Learning to Drive in Your Thirties
I got home from my first diving lesson and checked my Facebook. A status update caught my eye: “to the f*cker who took his student out on a lesson in peak hour and drove 20 kms/h down Brunswick road, you are a f*cker”. It’s my friend Amy. And I know I am the one she is talking about. But while at the mature age of 32, I should be teaching, I am the student. The child. The babe. Total babe.
Are you one of those people who got older and just kept putting off getting a licence? It’s one of those things we can fall into a trap of avoiding to learn, like how to poach an egg, or what the difference between a greyhound and a whippet is, or knowing how to fold a fitted sheet. You get by in life without adding that skill to your card. It can be inconvenient, but as someone who has lived in the inner city since escaping Ballarat aged 17, I’ve always managed to do without. Friends and ex-girlfriends would probably point out that this miracle was achieved through constant, obliging lifts whenever I needed to get somewhere further than the local café or carry something bigger than my head. However, they’re not writing this article, I am, so ignore them.
For me, it got to the point this year where enough was enough. Public Transport was constraining, legs were growing slow and old friends' sighs became more and more audible. Also, as a bike rider, everyone wants to kill you.
Thus, I felt compelled to join the motorized hordes driving this planet to extinction. I’m not going to lie to you, learning when you're older is harder. Your brain is muddled, your fuddy duddied and new tricks aren’t easily acquired. But you can still do it. This is how I did it. I hope it helps you, or you send it to a friend you think might benefit from it.
I found a chap, with the rather charming name of Garry Clues, a man of rotary clubs and well-kept beards. While I planned to get one lesson and then learn with friends, it was apparent any aspiring driver needs many lessons. So, Step 1: find a chap (or chapette) and get many lessons. At least 10. They’re about $60 each. They will leave you broke, stressed and feeling like an infant. Kind of like seeing a Lars Von Trier film. The lessons became my weekly dread.
Tip 1: Get a manual car. Driving an automatic is kind of like being in coma. You sit there like a dumb slug doing not much. Manual drivers are doing stuff all the time and that will make you feel important. What’s more, it gives you more shit-boxes to choose from when you need to buy or borrow a car.
Tip 2: Get lessons at 11am. You’re outside the school hours when special speed limits apply, which you will miss, and you avoid a portion of idiots in massive cars ferrying their indulged progeny to their carefully selected schools. I believe the kids are the future. The future of driving lesson failure.
Tip 3: Don’t stall. If you’re an automatic driver this is not an issue. But as real drivers, we have signed up to a vehicle that needs to be constantly stroked (engine revved) or it will decide to just switch itself off (but not too stroked or it’ll sound like an angry cat made of metal). Stalling is one of the most humiliating and despicable on-road moves you can pull off. The only thing worse is travelling in a pink hummer. I stalled on the Lygon St tram lines and Garry wasn’t impressed. Luckily instructors have their own controls and he was able to hurtle me to safety.
Which brings us to Tip 4: Don’t stress. The more you stress, the more you screw up. It’s a vicious cycle and just remember you have a teacher beside you. They know best, they will help and guide you and carve you into a road warrior. You’re friends can’t do this, they will have forgotten most of the road rules as rules only slightly matter when you actually have a license.
But also don’t relax. Tip 5: You have to check everything constantly. Check your mirrors. Do head-checks (looking out your mirrors to see the things you can’t see). Check your speed. Check your revs. Check your gears. Check your lights. Check for pedestrian lights. Check your indicators. Check every single sign you pass. Check for oncoming traffic when turning (that one's reasonably important). Don’t check out that hot person on the sidewalk. Somehow do this all at the same time. At first, like I said, you feel like a behbeh. It’s all artificial, and none of it comes naturally. With lessons it becomes habitual.
Then there is parallel parking. Never has slotting in between two things been so unpleasant. Tip 6: Here is the simple process of a reverse parallel park: indicate, pull up next to a car with a space behind it, reverse back, turn the wheel once to the left, drive back, then turn once to the right, then drive back, then turn right again, drive back, then turn to the left (bring your wheels straight), drive forward until the back wheels of the car in front of you. Start cursing, because despite understanding all these moves your park will still look like a crooked tooth in angry mouth made of cars and bitter disappointment. Keep practicing. When you are forty you will nail it. The good news for the test is that they will never jam you in between two cars, there'll always be a space of around three.
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And the day of the test will come. Mine came last month. Testing usually involves two parts: a computer simulation hazard test (in Victoria, it is a frustrating, out-dated nightmare of a computer game that is so bad and non-responsive they set the pass score to 54%).
But it is the actual driving test is the tricky part. Here’s how it goes: Firstly they ask you to put your blinkers on, then your high beams, your window spray, and your hazard lights. Then they take you out on the road for a few stages; it takes around forty minutes. At each stage they tally up your score and tell you whether you should keep going. There are three types of score: immediate fail events, critical errors (get more than two and you fail), and general errors (you can’t fail on these, but they will talk to you about them afterwards).
I failed my first test at stage 1 after a number of criticals. I didn’t head-check enough, missing a truck and potentially killing us all. Then after my parallel park, I tried to take off in second gear and with the handbrake on. I stalled. I regretted the coffee I had before the test. Tip 7 Don’t have a coffee before your test.
Afterwards I came home and almost cried. Almost. I took an instagram photo of myself. As you can see, I look pretty depressed.
I avoided booking another test, but then received an angry text from Garry.
I booked another test.
Tip 8: Get an instructor that will push you and challenge you. To practice for my second attempt, with my passenger-door-gripping housemate in tow, I drove my new car for four hours out of the city and into the country. I passed back through Ballarat, the city I escaped from many, many years ago to a life of bikes, public transport and looking really cool 24/7.
And then something beautiful happened that crystallized why I was putting myself through all this. A song came on the radio. It was the Rolling Stones' ‘ Satisfaction’ with Mick Jagger belting out:
When I'm drivin' in my car
And that man comes on the radio
He's tellin' me more and more
About some useless information
Supposed to fire my imagination
I can't get no, oh no no no
Hey hey hey, that's what I say
As the lyrics played, I enjoyed an experience that I’d never had before. The lyrics were literal. They had never been literal. The synchronicity of this moment motivated me. I was going to get some satisfaction.
The next test rolled around and was set for peak hour traffic. During the test, I chewed on my lips and sucked my cheeks in and did a few things wrong. I was convinced I’d mounted a curb (immediate fail) and I got stuck tailgating a slow moving cyclist on Nicholson St. The poor child kept looking back at me wondering why I was planning on slowly killing him. Afterwards we sat waiting for my testers result. This time I passed.
The sense of achievement and alleviation you will get from passing is hard to parallel. After around $1000 on lessons and tests, I could be trusted on our country's roads. I felt accepted, welcome and like a fully functioning adult. Garry said his goodbyes and I sat down to wait for my temporary licence (and paid another $50 fee). To my right, at the counter, I noticed a lady with her husband having a discussion over the counter. She was told she passed, despite making a few errors.
She sat next to me and I noticed she was crying. I turned to her and said, “Congratulations on passing. You must be relieved”. She nodded and smiled. Through the tears and with limited English, she said “three, third.” I replied, “Yes, it was my second time”. “No”, She corrected, “Three years. 20 times”. I stared at her astonished and congratulated her again. I was so happy for her, I almost started crying as well. It was getting intense but the moment was interrupted as Vicroads called my name and I went up to receive my life time achievement award (at that least how it felt).
I now have my P’s. If you want to learn to drive, I hope this has helped encourage you or a friend to go get your license as well and open up new worlds, opportunities, speeds and speeding tickets. Just don’t get your first lesson in peak hour.