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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