Monday, September 05, 2011

Some thoughts on driving.

After 2 theory test, 4 practical tests, 6 instructors, 7 years of lessons and thousands of pounds, I have finally managed to pass my driving test.

I started learning when I was 18, driving around country lanes to the county town where the test route was. I liked national speed limit roads and my friendly instructor, hated traffic lights and roundabouts, and went off to uni nearly ready to pass my test.

That first term at uni, I had some lessons with an instructor that was a friend of a famly member, and promptly freaked out because driving in a big city was so different to driving in a small town. I had to deal with flyovers, hill starts on huge junctions and merging with what felt like a sea of traffic. After an unfortunate incident with a bus, a slip lane and changing lanes, I went home at Christmas with a practical test booked, but I had lost my nerve.

I didn't take my test that Christmas, and forgot all about driving until after university. Why would I bother? I had little to no money to pay for lessons, I lived in a city with a relatively good bus network, especially the Uni Link buses that catered for students especially well. When I got my first job, I could easily cycle to work, and cycled all over the city with ease, getting huge calf muscles again in the process. Besides, cars are bad for the environment aren't they?

But once I'd been working for a while, and moved in with Tom, being able to drive seemed more attractive again. I wanted to be able to get myself to floristry courses as there seems to be none in Southampton. I wanted to be able to vist friends in far flung places without taking Tom, and I wanted to be able to consider jobs a bit further afield. It didn't seem fair to be making Tom my personal chauffeur, even if he did look smart in gloves and peaked cap.

So I booked some lessons. The first instructor in Southampton had a grubby car, made me drive through Saturday morning traffic during my first lesson, and I came home and sobbed for an hour after. Driving makes me feel sick. I can't work out how to do somethings because they don't seem intuative to me, and I find judging distances incredibly hard. I felt awful all the time I was learning to drive because other people seem to find it so easy, and I find it so hard. Even now.

This instructor began cancelling lessons, and not returning my calls, telling me his wife was ill in the end. The next instructor was an older guy, with a shiny new Fiesta, diagrams in laminated pouches, and worksheets for me to take home. He got me to drive round in circles in a quiet carpark until I stopped hyper ventilating on our first lesson, and was just nice all round. Then he had a serious illness, and stopped teaching for a bit. I was heartbroken.

So I asked around for recommendations, and a friend of a friend gave me a number. This guy had an older Polo, and kept telling me to drive faster, don't hold people up. I would go out to practice driving with Tom, think I'd got the hang of it , and then have a lesson and go to pieces. I think our personalities just clashed, and when he told me he was fed up of teaching me, I sacked him off.

Well so much for independent instructors, I thought. I'll try a big name. A friend had just passed a test learning with BSM, so I gave them a call. They had a good discount offer on when I rang, and I arranged a trial lesson to see if I would get on with the available instructor. So I waited outside work in the drizzle for 30 mins, an hour, an hour and a half. No show. I called the BSM call centre and they were unable to get hold of the instructor. So I asked for my money back. They sent it back after 3 emails and 2 calls minus a ??10 admin fee. I decided I couldn't face fighting it further.

Finally, a colleague passed their test with the AA, so I tried them. Steve was the instructor available, and he kindly agreed to let me continue learning in my nearest test centre area, rather that his usual one, even though it must have added significantly to his commute. He was kind and friendly and calm. He made sure I knew when I was doing something right, as well as telling me when I got something wrong which helped build my confidence. And because of his great attitude, I began to even look forward to my lessons.

Would you believe, the first test I took was with Steve? None of the other instructors had got me to a level where they thought I was ready! The first test I failed for stopping at an amber light and making the guy behind me stop quickly, which I blame on nerves. The second I failed for not checking my blind spot when changing lanes on a big roundabout. The third I failed for getting too close to parked cars when going downhill with cars coming the other way, 20 seconds away from the test centre.

When I was researching learning to drive, I noticed not many people tell you about the time they pass their test, so I thought I'd go into some detail. I had an older lady examiner, who chatted to me on and off throughout the test which really helped put me at my ease. Right at the beginning of my test, as I was turning right on a roundabout, someone approached the roundabout from the left very quickly and nearly pulled out in to me. I did an emergency stop and thought I'd failed. The examiner asked me if I was ok, and gently prompted me to continue.

During the independent driving section, we went around the suburbs, mainly going through large roundabouts, which involved some lane changing. My manouever was a turn in the road, which was done on a very quiet side street. When I was asked to pull up at the side of the road, as they like to do on the tests, the examiner noticed I was panicking a bit, and asked if I would like to take a few deep breaths before starting off again. On the way back to the test centre, we came across some unexpected road works, and the examiner apologised for sending me this way.

I passed with 3 minors. One for going too slowly in a national speed limit section, one for being too cautious pulling out of a junction, and one for braking too soon at a set of traffic lights and having to creep forward. When she told me I'd passed, I burst out with "Oh my God" quite loudly, which made both my examiner and instructor smile.

So now, Tom is making me drive everywhere when we're together as he's currently using our car to get to work. I drove to Portsmouth on A roads yesterday, and am going to have some motorway lessons soon. I still don't like driving, but at least now I've joined the ranks of normal people.

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