Learning To Drive When You’re Not 16

Car upside down.
Not optimal…Image via Wikipedia

Can be scary as hell.

Fun piece in The New York Times by Frank Bruni about his recent re-learning to drive and take a driver’s test, decades past the age of 16:

This is a cautionary tale. Like too many harried New Yorkers without cars or much cause to use them, I let my driver’s license expire — in October 2006. Then, in an unlucky development the next May, I was pick-pocketed. The double whammy of an expired license that I could not physically produce meant I could no longer right the situation with a written exam and a vision check. I was effectively 16 again, on the hook for a five-hour class and the dreaded road test, which I came to fear I’d never reach, given the labyrinth of civil-service incompetence, bureaucratic nonsense and simple misfortune I had tumbled into. Kafka could have had a field day with me.

Granted, the stakes weren’t so high. Many people don’t drive, and on most days, not having a license hardly inconvenienced me. But there were vacations and work assignments that required rental cars — and travel companions fed up with my inability to share the burden.

Bruni had to re-learn in Manhattan, which is indeed one of the scarier places to drive. Cyclists swerve and swoop in front of you and pound on your vehicle if they think you’ve transgressed their trajectory. Deliverymen and couriers ride on the wrong side and head straight for you, forcing you into the wrong lane where you, too, can have and/or cause a really bad accident. Hand must be ready to honk horn at all times. Decide, immediately, when it’s OK to cross the intersection and squoosh in behind the furthest vehicle — and when you’re going to get stuck there, blocking the box, liable for a very expensive ticket.

I learned to drive when I was 30, in Montreal, a city whose drivers are every bit as aggressive and impatient as Manhattan’s — but in French and with some very steep hills. I was taught to drive stick.

One night we were on a hill, in the dark, during rush hour. I can’t shift gears because I can’t even find the damn gears!

I started cursing. The instructor cursed back. We finally got up the hill and around the corner.

“You’re such a bitch!” he shouted.

“You’re a terrible teacher!” I shouted back. “I’m only being a bitch because I’m so scared of having an accident. If you were a better teacher, this wouldn’t be happening.”

That cleared up, from then on we got along great.

Like Bruni, I was terrified of taking the driver’s test, especially since I was going to be tested on an automatic, not stick shift. I’d never driven an automatic transmission car and here it was, in French. I got in, stared at the gear shift.

“P…that’s Park, right?” I asked. Thank God she answered, and didn’t flunk me on the spot.

I’ve since driven in a few places legendary for their danger: a mo-ped in Corsica, a rental car in rural Mexico, at night through Kingston, Jamaica (other side of the road.) I think I’m proudest, so far, of parallel parking in Dublin, which felt like doing a back dive it was so totally disorienting.

When did you learn to drive? Who taught you? Was it scary for you, too?

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7 thoughts on “Learning To Drive When You’re Not 16

  1. Doug

    I enjoyed your story.

    How did I learn to drive? My father is an ungifted but enthusiastic handyman/mechanic/appliance repairman/glazier. I learned to drive hauling him to the emergency room. Got pretty good, too. Wowed ’em at driver’s ed when I got my learner’s permit at 15.

  2. Ouch! What a way to learn to drive…trying to mimic an ambulance at legal speed.

    I didn’t need to know how to drive for many years, as I grew up in Toronto and Montreal, which both has cheap, safe, plentiful public transit. Plus taxis and bikes. Then I fell in love with a man who lived in NH and I had to commute there from Montreal if I was to see him. I got my license quickly after that.

  3. Suzanna

    Well, my mom took me out to drive. Once. I think she might have secretly stolen away to the ER that day in the throes of heart palpatations. My father also took me out, once. After I turned and drove down the wrong lane of a small two-lane road, which he patiently let me do for oh, a mile or so before gently suggesting I move to the correct lane, he also may gave gone to the ER because I don’t recall seeing him for several hours after we returned home.

    That was really it for the parental edumacation. After that, I went to driver’s ed at a highschool the next town over. After some experimentation with the brakes in the parking lot of the highschool, I managed not to kill us all, passed parallel parking with some clandestine hand gestures from a boy on my team while he rode along in the backseat, and lo and behold, 15 years later, I only have one speeding ticket and zero “my fault” accidents. Ever. (For the record, someone backed into me in a parking lot once.)

    I suppose there’s something to be said for jumping in with both feet. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have figure out how to sneak off to the ER in 6 years when my daughter is old enough to drive.

  4. I remember my Dad trying to teach me — I was then about 26 — in the parking lot of school in the small town where he lived for a while. I had no idea what I was doing and, driving around in circles, watched the little kids freaking out because, since I was an adult, I MUST know how to drive….and what was this?!

    In Quebec when I lived there, you were legally required to attend driving school, for which I was grateful as neither my Dad or stepmom even tried to teach me seriously. As a reporter, not having a driver’s license is like not having hands.

  5. Sarah

    I took driver’s ed from my Japanese teacher at my local high school when I was 16. I didn’t get my license until I was almost 18 when I got my first job. In the interim, I had one parent that was terrified to let me into the driver’s seat of her car, and the other who got back too late for me to legally drive at the time. Consequently, when I took my driving test, I almost didn’t pass because I literally got less than 30 hours of practice time in that year+ that I was out of the class.

    My dad gave me his old car when I started college, which I wrecked in my first accident (rollover off the interstate). I currently drive a stick shift, which I was never trained on, so I was learning while I was driving in traffic getting to work how to not kill my car when I tried going from stop to go. Even now, I wouldn’t claim to be an amazing driver, but since there’s little public transit around here, I don’t have much of a choice but to get behind the wheel everyday and hope 🙂

  6. A rollover!? And you still drive? I admire your guts, although I also know there are many places you simply need a car to get around.

    Maybe make some time on the weekends to do some practice? I first learned stick driving on the Blue Ridge Parkway at 65mph…fun!

  7. My favorite uncle, who bought expensive cars but could only afford a buck or two on gas, taught me to drive on upstate New York country roads when I was thirteen. Family stories about Uncle Jerry were in abundance. A railroad engineer in the 1950’s, when that was an occupation a boy could aspire to, Jerry taught me to drive on a 1958 Oldsmobile Model 88 – the famous “Rocket 88.” That car ruined me because I have never driven a car that could approach it in legend. All my aunts and uncles have died and my mother is ninety one. She blames my uncle, her youngest sister’s husband, on giving my aunt syphilis. No validity to that. Tom Medlicott

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