Driving: The home stretch?! Can this really be it!?

I almost made my driving instructor cry today. In a good way. I’m about 60 hours in now and if my lesson had been a test, I’d have passed with three or four minors. I got a clap at the end and a shoulder squeeze, which is acceptable tactile behaviour for a driving instructor, as opposed to a tickle in the ribs while you’re on a dual carriageway. (For those who don’t know the story, yes, this literally happened to me when I was 19 and came close to taking my test, until I moved to university and from a decent instructor to the archetypal bit-of-a-perv. I wish I’d reported him but I didn’t know how, blamed myself for being kind to him, etcetera. If social media had been around back then I might’ve had more encouragement).

When I first decided to blog about learning to drive I wondered how often I should update. Weekly? Fortnightly? Monthly? The fact that large parts of it are a repetitive and tedious bum-ache has largely taken care of that question. For us clever-with-words-and-stupid-at-everything-else people who know we’re not going to pass in under 20-30 hours (the UK average is 50, FYI), from then on it’s largely consistency. You know the mistakes you make (your steering is too shuffly sometimes, you hesitate at roundabouts, you’re “just a liiitttle bit close on the left there,” your focus takes a mo to recover after a manoeuvre) but you keep making them and you just have to keep going until you stop making them. My instructor says my clutch control is better than some of his pupils who’ve taken more than one test; I know the right gears for every point of every tricky hill but I still manage to bugger up first-lesson stuff related to spatial awareness. As for roundabouts, they’re my continual nemesis and my town has some of the worst ones in the UK outside Swindon. I wish I could slow them down like you can slow someone’s voice down on a dictaphone when transcribing interviews…

Inconsistency has been the irritating watchword the last few weeks. After a test-standard lesson sometime back in May I had a dip in June, including a scary lesson where I suddenly lost muscle memory and kept meeting first gear when I wanted third. Not a good look for a main road, and quite a blow when gears and clutch control are normally a strength. We had to drive up and down back roads until I got it back. I worked out this was down to tension in my wrist and to having driven three different cars in the space of a week as I’d practised parking in both my parents’. For the last couple of lessons after that, I just seemed to be blah-ing along with partly-good/partly-bad lessons that left me wanting to cry with frustration and sheer boredom (sorry, Twitter followers). Today’s was The Breakthrough I’d been waiting for. I aced hill-starts and didn’t fail at roundabouts I still have a bit of residual fear when I’m changing up to third gear and have to do therapy-talk to get rid of it, but no more muscle memory problems. I even did quite a good reverse around a corner, which is my worst manoeuvre because I was never taught it when I was young (I cancelled my test when the aforementioned pervy instructor tried to teach it to me just before I had one booked, with predictably awful results)

I started last June wanting to pass by this Christmas, and I’m still happy with the test being a Christmas present. I need the practice for my nerves, and we still haven’t done the big dual carriageway on the test route which he’s been saying we will for at least three months. But everything looked a bit closer today – including my licence!

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Highway Star: In which I finally find time for a driving blog post, which seems to require a Deep Purple song reference…

As plenty of you know, I’m currently 32 and learning to drive. Combined with freelancing, looking for contract work, Pilates, training for the London 10K in May, and trying to finish writing a book, also by May. (Doing things by halves, as ever. Might pop over to the IMF later and see if Christine needs a hand with anything….).

I’m now seven months (about thirty hours) into having lessons, and at the consciously-incompetent stage, which is the stage between “Yay, I drove and didn’t kill a child” and “Oh balls, not killing a child isn’t enough to be proud of anymore. I actually have to understand roundabouts and filter lanes, will I ever.” It’s the “I’ve come a long way but gosh, there’s still a bloody long way to go” stage. The stage where thinking about the sheer number of reasons it’s possible to fail a driving test is enough to make you want to move to an abandoned island for reasons other than political…

Since October, when my instructor suggested I book a test for January and I replied “LOL HELL NOPE”, I’ve been putting off having the conversation about how things are going and when my test is actually going to be, in a way that indicates why my longest relationship has lasted months. In the summer I hope, but my instructor is now being as specific as Theresa May on Brexit. Generally the very “best” learners take under 20 hours, the UK average is around 50 and the weakest can take between 80 and 100. His record is 140 hours and counting. I can’t even begin to imagine affording so many, so I bloody well hope that’s not going to be me (Oh, and a tip: Don’t look at online forums for learner drivers. They’re full of teenagers who think everyone learns in under ten hours – I had enough of that circa 2001, thanks). 

