Refresher Lessons: Getting Back on the Road

Another morning at the kitchen sink, where my reflection in the window greets me with a little more decency thanks to a lie-in (if you can call 8am a ‘lie-in’). It’s Saturday, which made it daddy’s turn to supervise the domestic destruction carried out by the twins at daybreak. As I fill the kettle, I gaze out onto the street purposefully ignoring my parked car under the tree.

I am watching out for a different car, whose imminent arrival is already making me feel a bit uneasy. The car I am expecting belongs to a new driving instructor coming to take me out on refresher lessons. I opt for a tranquil herbal teabag – the adrenaline is making my heart fidgety enough as it is. As the warm tea softly brews, I reluctantly glance at my own dusty neglected car. It is now adorned with spiderwebs around its wing mirrors, like a layer of frizz that might form on the hairline of a hospital patient held captive and immobile in bed for too long. It’s a sad sight.

‘Are we going for a drive today?’
‘No, sorry. I’m going out with someone else.’

Red Light

Given my history with previous instructors, I had been really worried about booking refresher lessons and had put it off for many weeks. After a few internet searches during what my little son calls ‘BBD time!’ (he means ‘DVD’), I had finally settled on two local names. It had only occurred to me later that both these instructors were women – probably my wounded subconscious influencing my decision-making. Once I had finally plucked up the courage to make contact, only one was available. Her friendly and relaxed profile picture depicted her leaning nonchalantly against a nice, clean, shiny, happy-looking car, which I am now looking out for from my kitchen vantage point. I sip at my tea and immediately feel the need to use the toilet. Again.

I had wanted to feel as ready as possible for my refreshers lessons. I had listened to a guided meditation the moment I woke up that morning, breathing in confidence and exhaling fear before I’d even brushed my teeth. Other preparations had begun many weeks earlier, such as going for evening runs around a beautiful local nature reserve (thanks to ‘Couch to 5k’, I am now converted) as well as dusting off my old copy of The Artist’s Way to help me revisit much missed creative hobbies before falling into bed at night. I had even deleted my Facebook account and put an end to watching any nonsense TV.

As a queue of cars gathered behind me, too polite to beep or flash (a welcome change from London drivers), I imagined that I was driving a race-track security car tempering the speed of Formula One drivers during a downpour.

It was all working. I was feeling more like myself and much less stressed. But there was one thing that still remained out of reach: sleep. As the twins were still only occasionally experimenting with the notion of uninterrupted sleep, there was not much I could do to remedy the situation. I had yet to discover how feeling exhausted would impact my experience behind the wheel, and I was worried. I felt a tiny hand on my leg.

‘Mummy? Wha’ doing?’

My little boy twin had ventured into the kitchen covered in pink yogurt. I spotted the instructor’s car turning into our street and I felt compelled to take slow deep breaths through the nose to keep my heart rate steady before it reached the house. Yogurt twin looked puzzled.

‘I’m just breathing, my little monkey,’ I replied, stroking the impossibly soft hair on his perfect little head.

‘Well done, mummy!’ he squealed, before his bare feet thundered back out into the hallway where daddy was waiting with a flannel. Hearing a bit of praise, albeit from a two-year-old mastering his limited repertoire of random sentences, gave me just the boost I needed.

Cobwebs-500x394

Easy Does It

The gleaming Ford Fiesta 1.0 Ecoboost pulled up alongside my dust-pan of a car and my instructor, Stephanie, smiled as I walked over to meet her. I had decided not to disclose anything about my driving phobia, but she was aware that it had been years since I had driven and that I was way out of practise. We agreed that we would start by driving round the quiet streets to get used to the car and to see how much I could remember.

I drove slowly and cautiously, while Stephanie remained respectfully quiet, somehow sensing that chitter-chatter would not have been welcome. She was calm, kind and approachable and I felt immediately at ease in her presence. I was surprised at how smoothly I was driving, despite my shoulders inching up to meet my earlobes. The car felt so swish compared to anything I had driven before. It was comfortable, quiet and lovely to drive. There were fancy features on the dashboard that were alien to me and which I mostly ignored. I impressed both Stephanie and myself by finding the biting-point without much difficulty as we arrived at a t-junction on a slight incline. Mirrors, signal, gently on the gas – it was all coming back to me.

‘This is great. You’re doing well,’ she gently commented. Only this time, the praise threw me into a slight panic and I inexplicably performed an unscheduled emergency stop, stalling the car and propelling us both forwards into the grip of our seat-belts.

‘Ah, no,’ she said, ‘that’s not necessary in this situation.’

