How to drive again after decades of avoiding it
January 11, 2012 9:59 AM   Subscribe

I haven't driven a car in 15 years, and I'm about to get behind the wheel on Saturday. Help me prepare to get on the road again!

A little background - my first time trying to drive was 22 years ago, when I was 16. My father tried to teach me, which was a terrible first experience. He screamed and yelled at me for any mistake I made and I would start crying and have to pull over to the side of the road and I absolutely dreaded the thought of driving.

Then I took lessons with a driving school through my high school, but failed the road test twice, and then didn't get behind the wheel again until I was 22. I took lessons from a different driving school and finally got my license. But I drove very infrequently, and then moved to NYC, and now it has been 15 years since I've driven at all.

Over these 15 years, I've gotten more and more anxious at the idea of driving - I have so little experience behind the wheel at all (for example, I've never driven at night before and I've only been on a highway once or twice). I've also been a passenger in a few accidents, which has increased my anxiety, and I am really intimidated at the idea of being able to process everything on the road that I need to pay attention to. I also feel like I have some issues with spatial perception - lots of times as a passenger I feel like other cars are going to hit my car, even if they're not all that close.

So anyway, after all this time of working myself up into a frenzy of nerves any time I would even contemplate driving, I signed up for refresher lessons last night, and my first one is Saturday. I want to be able to drive like any normal adult! But now that I've paid and signed the contract, I am just terrified that I won't be able to handle it. Not only do I feel like I have forgotten everything I used to know, I don't feel like I really ever knew it!

So I guess I'm looking for some tips or resources I can use before Saturday to be as ready as I can to face my biggest fear. Both in reducing my anxiety, and also just in how to be ready to handle a car and traffic again. I don't even know what I need to know! And any personal anecdotes of recovering from driving anxiety are welcome too.
posted by Neely O'Hara to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I actually think that maybe talking all of this through with your instructor may be the best thing to do instead. I am fairly confident that you are NOT the only person to have driving anxiety, and your teacher may know some things that work. (My driving instructor in high school sang to me once, I think.)

Talking this through with your teacher will also let them know just how anxious you are, so they know how much attention to pay to you and what you're doing -- you'd most likely be doing them a favor as well, by letting them know what your history has been so they know how to teach you.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:13 AM on January 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

Go slow.

Seriously, don't go any faster than you are comfortable with. Stay off the highway where there's a minimum speed limit, but on surface roads, go as slowly as you need to to feel safe.

The people behind you? Fuck them. If I'm behind you, you have permission to tell me to go fuck myself. I'm a fairly impatient driver, but your comfort level is more important than my irritation.

Wherever the people behind you are going, it is not so important that it's worth you killing somebody. It is almost a statistical certainty that they are not driving their pregnant wife to the hospital. It is equally unlikely that someone is bleeding out in their back seat. Their outsized sense of entitlement will not help you if you make a mistake. So go slowly enough that you're not going to make a mistake.

You have all the time in the world.
posted by gauche at 10:16 AM on January 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

Firstly, relax! Which I know is easier said than done.

I've been in your shoes, and in this situation I would try to remind myself of a couple things:

1. You're not going to have to drive at night or on a highway, or probably in any other weird/challenging situation you have no experience with.

2. You're not going to be alone. There'll be a qualified driving instructor with you, and if it's anything like my experience with driving lessons (high school drivers' ed in the 90's), you'll probably be driving in a dual control car which will enable the instructor to take control of the vehicle if anything were to happen. The instructor will also probably have much better bedside manner than your dad did back when you were a teenager.

3. It's a lesson. The expectation is that you're an inexperienced rusty driver. They are expecting you to make mistakes and not know what you're doing. There's a strong chance that you'll start out in a parking lot, or at the very least head out to a quiet area where there's little traffic stress.

I don't have a specific driving anxiety anecdote to share, but I'll say this. I was also an erratic/amnbivalent teenage driver with some accidents under my belt when I moved to NYC. I didn't drive for... eight years? Maybe 10? Then I got a job where, surprise, I had to drive a company car. As part of my job! I didn't get to take a lesson or practice - I literally went from "hate driving, haven't done it in about a decade" to "go to midtown and pick up this thing that cannot be carried on the subway", in the space of like 30 seconds. And... I did fine! It was stressful at first, but I warmed up to driving and discovered that A) I actually like driving in a city, and B) driving as an adult is a very different thing than driving as a teenager - I really believe all the studies that have come out suggesting that teenage brain chemistry is not compatible with operating a motor vehicle.

You, too, will do fine. More than fine. You can totally do this.
posted by Sara C. at 10:16 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Parents teaching their kids to drive is almost always a bad and traumatic experience for many people. Parents get impatient with their kids. Driving instructors do not.

