Part 8

Just a small update today.  Driving around yesterday really helped, beyond measure.  I decided not to drive to work this morning, because I’m still finding driving mentally draining and I don’t want to spend the first hour at work any more tired than I already am.  However, I did drive home, and generally it was okay.  Managed to stall it 8 times getting off the site I work at, but once past that roundabout I was fine.  I suspect I took some roundabouts slightly quicker and with perhaps a little less room than my instructor might have liked if she’d been in the car, but there you go.  Greté was patient and kept me safe.

By the time I got home, there was only an hour before my lesson started; and that lesson went really, really well.  Just 30 minutes driving home in the car meant that when the lesson started my overall control was already much better, I was more relaxed, and a lot calmer.  We did a lot of straight driving, talked about roundabouts, worked on my approach and control, and everything generally was just much better.  One wobbly hill-start without enough clutch,  but just generally much better.  I even filtered onto the ring road in a manner which felt far safer than last time.

So, nothing funny to say, no mishaps, no panics, just enjoyable driving for a couple of hours, with a couple of decent 60mph runs.

I think I’ll try and drive a few times a week at least, mostly back from work (nice stop/start traffic to improve my control).  I’ve said to Greté I don’t mind driving, as long as I’m not expected to talk to anyone when we get where-ever we’re going.

Theory test on the 27th – I better start reading and doing some practice on hazard perception then.

Fear of 4 Wheels – Part 7

“It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish.
Attributed to the “Old Gaffer” by Samwise Gamgee”

I love Tolkien.  He’s wordy, and turgid in places, and he’s confused and a little rambling, but he knows people, and he knows hearts, and I’m always able to find something he’s written that inspires me or seems to fit the moment.  So, it was with the following quote running through my brain, that I sat behind the wheel of our car in Tesco’s car park.

“Forth, and fear no darkness! Arise! Arise, Riders of Theoden! Spears shall be shaken, shields shall be splintered! A sword day… a red day… ere the sun rises!
Ride now!… Ride now!… Ride! Ride to ruin and the world’s ending!
Death!
Death!
DEATH!
Forth, Eorlingas!”

No just joking, it was the quote at the top of the page.  Samwise, as we all know the true hero of Lord of the Rings, has far too many sensible things to say, and none of us are fooled when he pretends the wisdom comes from his Old Gaffer.

I have started to learn to drive, and I have every intent of seeing it through.  But achieving that means fighting off the demon of self doubt, the heavyweight emotional pillar of my life.  I know that towards the end of the two hour lessons I’m in control of the car and junctions aren’t a problem, but I also know at the start it’s a different story.  I think too much, and I panic, trying to get the hand brake off, the clutch up and the accelerator down in too short a time span.  This leads to random stalling.  I know that to get over that I just need practice, and I know that I had to get into our own car to do that.  But flipping heck it’s hard making yourself do it.  So many excuses, so many reasons not to.

But thanks to my lovely wife and the support of my friends I did just that this evening.  Again, you’re probably thinking ‘man up dude’, but you know, when you learn to drive at 17 you already think you’re immortal, at 42, you know you’re not, and I’m not going to dismiss how hard this is.

However, I got in, Greté drove to Tesco, parked up, we switched seats and I had a tootle around the car park.  As expected, the first few starts were bad and I ended up in a parking bay, at an angle, with the only option to back out into the busiest part of the car park.  This was this evening’s first moment.  I could stop there and then, just ask Greté to drive home, or, I could bite the bullet, be Samwise Gangee and keep trying.

I chose a middle option, asked Greté to move the car somewhere else in the car park, and then I set off again.  Ten start stops later, and I basically decided that only an insane person would ever drive on the actual roads, and since I’m clearly insane, I took a left, a right, and another left, and the car park disappeared in my rear view mirror.

I drove towards our house at first, because that way lies safety.  No major issues with a roundabout on the way, little below the speed limit, and despite a little bit of a hiccough at the roundabout near our street, my confidence was growing.  As we neared our street, this was the second moment, the second precipice, the second point at which I could stop now.  We had something in the car we needed to take to a friend’s house, some 7 miles away from ours, but if I turned right into our street, that would be it.  No delivery, no seeing our friends.

I sailed past.  Something in my head had clicked and I was determined to at least make it half way to our friend’s house under my own power.  Even if I had to stop on the way and let Greté take over, how bad would that be, I thought, it’s still experience.  The primary obstacle to that, is the roundabout I needed to use to leave our town.  It’s often quite busy, and even when not busy it still poses a mental block.  My approach was good, t-junction approach since you can’t see traffic entering from the right until you’re very close, slow stop, handbrake on.  Perfect.  Biting point, ready to go, bit of gas – stall.

