Advice for a nervous and inexperienced adult driver?
July 28, 2010 10:41 AM   Subscribe

I'm 23 years old and I can count on one hand the number of times I've been behind the wheel of a car. I've been fortunate enough to live my whole life in a city with really good public transportation (Portland) and I have my learner's permit, but I'm not at a point in my life where not being able to drive is becoming a problem. What's the best way to start solving this problem? I don't have easy access to a car to practice - is signing up for a class worth it? What are some things to look for in a driving class?
posted by anonymous to Travel & Transportation (28 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have easy access to a car to practice - is signing up for a class worth it?

At least in NYC, the school provides not only the car in which to practice, but also the car in which you take your driver's test. So, for you, this is not just the best but probably the only solution.
posted by griphus at 10:43 AM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah - I'd find a class. I've known several people who have learned to drive in their post-teen days, and most of them have either had a friend teach them (with access to a car) or gone the class method.

If you can find a course that is for older drivers, even better, though I'm not sure about the availability of that kind of class.
posted by SNWidget at 10:45 AM on July 28, 2010

Hey anonymous,
I was in your boat until very recently. Lived in New York from 17-22, never learned to drive and then moved to Austin. Whoo boy, not driving kind of sucks here. Here's what I did: Got a learner's permit (so you are one step ahead). Signed up for private adult driving lessons with a company that got good reviews. They were wonderful, taught me everything I needed to know in about three lessons and then took me to the DMV to do the test with their car. Following that, I practiced as much on friends' cars as I could, but that was a bit difficult, like you said. Finally bought a car in January (a year later) and discovered that I basically knew what I was doing with a little coaching from friends.

So, my advice? Sign up for private adult driving lessons and get your license as soon after as possible. The next time you get behind the wheel, you will be surprised at how much you know. Memail if you want to ask more questions!
posted by Polyhymnia at 10:49 AM on July 28, 2010

Oh wow, I was just helping a friend deal with this (after my disbelief he grew up in America, in an American city, and never learned how to drive).

Driving is not a big deal. It simply is not that hard to learn. It is just one of those things that really relies a lot on experience: learning how traffic behaves and responds to you, learning the feel of when to merge, when to turn, etc. Nothing can help you but practice.

My friend was just like you. He did not have access to a car to practice with, did not need to drive anywhere and didn't have any foreseeable future need to drive anywhere. I assured him that if he ever needed to drive anywhere the 6 months he spent learning how to drive 3 years ago would not be that useful, and if he ever gets transferred, just learn when you get there.

When you're dating someone with a car, or otherwise have access to a car you can practice with, sure it would be a great time to learn. Otherwise, hold off unless you simply want to learn (and then factor in the costs, as if you were learning how to fly, etc.).
posted by geoff. at 10:50 AM on July 28, 2010

Otherwise, hold off unless you simply want to learn (and then factor in the costs, as if you were learning how to fly, etc.).

On the other hand -- and my mother was the one who kept telling me this so it may be wrong -- if you do end up somewhere you need to drive, the three years of idle time will look to the insurance company as a 3-year-old perfectly clean record and will lower your costs.
posted by griphus at 10:52 AM on July 28, 2010

I think you should definitely sign up for a class. You'll get good information, driving experience, and an instructor who is used to new drivers (as well as a car that's insured up the wazoo).

Even if you had friend with cars to practice on, I still wouldn't advise that. It's one thing to have a 15 or 16 year old new driver behind the wheel of your car (everyone's nervous about that), but when someone has reached adulthood without learning how to drive, you (and by you I mean I) start to wonder if there's something wrong with them. A friend(ish) of mine got his learner's permit at 24, and asked if I would let him drive with me. Hell. No. The only thing that has stopped him from getting his license is himself (fear of cars? nervousness operating machinery? really uncoordinated? he tried driving when he was a kid and almost got into a wreck? --I don't know), and there's no way I would let someone like that drive my car. I'm not saying this is you, I'm just saying this is how others might see it (and therefore be wary).

So in short, yes, you should take a class. Look for one that focuses on new drivers, and not one that caters to people who need to take a class due to tickets or DUIs.