I think the best thing I was ever taught while in driving school was that you need to be a defensive driver. You need to be looking out for other cars the road, it's not just you out there. Once you become a defensive driver and are comfortable and aware of the hazards that exist, you should be more comfortable behind the wheel because, well, for lack of a better phrase: you know your shit.

I am a defensive (and confident) driver because I do these things always:

- Scan every intersection before you pass through for hazards. Other cars, people waiting to cross, etc.
- Check your mirrors frequently. I check my rearview/sides about every 30 sec to see what is happening behind and to the sides of me. Be aware of the situation around you at all times.
- Always shoulder check every time you turn your wheel.
- Watch underneath cars for pets that could run out. I use this also looking for pedestrians feet - sometimes people like to walk straight into traffic and you wouldn't see them otherwise.
- PREDICT scenarios BEFORE they happen. It's a 4 lane street (2 going each way) and cars are lined up on the left lane turning left (no light). You're driving in the right lane. You would predict that some cars are going to be pulling out from behind the car turning left without warning into your lane to bypass the hold-up.

In conclusion: Because I know my surroundings, I know where the cars are around me, I am not afraid to be on the road. Be hyper observant when you are driving a car, and you shouldn't be so afraid of other cars or people popping out on you.

PS - As far as highways go - drive in the right (the slow) lane. Go the speed limit. Let the speedsters stay in the left lane.
posted by Bron-Y-Aur at 10:21 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Re "go slow" - it's very rare for NYC through-street traffic to move above 30 MPH. I regularly find myself stuck behind some Pokey McSlowerson doing like 15 for no reason I can discern.

Even the highway speeds are a lot lower than is typical in other parts of the US. The whole first year that I drove in NYC (see above) I don't think I broke 55 MPH, even on the L.I.E.
posted by Sara C. at 10:23 AM on January 11, 2012

I taught 2 of my kids and 2 neighbor kids to drive. I am convinced that some people are naturals at it and some just need to practice, practice, practice, and even then will be uncomfortable drivers.

The best thing anyone can do to get comfortable is to log time and distance in a safe environment. For my daughter who is NOT a natural, we spend lots of time in large empty parking lots. Nothing to hit but curb. Just getting the feel of the vehicle is important. No two cars drive alike. I have a large truck and it takes a lot of getting used to simply to judge turns and turning radius.

Start slowly. get comfortable. Move to not so busy road. Get comfortable. Move to busier road. Get comfortable. Repeat.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:24 AM on January 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

The one big thing that's changed in 15 years is that a lot of other drivers may be distracted by cell phones or other devices in their cars. Assume that every other driver on the road isn't paying attention, and pay twice the attention yourself.
posted by mudpuppie at 10:29 AM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh, my, you sound a lot like me, except that I didn't do anything for ~15 years after that first bad experience with yelling parents, and I'm actually signing up for the road test reallyreally soon (meant to do it last night but oh I'm so good at forgetting important things I don't want to do.) So, having gotten past 85% of my nerves, here are the things that helped.

-Getting lessons with grizzled old driving instructors that have seen everything including other nervous adults. They started me in the most boring possible place and just hung out for a half hour while I went 5mph and braked whenever there was a squirrel a half-mile down the road. Tell them you're nervous.
-That first one actually gave me some confidence; defensive driving is good driving and after just a couple of lessons the grizzled old guy was impressed.
-When you've taken a couple of lessons, getting a lot of road time in with a patient friend or partner. At first I basically talked my way through everything. "Okay, the speed limit's 30 and I'm going 31, better slow down a bit, and oh god there's a city bus pulled over, am I supposed to go by or not? The person behind me is frustrated and is going to honk, I just know it..." and on and on, but as I got more practice, the patter had more to do with the surroundings and the car, and then the patter got less, and now I can mostly drive like a normal person.
-Every person in a car with me has agreed: Screw the people behind you, if you are driving in a safe legal way. I get really nervous about them tailgating and honking, or stalling when there's a line of cars behind me. If you're doing what you're supposed to, more slowly than they're expecting, then that's their problem not yours. (that said, this is still my #1 source of fluster.)
-You'll make mistakes. You may make the car smell bad but the world will not end. (I made a turn wwwaaaayyy to fast a few weeks ago, when I should have just kept going straight and then turned around after missing the turn. Now I know for next time.)
-Just get as much driving time as possible. I still hate it after practicing a lot for the last year; when I get my license I will probably still hate it. But I don't fear it nearly as much.
posted by tchemgrrl at 10:32 AM on January 11, 2012

I learned to drive at 27, and had MAJOR driving anxiety for a long time -- like you, even knowing days in advance that I would have to get behind the wheel of a car, everytime I thought about it my heart would race etc. So nervous. And I was in a city and didn't drive every day or even every week, so I had this anxiety for years.