Here.

stalled

There isn’t really a worse place to stall a car on that roundabout.  All the traffic enters from the right and goes pretty much straight on, and off the left.  I had two choices now – I could panic and turn into gibbering jelly, leave the car, crying, and ask Greté to take me home, or I could restart the engine and pull away in a controlled manner.  The third and final moment in this journey.

I wanted so badly to do the former, but managed somehow to do the latter on the first try.  That was a confidence boost.  I’d basically stopped the car on a roundabout from hell, hadn’t panicked and had then recovered.

Compared to that, the rest of the trip was like falling down some stairs, pretty easy all told.  I followed the route I take to work mostly, because I wanted to try it while it wasn’t moving at 2mph, and eventually, without any other major mishaps, we made it to our destination.

Somewhere about half way through the drive, I started just knowing where the biting point was, and at that point, junctions felt easier.  But they’re still not comfortable, I’m still hoping beyond hope every time that the lights will stay green, that the roundabout will be clear without a full stop.  But that fear then drives rushing, and the rushing drives mistakes, and the mistakes drive the fear.  I basically need to just drive everywhere and get used to the fact that I can pull away at a junction, and that I can start the car in the right way.

On the way home, it was dark enough for lights, and by the time we got home, it was pretty dark generally, so I’ve had some practice at that as well.

The sweetest moment of the whole trip was putting the car onto the drive (forwards), first try, without hitting the wall or losing any wing mirrors.  I’m not sure I was in control *quite* enough for everyone’s liking, but I’ll take it.  I never thought in a thousand years I’d be able to put a car on our drive under my own steam.

Maybe, just maybe, I’ll drive to and from work tomorrow.  We’ll see.

Fear of 4 Wheels – Part 6

fozzydrivingIt’s been nine hours since we started this journey.  Nine hours behind the wheel.  Nine hours of traffic jams and stalls.  Nine hours of not knowing where the biting point is.  Nine hours of sweaty armpits and nervous laughs at junctions.  Nine hours of not quite stopping, or stopping too early, or failing to start, or going when the exit isn’t clear.  Nine hours of trying to listen and learn at the same time as controlling a deadly weapon.  Nine hours of getting home with legs like jelly, and feeling so hungry that I could eat the next person who knocks at the door.

After the first lesson, my instructor estimated it would take 25 hours to learn to drive.  (That’s ~£550-£625 worth of lessons if you’re tracking these things).  That means I have roughly 16 hours of this left if I’m going to hit that original guess.  Sixteen hours does not feel like enough time to improve to the point where I won’t be terrified to get into a car with an examiner.  Which means I am going to have to ask Greté to sit with me in our car while I do some more driving.  I can’t see any other way of keeping the cost under £1000 and keeping the time down to something approaching sensible.

If you know my wife, then I urge you – give her solace and comfort over the coming weeks, she’s absolutely going to need it.

My name is Tony, I’m 42, and I’m learning to drive.

I have drunk Coca Cola Zero, consumed food, and watched an episode of CSI, and I’m just about recovered from my two hour driving lesson.  Here then, is this week’s blog post.

I commented to friends at work that at the moment I seem to spend Monday and Tuesday worrying about the upcoming lesson, Wednesday in a state of zombie like stupor, and then Thursday and Friday recovering.  There’s just time for a weekend before the whole process starts again.  Of course, I’m employing a teeny bit of hyperbole (who knew)!  For the most part, I’m okay, but if I stop to think during the week, then I’m either thinking about the lesson that’s coming up or the one that just passed.  I try and make these moments constructive, thinking about POM (prepare, observe, manoeuvre), or MSM (mirror, signal, manoeuvre), or the sequence when coming up to a junction (mirrors, indicate, road position, speed, gears, observation, stall).

I don’t know if it helps.  Last week’s lesson was so good that I was expecting trouble today, and if you go looking for trouble you’re surely going to find it.  The first few manoeuvres were okay, but I got to a painful roundabout not far from here with rush hour traffic and just blew it.  Stalled twice, didn’t go in an obvious gap, and then tried to go a third time and stalled it again.  Eventually I played second fiddle and my instructor used her pedals to get us moving and around the roundabout.  Confidence shot to ribbons, we proceeded on our way.

I can’t decide if I just want the instructor to be quiet as we come to junctions and let me run through the stuff on my own, or if I should trust the fact that she’s taught other people to drive successfully and I should avoid messing with her system.  Now I wonder, briefly, if I should ask if she ever has taught anyone to drive.  Maybe all her students fail?  Now I’m wondering if I want to know that or not.