The good news about driving is that clutch control – which many dyspraxic people struggle with to the point they’re recommended automatic cars – is dead easy for me and I’m pretty confident using gears (well, except sixth gear which I forget exists and don’t use. Car, you’re a learner Citroen, not a Maserati; get over yourself). I was also taught three-point turns and reverse parking a lot when I was much younger, before moving north to university disrupted my learning, hence I can do those pretty fine, once I’ve mapped out the reference points and remembered which key principle applies to which manoeuvre (I can almost remember how to do a three point turn better than I can remember how to spell manoeuvre, and I’m a copywriter and journalist…).

Driving is also helping me become a more decisive pedestrian because I realise how unnerving it can be for a driver when people hover by the road not sure whether to cross, or nonchalantly stroll out without looking. And I’m better at trusting that people will stop for me when they’re supposed to, even though drivers regularly zoom up to the pedestrian crossing near where I live as though it’s a pit stop.

My nemesis in driving (and life generally, pretty much) is spatial awareness. Although it’s improved a great deal with age, thanks to a decade of walking around with music in my ears, five years of semi-often Pilates classes, and two years of road running, it is still emphatically Not My Best Feature. It manifests as clipping my elbows/knees/ankles on things more than most (although no injuries from running, touch wood). On the road it manifests as being told I’m too close to the kerb quite often, and making a hash of finding a sensible place to pull over beyond the stage when I probably should.

Specifically the most difficult bits for me right now are steering and roundabouts. I’m starting to work out the small ones OK on my own, but the big multi-lane ones are still a salad. I did some of the massive ones quite fearlessly when I was younger, or I must have done because I drove a lot and got quite close to test standard (during one of the worst mental health periods of my life, incidentally). But I had a hairy incident on a busy one last time I learned at 25, so that’s probably stayed with me. The steering issue is just odd. Apparently in my yoof I was not properly taught the proper 12-to-6 steering technique which affects a number of other things. It’s coming, but has taken lots of drilling in.

My instructor has the right combination of pedantry and nonchalance to teach me (He’s dyslexic himself, and I’ve learned to handle his occasional left-right indecision without panicking. (“Take the next road on the left – no, actually right.” “Right. Are you sure?” Yep.” “Still sure?” “OK”)  He works me hard on my weaknesses but equally makes sure I know when I do something well. And he doesn’t indulge me when I’m being a drama-llama, although, vitally, he understands why I am (Understanding anxiety without either playing to it or dismissing it is really important, FYI). I’m trying to absorb his mantra – essentially, be patient and get on with it, try not to overthink  it – even though it goes against my nature in the way that modesty goes against Donald Trump’s

Here’s to the next six months or so. With the emphasis on “or so.”

All driver tips on dealing with roundabouts gladly received.

Oh, and just to clear something up while I’m here…

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Max Learns To Drive: Part One of Many…

“So, London Marathon done and dusted. What new hobby can I bang on about endlessly in a bid to squash my feelings of social inadequacy and incompetence next?” I wondered.

I could just keep doing the same thing and running more Marathons in more places (the single woman’s equivalent of having another baby every two years…). But, I didn’t get “The Bug” from it. I’m thrilled and proud that I did it, and I’ll still happily run the Berlin Half Marathon next year just for kicks, but I currently have no desire to run a full one again. As far as other projects go, there’s the book, but I’m too shy to talk about it much in case I jinx it like my others. In the longer term, as I’ve said, I’d like to do more directly mental health-themed work, and possibly a counselling training, but a lot of organisations – rightly – have rules that you can’t train or volunteer until at least two to three years afterwards if you’ve been affected by a suicide or a significant mental health dip, so that’s out for a while longer.