No kidding, I thought. I wanted to laugh, but instead I took a deep breath and continued driving at a snail’s pace. My mental wiring was obviously still a little off, but my personal victory was that I didn’t let it upset me. As a queue of cars gathered behind me, too polite to beep or flash (a welcome change from London drivers), I imagined that I was driving a race-track security car tempering the speed of Formula One drivers during a downpour.

Confidence Crash

My second lesson a week later was much less positive, to put it mildly. Buoyed by the relative success of my first lesson, I decided to take the bull by the horns and agreed to practise a spot of motorway driving. I have no idea what had gotten into me. Stephanie, still oblivious to my secret driving phobia, seemed to think I was ready.

As we approached the slip road, I was suddenly gripped by fear and I lost the ability to accelerate or fathom the gear stick. Stephanie quickly intervened and tears shot up into my eyes. I don’t recall how we joined the motorway, but once we were cruising in 5th gear down the inside lane, I remember whimpering ‘I’d like to go home now please.’ She must have been surprised to see this grown woman reduced to the status of a homesick child at an overwhelming, sugar-fuelled birthday party from hell. I was unable to look at her so I couldn’t tell what she was thinking, but she remained calm and professional and somehow we made it home. It was all a bit of a blur.

Naturally, it was time to come clean. As we sat in the car outside the house, I told her all about my phobia.

‘I’m actually really terrified,’ I told her.
‘But you’re a good driver,’ she remarked.
‘Do you believe that some people just aren’t meant to be drivers? That they’re simply not safe on the road?’

She couldn’t answer me. We agreed to try again in a couple of weeks and she suggested I take my own car out, early on a Sunday morning, for a quiet solo drive. A case of ‘getting back on the horse’, I guess.

As I walked back to my front door, exhausted and deflated, the thought of riding a crazy wild stallion actually seemed like a much more appealing option…

 

Driving Instructors: My Ghosts of Lessons Past

It’s another chaotic early morning, made even more challenging after a night of hourly negotiation meetings with the twins, the only item on the agenda being PLEASE GO BACK TO SLEEP. I find myself at the kitchen sink again, filling the kettle, with no memory of how I got there. I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the kitchen window and I wonder how the kids aren’t terrified of me. I blink a few times and an even scarier sight comes into focus. My car, parked in the same spot, under the same tree, posing the same question…

‘Are we going for a drive today?’

Steering

Since deciding to tackle my fear of driving, I had plucked up the courage to unlock the car and sit behind the wheel the night before (a baby-step recommended by Joanne Mallon in How to Overcome Fear of Driving). Even the act of picking up the car key had felt strange and, believing myself to be completely unqualified to even hold it in my hand, I had walked to the curb feeling like the world was watching me. I took my place in the driver’s seat, breathing in the faint familiar scent of my mother’s hand lotion, and quietly rested my shaky hands on the steering wheel. A fluttering of butterflies came to life in my stomach, settling down once they realised we weren’t going anywhere.

It was a quiet evening and the street was still. With no engine rumbling or AC blasting, a surprising sense of calm filled the car. I broke the silence by fiddling with a few switches and levers, setting off the windscreen wipers and flicking on the headlights. I adjusted the seat and mirrors. The interior was spotlessly clean, with only a few remnants of my mother’s previous ownership to be found: a window scraper for icy days, a disused sat-nav holder, a neatly folded high-visibility vest. No cash (I checked). I found the car manual in the glove compartment and half-heartedly skimmed through a few pages.

If you’re battling with a driving phobia, the thought of starting the car and driving to the end of the street feels like being asked by NASA to fly a space shuttle around the moon, with only a diagram drawn by your six-year-old nephew as instructions. I knew that if I had any chance of turning the key in the ignition, I would need to book refresher lessons with an instructor, which I was dreading.

I persisted with the lessons and eventually booked my first ever test, failing it almost immediately by driving over the curb as I left the test centre.

Learning to drive had been a very ‘stop-start’ (too soon for a pun?) experience for me that had spanned over 15 years. My history with driving instructors has been patchy, having encountered three of the commonly found instructor archetypes:

  1. The Creep
  2. The Patronising Old Git
  3. The Bore

The Creep

I started to learn to drive in Belgium where I grew up. My first instructor was a chain-smoker somewhere in his 40’s or 50’s (it’s all the same to a 17-year-old), who would pause the lessons at roadside cafés to buy me coffee and offer me cigarettes. Assuming we were stopping to discuss parking techniques or road signs, I was horrified when he told me how much he was going to miss me at the end of the course and that he would enjoy driving by my house to look for me. Thankfully, he had made no physical advances on me, but the atmosphere in the car had become bizarre and uncomfortable.