And in my experience, the ones at the top of the phone book (when I was 15 I went to driving school at AA-to-Z defensive driving) kind of suck, because they often just plug a bunch of high-ranking letters on their name to drum up business. Go for one in the middle of the alphabet with no ulterior motive.
posted by phunniemee at 10:54 AM on July 28, 2010

I'm your age and I was in this situation until three months ago. I live far from my family and don't know anyone locally that I feel comfortable asking to borrow a car for practice (they live too far away; I don't know them well enough; they only have a manual shift car ... I have tons of great excuses!)

If you can afford it, I really think you should find a class geared towards adult drivers. If you think you can't afford it, can you at least save up for one or two professional lessons before trying to find a free / cheap car to use for practice? If you've ever dealt with anxiety, it's nice to have someone in the passenger seat who's calm and has the extra pedals to take control in an emergency.

As for whether to delay, if you have the means and the time to get your license, I say do it now. Age is on your side in some ways (no 60 hours of logged practice!) but you can't use Zipcar till you've had your license for a year.

I actually enjoy driving now, which is something I thought would never, ever happen, and I think that the lessons played a role in that. Feel free to memail me if you want to chat.
posted by tantivy at 10:55 AM on July 28, 2010

I would look up private classes to see. I would offer my car (I am in Portland as well) but it is manual and not the easiest manual to drive. Best of luck!
posted by NotSoSimple at 10:55 AM on July 28, 2010

Absolutely find a class. The class will provide a car for you to learn in, and most of them will either offer to provide the car for your driver's exam, or you can "rent" the car from them on your Exam date for a small fee (I paid $50) so you can take the test in the same car you've been practicing in.

Look for a class that will cover the written exams, street driving, highway driving, and any maneuverability exams your state requires.
posted by BZArcher at 10:57 AM on July 28, 2010

Totally recommend driving instruction...I had a former employer pay for it, which is a long story, and it was WAY better than previous attempts with significant others. The instructor will have the calm and experience -- presumably -- to get you going.

On the other hand, if you don't have a car to practice with, you may want to hold off until you have a friend/SO who is willing to let you drive their car after you get your license. It's easy to lose the confidence you gain during instruction, or at least that's been my experience having multi-year gaps in my driving. (Less so the skills, by the way, at least for me.)
posted by epersonae at 10:59 AM on July 28, 2010

I had that same issue. I took a driving class - the instructor provides the car, and some schools will also take you to the DMV to take your test (using their car, too). I also had some fear issues because I was like 27 and really starting to freak out about driving. He had me on the road on the very first lesson, after tooling around a parking lot for a while. I told him, dude, I have a phobia, I don't want to go out there! But he made me, and I did, and it really was the best thing to do.

I didn't do any driving for another few months, until I found myself in a situation where I absolutely had to drive. I was nervous because it had been a while since I had last driven, but I did totally fine. So I do suggest taking classes.

I also live in Portland, and while I don't remember the name of the school, it was one I found easily by Googling. I told them I needed to take Trimet to the meeting spot so it would have to be a place near me, easily accessible, and the instructor had no problem working with me on that. Also ask them if they will take you to the DMV for your driving test. Do get a learner's permit first, though.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 11:02 AM on July 28, 2010

Oh, one more thing...I did take care to mention that I, the student, am an adult driver and not a teenager. If you have any anxiety issues, like I did, I think it's worth mentioning that so that the instructor is chosen adequately and is aware.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 11:03 AM on July 28, 2010

Getting a license is not hard. In fact, as the father of a teenager with a permit, I would say in getting a license is way, way too easy in the US. So get the license, then practice, a lot. Experience is the only way to become comfortable behind the wheel.
posted by COD at 11:03 AM on July 28, 2010

As others have said, practice times infinity. When I took driver's ed, I was 16, and we only needed 10 hours of behind-the wheel driving experience with the class. (We needed something like 30 hours signed off by a parent). Anyways, those 10 hours alone wouldn't have prepared me nearly enough to get a license (let alone feel comfortable while driving). So make sure to find out how much actual driving is involved before you sign up for a class.
posted by Tu13es at 11:06 AM on July 28, 2010

I didn't learn to drive until I was 23 too. My lovely wife taught me how, and the single best piece of advice she gave me was this: "You are already comfortable riding your bike in traffic, so you already know how to drive. Now let's just take your good instincts and learn how to operate the car."

Excellent. Took all my anxiety away, and I'm a very good driver as a result. And very happily married.