The only thing that helped me was doing it. A lot. I didn't stop getting that feeling until I was driving regularly -- like every day. When I was 32 (5 years ago) I moved to a place where I had to drive to work and it was only then that I started being able to drive at night, on freeways, etc. I still don't like driving at night when it's raining.

Are you planning to drive regularly after your lessons? If not, if you're anything like me, you'll continue to have this every time you know you have to get behind the wheel. (IOW, unless you have a specific end goal of becoming a regular driver, just getting lessons and getting your license again isn't going to make you a confident driver when you DO have to drive.)
posted by rabbitrabbit at 10:34 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

But now that I've paid and signed the contract, I am just terrified that I won't be able to handle it. Not only do I feel like I have forgotten everything I used to know, I don't feel like I really ever knew it!

You fell like you have never got the skills under your belt because you never did - passing your test is really only the very first step in learning to drive. It means you have mastered the physical skill and have learned the rules of the road. It doesn't mean you have any kind of experience to fall back on. You still have to think about too many parts of the process and everything you encounter is still too new and nerve wrecking.

So don't feel like that's part of your anxiety, that's just a fact. Happens to everybody after they pass the test and are expected to be in sole charge of a vehicle. Unfortunately you have had some bad experiences learning on top of that re-inforcing those fears and the anxiety on top of your inexperience.

I can still remember the first solo journey I did after I passed my test and I was absolutely petrified. After I passed my test I drove infrequently. Then I didn't drive at all for four years. Then I bought an old car and when I picked it up I almost drove into a ditch on the way home - problem being the car was right hand steered as I had moved to the UK by then and for some reason it had not occurred to me that you'd have to hold the steering wheel still with your right hand if you're trying to shift gears with your left...mainly because I had never had to do that before having always driven left hand steered cars until that day...fortunately we never did go in the ditch and nothing bad happened...but I digress.

I was a wreck for a few days whenever I got into that car and was just generally a very inexperienced and quite often bad driver. The following week I started a job that required a 50 mile round trip on a motorway every day. And I got over the nerves very quickly because I had no choice but to drive...after that I always had a car and had to drive and it got to a point where I was driving in excess of 30k miles a year, on all kinds of roads and in different countries and in a range of vehicles. I then moved to a country where public transport actually works and have not owned a car for a year now. But when I travel I frequently hire one and am perfectly happy to drive just about anything anywhere. Point is - you're totally not alone in being inexperienced or scared and there is life after you have overcome that.

You're doing the absolutely best thing you can by doing the refresher course. Just tell your instructor what you told us. Any good instructor will pick you up exactly where you are in terms of skill, memory and anxiety levels and take you to where you need to be.

Once you have built up your confidence a bit you can and should ask your instructor to practice things you find particularly scary because they will be able to help you deal with those situations, too.
posted by koahiatamadl at 11:04 AM on January 11, 2012

I had a similar experience- I always had a lot of anxiety about driving, and went for about five years without driving before getting back behind the wheel a couple of years ago. What helps most is experience. Drive as much as you can, because that is really the only way to begin to lessen the anxiety. Driving and being able to pay attention to everything around you is really a specific skillset that you don't have if you don't drive. Like any skill, it develops through practice. Like others have said, just take it slow, make sure you let the instructor know how nervous you are and don't be afraid to try someone else if it turns out you don't mesh well with the first person, and just keep practicing!
posted by catatethebird at 11:05 AM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is a little off the wall, but how are your navigation skills? Do you feel comfortable giving directions to someone else who's driving? One of the things that was/is stressful about driving for me was having to simultaneously navigate my way to my destination and keep the car on the road and safe. And actually taking a car somewhere, even on a familiar route, is different from being driven along the same route. If you have a willing friend, you could try being their navigator as *they* drive around - this can help you get a sense for how far in advance the driver needs to know to turn, etc. I also found both narrating myself (as tchemgrrl describes) and having an experienced driver narrate as they drove to be helpful.
posted by heyforfour at 11:23 AM on January 11, 2012

First of all, yay, you!

Second of all, I relearned to drive a few years ago after a 25-year hiatus. You might be surprised how many people have similar experiences; your driving instructor may have had other students in the same circumstances. As others have said, it's really important to be candid with the instructor up front.

Third of all, yay, you!
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:06 PM on January 11, 2012

I bought a Garminfone, and GPS has been my salvation. After decades of infrequent, unchallenging driving (but only around a small town!), and long stretches of no driving at all, GPS changed my life. Now I go back and forth to major cities, drive on multi-lane highways, drive in the rain, after dark, and go places I'd never ever find on my own. I've even learned to parallel park!