Anyway.

After a few miles, I got back into the swing of things, and junctions got a bit easier.  I’m drifting right at right turns, which is an automatic fail if you cross the line (I did) and I’m still not looking ahead enough at t-junctions.  There was one minor incident, where I came up to a roundabout (going right), slowed, checked I was clear to enter, and pleased with myself for not stalling, did so.  Sadly, there was an 18 wheel truck also on the roundabout at the same time, coming from the left, known generally as ‘my exit wasn’t clear’.  Known specifically as ‘SHIT! A TRUCK!’.

I slowed, and we didn’t die (much), but it kind of took the edge off the happiness I felt for not stalling.

Despite it being obvious that I can not talk and drive at the same time, my instructor insists on asking questions like, “what’s the speed limit on this road”, to which my normal garbled response translates to 30Idunno50?  Today, after the shocking start, we got to one junction and I asked ‘which way are we headed’?  My mouth was so dry at that moment, that it basically felt like someone had glued it shut.  Hearing yourself mumble, gurgle and splatch your way through the phrase “which way are we headed” is bad enough, but when your instructor says “sorry?” like you’re talking Dutch, it’s another kick in the confidence testicles.

We drove round a bit more, me trying to work some moisture back into my mouth, my instructor trying not to brake for me too often, and then headed over to a Tesco, or an Asda, or maybe a Morrison’s car park.  I tend not to look up from the road much so I’m not entirely certain.  Here, I learned the joys of reverse bay parking.  This seems like it might be useful, if I really wanted to reverse into an open parking bay with absolutely nothing else around me.  I did it three times (to the left) and once (to the right), and nailed it on every go except the first in which I was a bit wide.  I can control the car with the clutch perfectly well, move at painfully slow speeds trying to break my neck looking behind me, but when it comes to pulling away at junctions I continue to try and do it with the handbrake on, or the clutch too far up, or no gas.  Grrr, it’s annoying.

After this, we drove to some poor, unsuspecting street somewhere, and, to the great frustration of everyone who lives on the street (no doubt), learned how to reverse parallel park.  Nailed that 3 times too.

At one stage, while I was sitting alongside a parked car, basically blocking the road in both directions while I made observations (i.e. pretended to look in my mirrors and blind spots), some elderly couple pulled out of their drive and turned to come towards me.  I think I could hear their resigned sigh as they realised what I was doing, and they did a flawless 3 point turn (probably designed to make me feel inadequate), and drove off the other way.  I bet that place bloody loves driving instructors.

However, nailing the parking calmed me down, and pulling away from that and then driving home it was almost pleasant.

fozzydriving2I have decided that I know the basics now.  I’m confident I can stop, I have not once (yet) gone for the accelerator rather than the brake.  So I’m going to go with Greté to the local supermarket, get used to the clutch in our car, and then drive home.  If that seems okay, and if Greté makes it through without wanting to kill me, and I make it through without wanting to hide in shame for the rest of my life, I might try driving to and from work a couple of days a week.

Excellent news I’m sure for everyone who uses the same route I do.

I apologise in advance.

Fear of 4 Wheels – Part 5

Lesson 4 (in learning to drive at the age of 42).

Race car
This is how I felt for 2 hours …

It rained most of today, and I had every expectation of being out in the car in terrible weather.  Along with general not-fun-ness at work, I again wasn’t really looking forward to today’s lesson.  I’m even more certain now that had I cancelled last weeks lesson, I wouldn’t have gone back, such was my mood this evening.  But I didn’t cancel, and that meant I was ready at 5:40pm, which is a good job, because my instructor turned up 20 minutes early.

The rain had backed off to an annoying British drizzle, and luckily about 15 minutes into the lesson, it stopped alltogether.  That meant I never had the fun of turning the wipers on and off instead of indicating, but I’m sure there’ll be a chance at that later.  What I did have fun with, was driving.  I actually drove, for nearly two hours.  Two stalls, one sharp stop, and a little bit of uncertainty, but otherwise, two hours of driving.  I enjoyed it.  I actually enjoyed it.  I really feel that stuff has fallen into place and that now it’s purely a matter of practice and making it muscle memory.

This is how I looked for 2 hours …

I think my instructor was pleased.  She certainly seemed pleased about the lack of near-death roundabout entrances and the dearth of nose-against-windscreen moments.

I still can’t describe where we went for the middle of the lesson, but I know we got there through Beeston (around that double bend people treat like part of the street), and we came back through Chilwell.  I had the weird experience of having no clue where I was one moment, and then suddenly recognising a bit of wall at a junction, and everything shifting into place on the way back.