So yes to a teacher, and work on your thinking too.
posted by salishsea at 11:15 AM on July 28, 2010

I vote not worth it, though this was a class in Saint John NB, where a several evenings of watching early computer animation safety videos and an explaination of how my air bag works (interesting, but not really something I'd pay money to spend an hour learning) and eight hours in a dual controlled car followed up with constant lectures that I needed to practice more. It was supposed to be ten, but the last two were spent reviewing the test and I guess the tutor decided I wasn't ready, and wasn't willing to deviate from the lesson enough to let me practice flicking the turn signal and making figure eights in a parking lot, which was probably closer to what I needed.
posted by Phalene at 11:54 AM on July 28, 2010

On the other hand -- and my mother was the one who kept telling me this so it may be wrong -- if you do end up somewhere you need to drive, the three years of idle time will look to the insurance company as a 3-year-old perfectly clean record and will lower your costs.

I think the key is to be on someone's insurance for those idle years. The insurance company doesn't count it if you had a license but were uninsured (at least in my case).
posted by smackfu at 12:11 PM on July 28, 2010

PCC has classes you might want to check out.
posted by treblemaker at 12:19 PM on July 28, 2010

I'd never driven *anything* except a bicycle until I took lessons at 30 years old. I called a few different places to find one that said it did do a fair number of "older" beginner drivers. I was the first English-speaking customer my rather seasoned instructor had taught: most of his clientele were older parents and grandparents of immigrants to the US from regions with low rates of car ownership.

Driving's not actually that difficult: took around two months (10 lessons) to pass. It's nice to have someone next to you with a kill switch to take over the car. Cars are mechanically very simple to operate. The key thing is to develop a sustained car-specific attentional focus and peripheral awareness that enables you to model the probable actions of others (of limited use when dealing with unpredictably bad drivers though). I suspect being older than a teenager, with a more developed prefrontal cortex, actually helps in terms of defensive driving. In the US, I've driven in California, New Jersey, New York City (and territories in-between). But the wildest was around Dublin, Ireland (you know, one of the four or so countries in the world where credit-card auto insurance is always specifically curtailed).

Different regions tend to have different prevailing levels of road aggression and unwritten behavioural standards based a lot, I suspect, on local policing tolerances, traffic and population densities, and typical historical durations of car ownership and penetration. One key thing is to develop a healthy level of context-specific aggression that can be recruited for tricky situations when bad or inattentive drivers are boxing you into a dangerous situation or otherwise threatening your course. Ten years later: no accidents, no citations, no tickets.
posted by meehawl at 12:23 PM on July 28, 2010

when someone has reached adulthood without learning how to drive, you (and by you I mean I) start to wonder if there's something wrong with them.

This isn't meant to be a derail, but some people don't learn to drive as teens because they don't have the resources to do so.
posted by thisjax at 12:27 PM on July 28, 2010 [5 favorites]

I just wanted to volunteer that I haven't ever really owned a car and drive sporadically. Practice is really key. I've often thought that I should just get a Zipcar once every few weeks to help me remember how to drive. Also, it's not that hard. Some situations, like traffic or construction can be more stressful but it's not a hard thing to do.

One thing that I would do if I was learning to drive again is learn to drive stick. Just a thought.
posted by kat518 at 12:27 PM on July 28, 2010

Driving is the biggest risk most of us face regularly. Learning to do it right, to be a predictive, defensive, safer driver not only makes you safer, it makes all the rest of us safer, too.

Take a good driver training course.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:48 PM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I learned to drive at 27. I think it's much scarier to learn as an adult than as a teenager, because you take the risks more seriously.

I took enough lessons to be able to pass the license test, then didn't drive for a few years because I was too scared to.

Then, when I had to start driving relatively regularly, even thinking about getting behind the wheel started my pulse up; I was just so nervous. I think it took several months of driving (just short distances, around the city) before I stopped getting that physical reaction.

I avoided freeways for a couple years, they just scared me too much with the high-speed merging and lane-changing -- until I had to drive on freeways, and now I kind of actually prefer it to surface streets, it's more predictable.

Bottom line: the learning really comes with just putting in the time behind the wheel. Classes will teach you enough to get the license, but your driver's education doesn't end there. It might be a while before you're comfortable with driving, but if you get enough practice, you'll get there.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 1:09 PM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

The insurance company doesn't count it if you had a license but were uninsured (at least in my case).

I think this depends on the state/insurance company. I'm almost sure that in Massachusetts, at least, where I recently bought and insured a car after five (blissful) car-free years, length of driving record and having current insurance *both* figure into the equation. So a few extra years of "driving record" are good to have in some places.

