I have always avoided driving lessons as I live on a bus route into town and it’s expensive. But I was fed up of being stranded at bus stops and train stations.
The last straw was missing a friend’s wedding due to the three buses there and back.
Luckily around this time an acquaintance was overjoyed at passing her test. She gave me her instructor‘s number and I nervously called him up. He was booked up for the next month but came highly recommended so I said I’d wait.
I’d forgotten all about it when he rang. I booked for that Saturday afternoon! Watch out drivers, and pedestrians for that matter.
I had visions of me swerving all over the road, stalling multiple times and possibly doing myself and the instructor permanent injury. The last time I’d driven had been bumping along a farmer’s field in a battered Bedford van, with my father clinging to the door handle shouting “SLOW DOWN!!!” “CHANGE GEAR!!” and it culminated with me forgetting the braking procedure and flooring it with the clutch down. But that was ancient history…
I wasn’t expecting to drive as my friend said she had just been spoken to for her first hour. I had waited so long to start learning that I wasn’t anxious, just excited. I met the smiling grey-haired, smartly dressed man and he drove off. So far so normal. But then we stopped behind a parked car. He got out. What on earth was he doing?!
“Well get in” he said, grinning. Did he not value his life? I hoped this wasn’t some kind of crash course. Shouldn’t we be wearing helmets?
I was now nervous and went round to the previously forbidden seat. It felt weird to be behind the wheel instead of beside it.
John explained the moving off procedure. We were to go round a parked car and stop in front of it.
When I’d watched people drive it just seemed to be a case of accelerating to go faster, braking to stop, steering and putting the clutch down to change gear. How hard could it be?
But suddenly he started talking about the side mirror, the “sense” mirror, cyclists, pedestrians, biting point, changing between the gas and the gear pedal, indicating, steering, watching for oncoming vehicles and my heart started pounding and the sweat started running down my neck.
Following his directions I checked the mirrors, waiting for a clear road. I could already imagine a car coming up unseen while I was trying to work out what to do with the pedals. That would be it, my life over on the first lesson. Game over. The end.
I pushed the indicator the wrong way. How were you supposed to remember whether up was left and right was down? He changed it for me. My arms were so stiff with nerves that I couldn’t steer gently. I swerved out and he corrected the wheel for me. He helped me steer round the car and then told me to stop. He put the indicator on the right way for me and I checked my mirrors. He hadn’t mentioned how hard I needed to brake so naturally I just assumed that you simply press the pedal fully-down immediately.
There was a pause. “I think I’ve got whiplash” he said, a little rosy-cheeked.
Surprisingly he persevered and I learnt to brake gently and gradually and co-ordinate the clutch with the accelerator. We even went up to 30 miles an hour from 15. Every time I was on the road some impatient driver would be tailgating, angrily glaring into my mirror. I jerked the accelerator a bit to get away from one and John said “look, I don’t care if they honk their horn, you maintain your speed and forget about them, everyone was a learner once and they can overtake if they want.” Still, I didn’t like it. We headed out to the countryside and I nearly had a heart attack when a tractor appeared out of nowhere over the hill towards me.
“Hang on, you’re going into the ditch” he said, helping me with the wheel. I was terrified. My arms were as flexible as tree branches and glued to the wheel in the quarter to three position, my eyes fixed on the road in front, my ankles aching with tension, my clothes sticking to me. I was yanking the gear-stick about madly and the clutch kept disappearing from my foot as the instructor took over.
“Careful, you’re going into the side of the road again” he said. “You don’t know how deep that puddle is so don’t go there.” From the passenger seat it looked like the car was always on the left of the middle line. It isn’t. It’s right on it. It looks like you’re driving in the middle of the road but the instructor assured me this was correct and you aren’t. Every time a vehicle came towards me I thought it was going to hit me.
“You were scared of that tractor weren’t you” he said grinning. I nodded.
“Keep your eyes on the road” he said, grabbing the wheel as I relaxed a bit and looked at him. I didn’t do that again.
Then he tried to teach me how to come out of a closed junction. I don’t like them as there’s so much to keep in your head to do. There was someone tailgating again and he was saying a string of instructions, something like “clutch, brake, mirror, look, indicate, slow down, go further forward you’ve stopped too soon again”. I had a brain freeze so he took over.
It was much faster than a bicycle and more responsive. I had the sensation of being on a horse when it jumped and felt pretty powerless, trusting that I was doing it right. It is pretty scary when you’re in something which appears to move of its own volition with very little direction from you. It had been drilled into me that cars were dangerous. They killed you or other drivers. When I was in sixth form a girl killed her friend by going too fast over the hill I was going over now, crashing into the wall at the side.
The second time I got in the car I felt more confident and couldn’t wait to have another try. I’d almost mastered clutch and accelerator control so we did more complicated manoeuvres. I went round a deserted landscaped island to get roundabout practice. These back roads were nice and quiet. I didn’t like other vehicles. You didn’t know what they were going to do and that scared me. You knew where you were with an empty road, no need to panic.
We did turning right across oncoming traffic. I realised that once again my clothes were sticking to me. I was particularly scared of cyclists and waited for them to whizz past, checking that there weren’t any more anywhere. I stopped in the road to turn and he put the indicator on and took the wheel off me, steering us in.
My heart sank. There was still a long way to go but it was only the second lesson. There was another risky moment when we came out of a side road and I swerved a bit, not knowing to move the wheel back earlier. Then I over-corrected and almost went into a car waiting in the side road on the left.
I realised there was a lot to think about. People make it look easy but it’s not until you’re doing it yourself that you see there is quite a bit of preparation to do to pass a test.
Apart from that all went well and I got unintended hazard perception training when someone almost stepped into the road without looking. Luckily I’d anticipated that and had already slowed down. It could’ve been much worse – a learner driver was actually caught up in a shooting in August. Driving is a lot about anticipating and as a cyclist I was good at assuming that all people, pedestrians as well as drivers, were thick.
We went up to fourth gear with me happily cruising at 40 miles an hour. “You’re at the upper limit, no faster than that” John said. “You’re a thrill-seeker aren’t you, you love a bit of speed I think.” I was surprised to hear that, going fast was scary because I had turned the wheel a bit too sharply before and the car had veered out a little in my lane, something which didn’t happen at lower speeds.
I did two types of hill starts beginning in first and second gear. They were nice as you didn’t need to find the “biting point”, the sound the car made when it was ready to go.
He is putting his car in for a service due to learner drivers (he also has physio every three months for whiplash) who drive him up the wall (and round the bend), but hopefully I’ll have my third lesson on Saturday afternoon.
I might watch the BBC’s “Barely Legal” drivers programme for tips.
Watch out road users…