Pulling away was mostly smooth, stopping was about a billion times better, and gear changes were much smoother.  I think I can drive (this is probably dangerous).

The highlight of today was ‘reversing around a corner’.  Can I just say, who in their right fucking mind would ever do this?  You have to stop, potentially on a road with traffic, and then reverse into that traffic for a bit, and then reverse around a corner you can’t clearly see unless you break your neck, while also being able to check 3 mirrors and another blind spot.

Why!?

Just drive in and do a 3-point-turn for fucks sake.  I mean seriously.

I did it twice, not bad each time, I think I finally have some clutch control.  The scary thing is that as soon as I look in a mirror, I speed up because I lift the clutch so I’ll have to work on that.

Other moments I enjoyed, two roundabouts where I stopped and then pulled away without using the handbrake, just the foot brake and clutch control and doing 30mph on a road with a 30mph limit, looking in my rear view mirror and being able to see traffic as far back as the horizon.

If that was you tonight – then I make no apologies!

Also if you’re,

  1. the driver who pulled out from a left-hand side-street without stopping or looking, literally 10 feet in front of me, I hope you enjoy the change of trousers, the look on your face was awesome.
  2. the woman who tried to overtake me on a right-hand bend, you need to retake your test pet.

All-in-all, a really enjoyable two hours.  Hard work, don’t get me wrong, probably a 6 on the ‘how sweaty was my right armpit’ scale, but fun, rewarding hard work.

Fear of 4 Wheels – Part 4

PhrenologyPixToday was lesson 3 in ‘learning to drive in your forties’.  I will warn you now, this post contains emotional scenes, but no flash photography.  Also there is swearing.  If you prefer to think of me as rational, sane, and emotionally stable, you may wish to skip reading this.  If you consider the thought of grown men crying, weak, or if you believe learning things about me you don’t like will affect how you deal with me on a day to day basis, you may want to skip reading this.  If you suffer from a weak stomach, then you should do stomach exercises.

Today was a shit day at work, after a few shit days.  As I was getting a lift home, I was thinking the last thing in the world I wanted to do, was get in a car for two hours and learn to drive.  Or, if lesson 2 was anything to go by, spend two hours being frustrated by not being able to drive.  When my instructor texted me to say she was running late, was I still okay for the lesson, I almost cancelled.  But I knew if I had cancelled, I would probably find it easier to cancel the next one, and the next one, and the next one and suddenly, I’m not learning to drive at all.

So I said yes, it would be fine.  As I sat waiting though, and it got later and later, I realised a 2 hour lesson was going to mean getting in very late, and then having to sort food and other stuff.  So when she arrived (only 20 minutes late in the end, but it had taken her around 1 hour 30 minutes to get to me, instead of 40) and I went out, I asked her if we could keep the lesson to 1 hour.  She said yes, seemed fine about it and off we went.

But here’s the thing – now I’m sitting in the driver’s seat over-thinking 9 billion things at once, as well as trying to drive the bloody car.  Had I complicated her plans, was she going to be losing out on money because she could have booked that second hour slot with someone else?  Was she secretly pissed off at me?  Was she wondering why she’d driven for 1 hour 30 minutes only to be told by the client that they couldn’t be bothered to drive for 2 hours?  It’s this kind of social interaction that drives me insane (or it’s because I’m insane that this kind of social interaction confuses me).

That feeling that I’d somehow let her down, pissed her off, and made her pissed off at me stuck with me for the rest of the hour.  You’re probably laughing, you’re likely thinking ‘what a dick, why does he over-think this shit’, and if you are, you should read the rest of my blog, which gives clear indication of my neurosis, and then you don’t need to ask.

The bottom line is that if you’re having a conversation with me and you think I’m handling it, then I’m actually just winging it and hoping I don’t make myself look like a complete and utter dick, I’m aiming for ‘mostly dick’.  One of the hardest things about learning to drive, is that it requires you to sit in a confined space with someone you don’t know, and both listen to them and also perform for them.

And perform I did.  After the car park trip with Greté, I did what any good engineer does in a situation where they find themselves frustrated by being unable to control something, I did some reading.  A colleague of mine at work said much the same thing yesterday and I laughed because it’s true.  I found a bunch of websites that talk about clutch control, and driving, and I read and thought about it, and worked it through, and I finally realised what all the talk was about.

So today, after doing my cockpit drill, starting the car and making my observations, I pulled away from the kerb gently, slowly and smoothly.  Half my brain was still panicking about the social interaction with my driving instructor, but the rest was focused on a feeling of exultation as I proved to myself, the most important person in this whole learning to drive thing, that I could do it.

