Sweaty palms. Quickening pulse. Heavy breathing. A first date?
No, it’s learning to drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road.
I’m usually grossed out by faux inspirational statements, but am intrigued by the phrase ‘do something everyday that scares you.’ I like the idea of being brave enough to try new things- and consider driving on the left firmly in the ‘scary’ category. Actually, I probably just scared everyone else on the road.
It’s a gripping experience. Literally. I remember sitting in the car clutching the steering wheel and psyching myself up before every journey by saying the directions out loud. “Ok. First, you are going to turn left out of the parking lot, where you will stay on the left side of the road. Then, you are going to yield to the traffic at the roundabout and take the third exit….”
Roundabouts are everywhere and especially scary things when you aren’t used to them. Sometimes there are six or more exits! You can mentally hear Benny Hill music as you drive round and round trying not to get hit. We take for granted how much of our everyday driving is on autopilot. It’s unnerving to fight the natural instinct that you are doing something dangerous.
Anyway, between the roundabouts and driving on the ‘other’ side of the road, I avoided high traffic hours. I didn’t see a Tesco in broad daylight for months. I grocery shopped late at night with all the other weirdos... and bad drivers.
It took nearly six months of actively thinking and giving myself out-loud directions while driving before the palpable fear began to dissipate.
Interestingly, the UK will let you drive on your US drivers license for a whole year after you move there. After 12 months on the roads, I felt the whole license situation a bit anti-climactic. I’m not a danger to anyone now but I sure as hell was 11 months ago when I regularly swerved to avoid on-coming traffic.
Like many things in the UK, the driving test was expensive and time-consuming. First, you study ‘the code’, a tome of road rules. Then, you book a written test where the first available date is over two months away. Next, you (should) book time with a qualified driving instructor to help iron out any bad habits you might have picked up. Finally, with a passing grade on the written test, you can schedule your driving test with the DVLA. I’m pretty sure getting a medical degree is less complicated.
So, I picked up the code and read a little bit every night for weeks. The written test date arrived. It was a combination of multiple-choice questions and a hazard test video where you need to click the mouse when 'dangerous situations' presented themselves.
I did not pass that first test. Apparently, I’m an aggressive clicker and that resulted in an automatic fail. I had to repeat this entire sequence, including paying the fee. I know why many Brits are wary skeptics. It’s the process of securing a license that jades them for life.
Oh, but wait, there’s more. Don’t forget there is a physical driving test too.
I’ve been driving since I was 14 so I’ve got nearly 30 years under my belt. Also, as mentioned earlier, I had been driving in the UK for almost a year. I did not feel that I needed lessons. Ok, maybe the reverse parking bit, but other than that, no.
The driving instructor and I did not hit it off. First, I did not have ‘L’ plates on my car. For my American friends, ‘L’ plates are learner plates, which identify your lack of skill and serve to warn off other drivers. They are also worn by brides-to-be during bachelorette (hen) parties.
I explained that I was still on my US drivers license. She was not impressed. “You MUST have L plates on your car for the driving test” she informed me with a sniff. “Didn’t your driving instructor tell you that?” I joked about how I was in my 40’s and didn’t think that would be necessary. Big. Mistake. Her eyes widened. “Oh, everyone needs driving lessons. Why, my mother wouldn’t pass today’s test without lessons.” I’m pretty sure there was a veiled insult in there somewhere.
Not surprisingly, I failed the exam. She explained (a bit too gleefully, I must add) that I was not checking my mirror first before signaling and after six incidents, it was an automatic fail. “You would know that if you took lessons,” she muttered as she walked away.
After that humiliation, I signed up for a two-hour session with a local instructor who pointed out all my faults while trying to make small talk. A bit like being around my ex mother-in-law. Well, it did the trick. I passed the next exam, although I did need to attempt the reverse-into-a-parking-space part twice.
I celebrated with friends down at the Boathouse that night. I held up my ‘diploma’ for photos. I was so proud of overcoming my fear and all those obstacles.
Yeah. So, we just moved back to the US recentlly where I promptly drove out of the Starbucks parking lot on the wrong side of the road. The woman in the other lane just lifted up her hands giving me the universal symbol for ‘Exactly what in the hell ARE YOU DOING?’
She didn’t recognize the inspiration. I’m doing something to scare myself, and others…everyday.