Once I had clocked up the compulsory 20 hours of instruction that allowed me to drive unaccompanied for three months on a provisional license, I was eager to distance myself from this man and start enjoying my summer with Baby Charlie (the name I had inexplicably given to a small red Honda Civic). Unfortunately, I was a badly taught and inexperienced driver, who had become tense and anxious at the wheel in his unsettling presence. I was subsequently careless and jumpy driving Baby Charlie around, getting into bumps and scrapes on a regular basis and suffering tirades of abuse from other drivers. At the end of the summer I left home to study in the UK, leaving Baby Charlie behind.

The Patronising Old Git

Now in my twenties and living in London, it seemed that despite living in a city with no real need for a car, everyone I knew had a driving license. I signed up with a local instructor who sported a similar look to Captain Birdseye but shared none of his friendliness. He adopted a ‘master and commander’ approach to teaching, barking orders and chastising me for rookie mistakes. I felt mortified on my first lesson when, having been taught to drive on the left, I instinctively stretched out my right arm to change gear and smacked my hand against the door. He let out a loud sigh, lit his pipe and called me a ‘silly girl’.

I persisted with the lessons and eventually booked my first ever test, failing it almost immediately by driving over the curb as I left the test centre. Captain Birdseye hung up his driving gloves and promptly retired.

The Bore

My next attempt was a decade later, still in London, with an instructor who had posted the notice Nervous Drivers Welcome on his bland and boring website. My anxieties about driving had now been exacerbated by the devastating news of a friend’s fatal car accident. Panic attacks and nausea had become commonplace for me at the wheel, and I came to be afraid of other drivers as well as my own apparent inabilities to stay in control.

I had hoped someone bland and boring would be the yin to my yang, but I found the detailed descriptions of his weekly meal planning (oven chips with everything) infuriating and distracting. On top of this, as an instructor he had very little patience, which brought his website branding into serious question. I booked another test and failed it, this time by carefully stopping outside the test centre at a red light which, as it turned out, wasn’t intended for my lane. An improvement on last time by about 45 seconds, not enough to convince me I had any hope of becoming a qualified driver.

Back in the parked Polo on my quiet street, I silently congratulated myself for having at least persisted over the years, albeit sporadically. I reminded myself that not all instructors are as creepy, condescending or impatient as the ones I was unlucky enough to encounter.

In fact, had I needed a piece of paper to prove that I was qualified to drive, I already had it. In an unbelievable turn of events a few years ago, I had finally passed my driving test in London with a clean score sheet, not even a minor fault (a result that had really annoyed my husband who, up until then, was the only one in the family to have held claim to that achievement).

It had been thanks to a calm, patient and quiet driving instructor from Tottenham called Keith. ‘Let them fly,’ he’d say about other drivers who were eager to intimidate and overtake me. ‘Don’t speed up, slow down. Let them fly, if they want to!’ (he was unintentionally quite profound like that). His relaxed and unflappable nature was contagious and his preference for silence was fine by me. When it came to booking my test, he knew which test centre to pick at exactly what time. Luck was on my side, for once, as the examiner asked me to perform a turn in the road within five minutes of setting off to avoid a slow rubbish truck. With my preferred manoeuvre out of the way early on, the rest of the test felt calm and manageable. On that incredible day, the tears, the cards, the messages of congratulations, I felt I had finally defeated my nemesis. I hadn’t.

Keith had got me to pass the driving test, the rest of course was up to me. The relief of never having to deal with the weekly pre-lesson panic felt incredible. So naturally, I had rewarded myself by completely avoiding the driving seat altogether. Big mistake. The thought of having to find another instructor and go through the pain of taking more lessons has brought back the butterflies…

Whilst researching this blog, I asked 20 friends if any of them had experienced inappropriate behaviour from a driving instructor. Eight of them told me that they had, two of them with more than one instructor, with reports ranging from lewd comments and knee fondling to physically grabbing their hands and slamming them onto the steering wheel. A recent report by the DVSA revealed that between April 2016 and March 2017, there were 109 investigations into instructor misconduct in the UK, which included ‘inappropriate sexual behaviour and other offences’.

It’s safe to say that there are probably plenty more incidents that were never formally reported. The DVSA has pledged to crack down on such cases, but it’s up to learner drivers (younger students especially) to recognise the signs of unprofessional teaching and feel confident about speaking up or, at the very least, changing instructors. Perhaps in this current age of high-profile sexual misconduct allegations, today’s teenagers are more aware of what is unacceptable behaviour. I hope so.