I'd say take lessons now, get a license now; you won't be really good at driving until you've driven daily for a period of months or years, but life is easier with a driver's license. It's good to have for emergencies, and this way if you ever do suddenly decide to move or work or vacation somewhere where you're going to need a car, getting your license will be one less thing to worry about.

I got my license at 21, after I graduated from college, and I grew up in the 'burbs, never took public transportation until I was an adult; I took the road test in a friend's car (not even a very close friend, and if he thought there was something wrong with me for not getting my license until then he was too polite to say anything about it). I had the emergency brake on for the whole test. I passed anyway. It's definitely too easy to get a license, but lessons will help, and as scary as it is, everyone who learns to drive goes through that scary first year or so and the vast majority of us survive. At least when you learn as an adult, you don't have to combine your lack of driving knowledge with poor teenage judgment skills. Which is probably why, as rabbitrabbit very sensibly points out, it can be terrifying.
posted by mskyle at 3:54 PM on July 28, 2010

I think official driving lessons are definitely worth it - they can tell you about tips&tricks for passing the test that those of us who took it years ago have forgotten, plus they are used to teaching new drivers so are much more relaxed than a (terrified!) friend/spouse, probably because the special cars they use have a brake and steering wheel on their side too.

To avoid getting into an awkward insurance situation, like needing insurance but not being able to get it without a license, you can usually use one of their cars for the driving test. This should not be too huge an extra fee, and it is great if it includes a 30 min pre-driving test refresh lesson. For the best deal you probably want at least 4 lessons (with option to add more if needed) plus use of car for test plus pre-driving test 30-min refresh lesson.

A (terrified) spouse with happy husband with new drivers license.
posted by meepmeow at 5:11 PM on July 28, 2010

Yup, driving school. I learned to drive at 20, which is late as HELL for someone from southern CA. I was a nervous driver. My mom tried to teach me, and so did my boyfriend, but I found it really stressful that they were stressed out and just could not feel good behind the wheel. I am kind of a perfectionist and can't stand having people watch me when I'm not doing things like a pro - I'm sure you know the sort.

I had the great good fortune to find a racing instructor to teach me to drive. He spent most of the year in Europe teaching people to race, and had nerves of steel. He was fucking casual about all the near misses I had when I first got behind the wheel with him, which really helped a ton. At one point I was looking at something else and headed straight for a wall and he just said "Hey, look over there" cool as a cucumber while pointing the wall. Nothing rattled him and he really got inside my head, and told me that my driving issues were all about me and my anxieties and not about my skill as a driver, which was a helpful insight to me. I took a total of six hours of driving instruction from him (three two-hour sessions), then got my license. Easy peasy. I am now a pretty decent driver, although I still hate having passengers.
posted by little light-giver at 8:41 PM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was in the same situation as you when I was 23 and ended up taking a professional drivers ed course that year, and I definitely recommend it. Other people had tried to teach me to drive, but I was pretty nervous, and having a professional instructor was a huge help. I made more progress in those six hours than I did in countless excursions with friends/family. I was in a smallish town with only one real driving school, so I don't have much advice on how to pick one. But having an instructor who teaches inexperienced people to drive every day makes learning much easier.

There was about two years between the time that I took the class (and received a license) and time when I began needing a car in my daily life. I had no access to car in the meantime, and got way out of practice. So I kind of felt like I had to start learning all over again, but this time all alone and in a scarier city to drive in. It was not fun. But I think the first thousand hours or so of driving are not going to be fun in any event, so it's probably not a good reason to delay.

The flip side of the time gap was that I got two "free" years of being a licensed driver without having to buy insurance... so I only had to endure a couple years of the high risk "new driver" insurance rates. A fair number of the major insurance companies refused to cover me at all those first years, which took me by surprise.
posted by everybody polka at 10:32 PM on July 28, 2010

I took lessons in my late teens and, without regular access to a car to practice on, they were useless.

I left it until my mid-thirties, and learned to drive a few years ago, little runs to the supermarket with my partner in the car.

If you are set on learning right now -- can you buy a beater? Nthing that the hours behind the wheel are what is key. Competent instruction is nice, yes, very useful for some aspects of driving, but my take is that you need country rambles, not a half hour in the city once a week.
posted by kmennie at 4:00 AM on July 29, 2010

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