I really might just be able to do this.  We turned left at the end of the street, without coming to a full stop because the traffic was clear.  We drove down to a roundabout, turned right, and pulled away, without stalling, and with the car under full control.

I started to believe I might just be able to do this.  After last week, this was a massive change, last week left me feeling like it was never going to happen, but here I was, just over four hours in, beginning to think it might be possible.

We drove up towards Stapleford again, making good progress.  I had a couple of fumbles, one left turn in which I started thinking I was clear, but then didn’t get moving quickly enough, and my instructor decided I hadn’t been clear, left me poking out into the road.  I stalled it twice, my instructor ‘took the pedals’ and stalled it, but we finally got onto the road and moving.  After the apparent success on the first week, my instructor had hoped to do ‘some manoeuvres’ in the second week, which we all know means ‘a 3 point turn’.  However, the shocking start last week meant instead we stuck to just driving around.

I think my new found skill this week gave my instructor some confidence and we pulled up in a quiet road and she explained a 3 point turn to me.  To anyone who has decent spatial awareness and an understanding of how car steering works, the basics are pretty obvious, but I tried to listen without looking impatient.  I knew this was it.

This was my test.  I didn’t want to be here, my instructor probably didn’t want to be here, I was distracted, she was pissed off and there were people using the road I was on that were about to become pissed off.  But I wanted this.

I wanted to see if I could drive this car purely under clutch control.  After she’d finished the instructions (which she admitted, were more complicated to describe than they were to execute), she asked if I had any questions.  Just one, I said, no use of the accelerator at all right?  Correct she said.

That’s when it happened, I prepared the car, and then I carried out a reasonable three point turn.  My first go at reversing the car, my first go at driving totally under clutch control, and my first go at not crashing into a kerb.  From the position we finished it, we reversed straight back a bit, and then did another one.  A slight stall at the start, bringing the clutch up too far, but then I reset and off we went.  I was pretty happy.  Let’s be frank, I was pretty, fucking, happy.

Suddenly in my head things fell into place.  The only reason you’re ‘giving it a little gas’ when you pull away is because you’re expecting to be doing more than 1 mph at a junction.  In Tesco car park, pulling out of the parking spaces the other night, I’d been ‘giving it a little gas’ totally unnecessarily.  I need to go back, and just pull out of those spaces just using the clutch.  Maybe when you’ve been driving a few years you’re more eager on the accelerator because you know how the car will behave, or because you’re capable of moving away from those spaces at more than 1mph.  But I’d been getting ahead of myself, I needed to learn how to drive the car without even touching the accelerator.  As long as you don’t fully engage the clutch, it won’t stall.  It was a revelation.  It was like you’d spent your life reading about art but had never seen any.  Spent your life hearing about divine food but had never eaten any.

Well okay, perhaps it wasn’t that poignant, but it was certainly good news.  I drove back home on cloud nine.  60mph on the A52 at one stage, 5th gear.  Right turns, left turns, roundabouts, all with a reduced feeling of fear about pulling away.  Don’t get me wrong, you’d be able to tell I was a learner driver, I’m still pulling away slowly, waiting too long before getting into 2nd, changing into 3rd too early, wandering around my lane a bit, stopping 8 feet before the line, you know, the usual shit.

But in my head, I believe.  I believe I can do this.

So I got home, and my instructor said, “2 hours next week?” and the flood of social anxiety returned like a crashing wave of cold death.  “Sure”, I replied, and got out of the vehicle.  I made some lame joke about having to get used to checking in the wing mirror for traffic when getting out as a driver, where-as when I was a passenger, I was never too worried about knocking over the odd pedestrian1, and then we parted ways.

StrawberryIceI got into the house, immediately said something petty to my patient wife2, and then I went upstairs and had a little cry.  I hadn’t realised how much I needed this.  How much I need to be able to drive.  How much guilt I’ve been carrying, how much of a relief it will be to pass the test.  I certainly hadn’t realised quite how emotional it would be, how wound up I would be before lessons, and how much effect the actual lesson would have on my mood.

I may have only carried out two 3-point turns, and you may be wondering why the fuck I was sobbing like a child who’s dropped an ice cream, but I was experiencing a rush of relief of epic proportions.

This might work.  This, might, actually, work.

  1. this was a joke, after an incident as a passenger in the late 80’s when a taxi almost took the door off a car I was getting out of in a train station, I do check for cars, cycles and people before opening the door []
  2. she forgave me []