Lone Driver: Life After Refresher Lessons

‘You either take a (BEEP) or get off the toilet,’ my sister told me on the phone. We had been discussing my recent refresher lessons, my neglected car and whether I could bite the bullet and drive it just once around the block.

I knew it was time. I had just returned from the supermarket with another puncture in one of the buggy’s tyres and, with two growing twins and a load of shopping, it had taken a gargantuan effort to push it home. The wind was against me as I walked along the main road, leaning into the side of the buggy so that it didn’t veer off the pavement. I could almost hear the pity coming from every vehicle that drove past us, as if they were gossiping about me in a secret automobile language.

When we finally got home, I was ready to collapse. My little Polo was waiting for us under the tree, with a fresh blob of bird poo on its roof and a collection of dead leaves around each of its wheels.

‘Are we going for a drive today?’
‘Not now. Buggy’s blown a tyre.’

Tyre-500x332

I had taken five refresher lessons in the end. The cocksure part of my character had imagined (or, perhaps, hoped) that I would only need three, but my instructor and I decided to go heavy on the motorway driving to try and conquer my slip-road discombobulations. During my last lesson, I must have joined the motorway a dozen times, coming off at each exit so that I could turn round and practise joining it again. I wouldn’t have managed this alone or with a friend or relative. My instructor, Stephanie, was great at giving me emotional space and, more importantly, clear directions.

The story goes that it takes 21 days to break a habit. I only had a one-hour lesson to convince my brain that motorway driving was nothing to be afraid of. Whilst I had no idea whether I was heading north or south, joining the motorway did begin to feel a little less terrifying. But let’s not get carried away; a low-level residual panic could still throw my gear-logic out the window every time I fretfully fumbled my way into the flow of motorway traffic.

Whilst I have become pretty good at mending our beloved off-road buggy, car maintenance is currently beyond my capabilities, and it would take more than a few online videos to get me to pop open the hood and tinkle with the dipstick.

I didn’t expect to feel ready to pack a bag and embark on a road trip up to Scotland but, after the final exhausting lesson, it did occur to me that the time we had spent driving back and forth between two motorway junctions could have been spent driving to my sister’s house or even half way to the coast.

Surely I could take my own car out for a drive around the block?

twins 2-400x267twins 3-400x267

A few days later, on a bright Sunday afternoon, I picked up my cars keys and casually told my husband that I was going for a drive. He was busy in the garden watching the twins as they frantically threw themselves (and each other) down the slide. He must not have heard me properly over the squeals of joy and screaming tantrums, because he just said ‘OK’ before rushing to moderate a very heated disagreement about the correct direction of slide-traffic.

As I left the house, feeling jittery and tense, I could hear the garden dispute escalating into hysterics. I opened the car door and sat at the wheel, regaining my composure by humming a song from ‘Moana’ (the kid’s current favourite movie).

Once I had closed the door and fastened my seat belt, it was just me and the stillness of the car. I took a deep breath and, grinning at my sheer gritty determination to get going, I turned the key in the ignition.

It was therefore a huge disappointment, but perhaps also a slight relief, when the engine failed to start. Whilst I have become pretty good at mending our beloved off-road buggy, car maintenance is currently beyond my capabilities and it would take more than a few online videos to get me to pop open the hood and tinkle with the dipstick. But I’m no fool – I knew it was the battery. It was as flat as the buggy’s tyre and my now deflated mood.

And so I returned to the house, immediately gravitating towards the kettle and adopting my wistful pose at the kitchen window. It was only then that I noticed the tree, under which the car had remained parked for so long, had completely and utterly died. Perhaps the car’s neglect had spread to its roots and it had tragically failed to bud into life, just like the devastating darkness that spread across the ocean and infected the coconut groves on Moana’s island village after the heart of Te Fiti was stolen by Maui (I might have seen it too many times).

And so, as the kettle gently simmered, I began to channel my inner Moana and thought it could be an appropriate moment to break out into a stirring song about triumph in adversity, overcoming self-doubt and set-backs. After all, what she wanted most in life was to be a voyager (yes, I’ve definitely seen it too many times).

But instead I made a cup of tea and looked up the number of the breakdown service.

Tree

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.