ARCHIVE PIECE: Hell is learning how to drive



Instructors with BO problems, undiplomatic language in telling people they’d failed and a refusal to conduct the test through Irish: just some of 1700 complaints about the driving test received by the RSA in 2018.

Some objections were disturbing, some a bit histrionic, and at least one – the chap who allegedly lay flat on the passenger seat, thus weirding out the testee – was downright surreal. For myself, as someone who crashed and burned in spectacular fashion during my first driving test, I think my primary complaint would have been this: couldn’t you have invented a time-machine and gone back a decade to order me to learn how to drive in my teens?

You see, I was one of those people who left it late. Twenty-nine when I started learning to drive, and as anyone who’s taken up guitar after about 20 will attest, certain things are much harder the older you get.

I don’t know if it’s to do with brain wiring, muscle inelasticity or age-related laziness, but it’s a fact. Learning to drive was probably the most difficult thing I’ve done in my entire adult life.

I’m not just talking about the test, which is what most people moan about the loudest. That first fail was a horrendous experience, for sure, but funnily enough, when I did the resit 10 months later, I sailed through – by that point I’d been driving long enough, and well enough, that I knew it’d be fine.

I’m talking about the many, many times I thought (or wailed aloud), “I’ll never be able to do this!”, and really believed it. I think it was my wife who gave me the solid advice, “Everyone who keeps at it is eventually able to drive. Just keep telling yourself it’s nothing more than a serious of simple mechanical procedures.”

Which, after all, is mostly what driving entails. Turn key, depress clutch, into gear, ease off clutch and nudge accelerator, and off you go.

After a while it becomes second nature; you’re almost driving with one part of your brain while another part has a conversation or watches scenery roll past.

I do understand why city-dwellers never learn to drive: there’s no need much of the time, and it must be even more stressful when surrounded by thousands of vehicles, having to master both the car and a bewildering array of signs, lights and lane changes.

But I’m very glad I did, mostly because it gives you a tremendous sense of psychological freedom. If worst comes to worst – say there’s a zombie apocalypse, coupled with a global ebola pandemic – at least, you think, I can get into a car and move myself somewhere else. You’re not reliant on trains, taxis or getting a lift.

Anyway, now that I’ve been motoring for 15 years, I’ve learned a thing or two. So I’ve worked up five “rules of the road”: key pieces of information every wannabe roadster should know. This isn’t information that’ll help you pass the test – but once you’ve got that precious little card, please bear in mind:

  1. You will almost certainly never have to reverse around a corner. This is, for some reason, part of the test – as far as I can recall, an inability to pull it off resulted in an automatic fail – but it just doesn’t happen in real life. You’ll always be able to go forward, do a three-point (or five- or whatever it takes) turn, and bob’s your uncle.
  2. Parallel parking is impossible. I’ve driven around for ten minutes to find a space I can drive or reverse into, because I simply cannot parallel park. I don’t actually believe anyone can, it’s all a myth.
  3. Driving is one of the best ways of listening to music. Something shapeless and atmospheric is best: electronica, jazz, orchestral soundtracks. Really makes you feel as if you’re in a movie, en route to some thrilling and potentially deadly rendezvous. At the moment I’m rocking a compilation album of Depeche Mode remixes, which gives a cool, Blade Runner-esque futuristic vibe.
  4. It’s pointless getting upset or enraged at other drivers. It’s pointless shouting: you’re both encased in steel-and-glass bubbles, they can’t hear you. It’s pointless giving them the finger, they’re not looking. We still do these things anyway. And yes, the cliché is true: anyone else driving slower than you is “that idiot!”, anyone driving faster is “that maniac!”
  5. Everyone, even careful and experience road users, is prone to reckless behaviour. In the last month alone I’ve witnessed drivers overtaking on squiggly bends, closing their eyes for five seconds to win a dare, lighting a cigarette and changing the CD while steering with their knees, answering calls on their mobile, making calls, sending texts, checking the internet for weather updates, and reversing at speed without using the mirrors. Or the back window. Or looking around at all, really. Granted, that driver was me, but you take my point. So be careful out there.

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