The thing about GPS (garmin, specifically) is it's non-judgmental. If you get lost, it "recalculates." It's calm, cool, reliable, and it takes about 50% of the thinking away from you. You no longer need to remember where to turn, or which lane to get into to prepare for it. You no longer need to memorize the map, or read the scrawled directions while you steer. All you need to do is focus on the small zone on all sides of your car (yah, mirrors!). And all you need to remember is lots of not especially wise or reflective people drive, too. Which means 1) you can do it, and 2) you need to be careful of them.

So, yeah, defensive driving, but honestly, it is so much simpler with a Garmin. I can't gush enough.
posted by Violet Blue at 1:39 PM on January 11, 2012

You're not alone! I have a lot of anxiety, and I'm currently in the process of getting a US driver's license which is freaking me out a little. Not only will I be driving on the wrong side of the road on giant, multi-lane highways, I have no sense of direction or spatial perception, and I have grave doubts about my ability to react in an emergency traffic situation. Oh, and I got into two accidents as a driver the first year I got my license at 18.

But! I promise you will get better and feel better with experience. I lived and worked in Kuala Lumpur for a couple of years, and given how crappy public transportation was, I had no choice but to drive to work every day. Driving in Malaysia is not for the faint of heart--you cannot count on the law to be on your side. In the beginning, I took care to drive when traffic was less congested, even if I had to get up early and go home a little later. On weekends, I hit shops at their opening times so parking was always a breeze. I gave rides to friends who were seasoned drivers, who gave me tips and shortcuts, and acted as a second pair of eyes whenever I felt a bit insecure. Eventually, while I still disliked driving, I felt comfortable driving myself around.

I'm counting on these memories (and a Garmin) to pull me through. All the best!
posted by peripathetic at 4:40 PM on January 11, 2012

Hah, I just gave a talk today about how to deal with scared newbie drivers. My dad was like yours, ditto my mom. It took me until age 30 to find a calm enough person to drive with and age 32 to get the license.

Disclaimer: I hated driving school, and got taught by a guy who had no idea how to deal with a scared newbie. (Apparently everyone in my area learned to drive loooong before official driving school and he expected me to just hop in and drive fine.) So I don't really trust them to actually know how to deal with one. But you're older than age 16, so they might come in with different expectations.

Reiterate to them right off the bat, "Treat me like someone who knows nothing about cars. Don't act like I should know anything by now. I have no idea. Seriously, you need to teach me how to turn on the ignition and stuff like that." Have them walk you through what everything in the car does before you turn it on. And make sure they keep you in low-traffic areas right off the bat rather than running you through the 6-hour "gotta show 'em everything" lessons they give the teenagers.

But really, you need someone calm and reliable to practice driving with more than you need a professional instructor anyway--they're not there to gentle you along and they get expensive. It's the practice that will teach you the most. And you need to do it a lot. At least weekly, but daily would be better.

Are you planning on driving regularly for any life reason, or do you just kinda feel like you "should" by now?
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:26 PM on January 11, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great answers - I went to mark the best but couldn't choose, they were all good!

I think that what has me most worried is I feel overwhelmed by all of the different things I have to keep in my head at the same time - think about how to control the car, think about where I'm going, think about what each car around me is doing - and it all seems like complete information overload to me. I have a LOT of trouble with spatial relationships - I have a hard time with left and right, and I've always struggled with trying to figure out which way to turn the steering wheel to go in reverse. But it's great to be reminded that I won't just be thrown out on the LIE in the first ten minutes behind the wheel, and I can gradually ease into it.

Also, after I signed up for lessons, my boyfriend offered to take me to a parking lot to practice using the car controls before my first lesson. (He'd offered before, but I really wanted to get the worst of my panic out of the way with a professional first.) So I'll have the opportunity to practice with him as well. I am not sure I'll ever be comfortable doing something like a cross-country road trip, or even driving every day (although who knows?), but I would just like to stop thinking of myself as a NON-DRIVER, and be comfortable running an errand, or borrowing my mom's car in my hometown and driving five minutes to get a coffee.

Thanks again for all the encouragement - I am actually a little more excited about my lessons instead of completely dreading then!
posted by Neely O'Hara at 8:32 AM on January 13, 2012

I feel overwhelmed by all of the different things I have to keep in my head at the same time - think about how to control the car, think about where I'm going, think about what each car around me is doing - and it all seems like complete information overload to me.

For what it's worth, this is the biggest thing that changed from when I was an anxious teenage driver. This stuff just... didn't seem that difficult anymore, as an adult. I found myself able to think a lot more clearly about the balance between operating the vehicle, dealing with traffic, navigating, etc.

When I came back to driving, it helped to remind myself a lot that it doesn't matter what other drivers think of me, or whether I did something awkwardly, or whether I missed a turn and had to make the block, or even whether I got lost and had to pull over and look at my directions again. As long as you get from point A to point B safely, the rest is just noise. And with a lot of practice, you will become a more "elegant" driver, anyway.
posted by Sara C. at 9:02 AM on January 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

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