Learning to drive at the tender age of… 24

Like many of my friends, at 17 I embarked on one of the shared milestones in life: learning to drive a car.

Only, unlike them, I didn’t really take to it. At all. Being prone to anxiety, I found the whole thing incredibly unnerving (biting points though…) and rather than feeling closer to my freedom, I felt trapped in a high-speed death machine.

Within a year, I’d gone through three instructors, spend hundreds of pounds and failed a test. Then it was time to pack my bags for university – where I knew money wouldn’t exactly be plentiful.

Fast-forward six years. I’d finally run out of excuses.

I’m in a job that pays enough, I’ve (finally) retaken that pesky theory test and there are parts of being an adult that I’m missing out on. My friends live further away, career opportunities are closed off – and I want to move in with my boyfriend. He doesn’t live that far, but the idea of relying on him or buses to ferry me about didn’t really appeal to the ‘independent woman’ in me.

It was time to get back in the driver’s seat. Literally (…obviously).

Clutch down, in to first, mirror, signal, manoeuvre

I spent a long time trawling through driving schools. Being a little older now, price wasn’t the determining factor so much as a school that had great reviews – especially from nervous drivers. I was keen to not lose momentum and was looking to start in a few weeks. I settled on a school, and all too soon my first lesson rolled around.

And I was panicking. Even though I knew I was barely going to do any driving, my palms went clammy and I was desperately trying to remember the pedals, the gears, the processes. Argh!

My instructor arrived – he was only a few years older than me. I couldn’t decide if this made me feel better or worse (on the one hand, someone I can relate to… on the other hand, he’s passed his driving test, trained as a driving instructor and had experience SO QUICKLY ALREADY OH GOD).

My first lesson simply involved a bit of familiarisation with the car, practising gear changes and junctions. I came back absolutely thrilled. I drove a car. No-one got hurt. The car was still intact. Instructor seemed cool. Happy days!

The long road ahead

As the weeks went on, there were definitely good days and bad days. Some days I got introduced to manoeuvres and did them right first time (come at me, reverse around a corner), other days, I couldn’t even turn left out of junctions safely.

There was one day that I could not for the life of me get round this one corner without mounting the kerb. The noise the car made as it thumped back onto the road coupled with my own embarrassment and disappointment was too much. On those days, I often felt that perhaps I just wasn’t cut out for this. I was often at fault for speeding, and even carrying out manoeuvres too quickly. I was basically always in a rush to get this driving business over and done with.

Eventually though, my instructor felt that I was up to test standard. By the time it rolled around, on a lovely sunny morning in early August, I’d been practising for about five months. I was nervous but quietly confident that I could get achieve the outcome I wanted. I’d only told a few people about the test and was hoping to deliver some good news. My test was at 11.11am (which is supposedly lucky?). I felt good.

I had a lovely, simple route and an examiner who didn’t seem hellbent on putting me under pressure. But stalling the car at a busy double roundabout wasn’t my proudest moment. I should mention here that earlier in the week, my instructor’s car had been hit by another driver – so I had to learn how to drive a completely new car the day before my test. I hadn’t stalled a car in six years when it happened in my test.

We parked up at the test centre.

“I’m sorry to say you’ve not passed your test today. Would you like your instructor here for the briefing?”

Damn.

Scraping together a smidgen of confidence

If anyone reading this has ever failed their driving test, they’ll know that it can come as a pretty crushing blow to your confidence. Aside from realising I’d have to spend more money on practising , I felt that my goal was so far out of reach. That I’d never pass this damn test and if I did, it was going to take me about eight attempts and by then I might as well just wait for these jazzy self-driving cars to come in and save me the hassle.

Still, I re-booked my test. My instructor got his previous car back and we practised the test areas, the different manoeuvres, my awareness of speed (the reason I actually failed, not the stalling!). This time, however, I was not feeling so positive. I was convinced I would fail.

I knew I desperately needed to change my tune and believe in myself. The night before, I even downloaded a hypnotism podcast specifically about the driving test. It was essentially like guided meditation – and it was a really, really weird experience. I’m a bit of a sceptic, so I’m not sure I went ‘under’, but I felt a little odd afterwards, for sure. I tried to get some rest – and obviously, because this is me, I slept terribly.

The dreaded driving test

My test was at 8.10am. A gorgeous, sunny morning in September. No-one except my boyfriend knew I was retaking my test.

I was nervous about rush hour traffic and busy roundabouts. In my warm-up lesson I almost hit a cyclist. The sun was low and impacted my vision. Five minutes before my test, the car alarm started shrieking and nothing my instructor did could stop it.

I was the last one in the waiting area when the examiner called my name. A small, quiet woman who sternly told me to put my theory certificate away (why do they insist we bring it with us?!) and took my details. The car alarm had been silenced. We were ready to roll.

Not to exaggerate too much here, but the route we took was about a million times simpler than my previous test. My manoeuvre went swimmingly and this time, no stalls on busy inner-city roundabouts.

After willing the time to PLEASE JUST GO FASTER, finally, the ordeal was over. I had the general feeling that it went better than my previous two attempts, but you can never be too sure. My instructor walked over from the test centre as I switched the engine off, turned to my examiner and braced myself.

And the result is…

“Well, Viki. I’m very pleased to say you’ve passed your test today.”

You’ve got to be shitting me. I was barely awake. I was so scared the whole way round.

“Really?!”

(Side note: I have a habit of asking people in a position of power or authority if they really mean what they just said – like every single time I’ve been offered a job. Anyway…)

She forced a smile as I grinned and gave my instructor two thumbs up. He looked elated. My face flushed and tears pricked at my eyes. Determined not to embarrass myself, I held it together and waiting for the briefing.

“Right then, if I could just take your licence, we’ll get that sent off for you.”

I looked at my instructor, confused. Wasn’t this where I’m meant to be told what to improve on?

She handed me my certificate and marking sheet. It was completely clean.

“No minors,” my instructor smiled.

Viki stands next to the car with her certificate

So there we have it. That’s my happy little face at 9am (and that doesn’t happen often). This is the part where I say something really wanky about you can do anything if you put your mind to it – but it’s true. For those of us who feel terror at the thought of being responsible for a giant metal death machine (ahem, car), it is truly staggering to be able to drive one.

So there we have it. If I can do it, anyone can.

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