One too many frustrating experiences with buses in recent months have pointed me to my answer. My next big Thing should be learning to drive again. Less than 5 per cent of the world’s population have run a Marathon and I have. Half of UK adults drive and I can’t. When you put it like that, it’s a bit silly, really. The need is seeming increasingly urgent for me and for many people my age who are being priced out of London, the only city in the south of England with public transport vaguely fit for this century.

The problem here (i.e the reason I’m nearly 32 and still can’t do it) is that learning to drive is really quite expensive, and I’m really quite bad at it. If you wanted to dream up something to make me feel as horrendously useless as you possibly could, you’d probably invent driving. The last instructor I had was younger than me and several of my cousins’ children have passed their tests before me. Literally every skill driving requires in abundance I find singularly difficult. The clumsiness, lack of spatial awareness, poor short-term memory, poor sequencing and slow information processing might be OK if I wasn’t also enormously sensitive to people having a go at me over all the above. And if all the above didn’t make it so buggeringly impossible to concentrate for more than a minute. And if I hadn’t moved around the country so much with so little money, meaning I never settled down anywhere long enough to learn and pass. I’ve had a ragbag of instructors over the years from the very first who almost gave up on me before I gave up on him, to the one who was really good but then I moved away, to the archetypal flirt who thought tickling me while I was driving down the main dual carriageway out of Durham was a good idea…

If you didn’t know and hadn’t gathered, I’m dyspraxic, and driving is pretty universally a nightmare for us. So much so, I wrote an article about dyspraxia and driving for the Daily Telegraph in 2011. All bar one dyspraxic I’ve ever met either doesn’t drive or found it super-hard to learn. The one strange anomaly, who I met coincidentally through non-disability-related journalism a few months after that Telegraph article came out, said it came naturally to him and even claimed driving was one of his two only real talents (the other was playing the drums, apparently…an intriguing skillset for a PR). But he was a bloke and a master of fake bravado so who knows what to make of that. He also grew up in the countryside, pre ‘elf n’safety, and so, like my clumsy dad, probably learned to drive go-karts and Land Rovers off-road before puberty. That always helps.

My first “try-it-and-see-how-it-goes” lesson is this afternoon and I would honestly rather run another 26 miles or do a skydive. As a handy reminder to you all and to myself, here’s why I’m doing this…

  1. Convenience – No more journeys to the next county that involve three methods of transport and take longer than a flight to Barcelona? Yes please.
  2. Work – The big one. I’ve known radio silences from prospective clients to occur when the phrase “public transport” comes up. God knows how many opportunities have never even occurred to me because I can’t get to them…
  3. I hate being the only person over 20 and under 60 on the bus except for someone reading David Icke.
  4. Being fed up of explaining to inquisitive strangers why I don’t drive. I don’t mind on principle. I’m not ashamed of being dyspraxic. But that doesn’t mean I want to talk about it every time I meet someone. I’m not ashamed of being a woman but I don’t particularly want to discuss my smear tests with late-night taxi drivers, or a stranger who’s organising a conference…
  5. To help friends who don’t drive for other medical reasons by being able to get to them, and drive them around.
  6. I’ve found a local instructor who says he understands people with neurological conditions, and is himself dyslexic. This is an absolute dealbreaker. (And a miracle).
  7. I’m a sensible adult and am ready for this responsibility. Well, perhaps not, but at the very least, I love nobody capable of sending a distracting text or tweet that’ll lead me to crash my car bonnet into someone’s house. And I almost always wear flat shoes so I won’t be that ninnykins who tries to drive in heels either…
Not Me
Try a Google image search for “car crashed into front door”; it’s fun…

The last time learning to drive crossed my mind I actually pitched the idea of a column about it to a few national newspapers. A couple literally said thanks but no thanks. A couple more said “Nice idea but sorry love, no-one’ll read it because you’re not well known enough.” One really liked it but her boss with the pursestrings didn’t go for it. But, the success of my Marathon blog has persuaded me it might be worth blogging this too. I may get so despondent after a while I don’t even want to blog. Or I may call it quits after the first lesson. Who knows? Whatever happens next, I’m dead keen on hearing from other thirtysomethings who are learning or have learned recently. Do say hello!