A friend of mine is building a website for a driving instructor. It took me straight back in time.
A good driving instructor teaches you far more than how to choose gear, steer and complete a three point manoeuvre. They teach you how to pay attention to what’s going on around the car as well as inside it. They teach you about how to not kill people with the deadly weapon you are in charge of.
I signed up for an intensive driving course and paid for it with my birthday money when I turned seventeen. It promised to take me from total beginner to license waving driver in a week.
On day one, the instructor turned up at my front door and put me in the driving seat. We spent the first hour in the cul de sac my parents lived in, going forwards, stopping, going backwards, stopping and so on. Then he took over the wheel and took me to a bigger estate where there were more cars to avoid and we did more of the same. Before I knew it, we were on the open road.
He shouted at me when I didn’t slow down enough driving into a big bend. He’d growled at me to go faster barely thirty seconds earlier, so I was confused when he kept changing his mind. I learned the areas I was likely to be driving in for my test. I learned that certain hills were “third gear hills” and that certain roundabouts were “make sure you stop” and some weren’t.
As it turned out, these were not the things I was supposed to be learning. There’s no such thing as a third gear hill. There are hills that lend themselves to being climbed in a lower gear, but you cannot actually go from barely moving to climbing that hill in third gear, you need to work through first and second. The intense nature of the course, and the frankly terrifying at times way the instructor delivered his version of it were not teaching me to drive safely.
On test day, I was a nervous wreck. I felt completely unprepared, but unable to verbalise how seriously bad an idea I felt getting in the car with an examiner was.
I failed with four major faults, two of them for nearly causing accidents on the same set of roundabouts – one on the way out of the test centre and the other on the way back in. I could have killed people. My driving instructor must have known I wasn’t ready, that I wasn’t safe, but he put me in that test anyway.
Can you imagine if I’d passed?
The whole experience traumatised me so much that I wouldn’t even get in my car for months afterwards.
I was at boarding school and being able to drive home for the weekend would have been extremely liberating, but the fear was real. Then my room mate started learning with a local instructor, who had come recommended by one of the other girls in our year.
I had the money, I just needed to be brave. I went out to meet him when my room mate walked out to have her lesson. He was calm, smiled with no hint of weirdness (teenage girls attract and notice a lot of weirdness in the way some men smile at them) and he looked like a dad.
I asked him if I could have a lesson to try and get started again.
It was worlds away from what I’d experienced before. In the hours I spent in the car with Chris, he took me from traumatised to confident. By the time we agreed I was ready to do my test, I was actually ready. I talked to my test examiner while we drove around the town, and the entire atmosphere was so relaxed.
I passed with flying colours. Whilst the learning and testing process doesn’t quite prepare you for parking in multi-storey car parks with pillars or fighting for your right to hold a stopping distance on the motorway, a good driving instructor will keep you and thousands of other people you interact with on the roads alive for a lot longer.
That was 25 years ago and I still thank my lucky stars every time I get behind the wheel for my patient and calm driving instructor.