Why can't I drive?!
October 29, 2012 11:32 AM   Subscribe

Having real difficulty learning to drive. Give up altogether, start again in an automatic, or can you think of anything that would help me to improve?

I've had about 46 hours of driving lessons and I honestly feel as though I'm not making any progress. I can sort of do the manoevres, eventually, but the actual driving part is a mess. I will try and explain why:

1. I strongly suspect I may be dyspraxic. I've always been extremely clumsy and can't do anything that requires bodily co-ordination. I am uniformly awful at all sports.

2. I have difficulties with left and right. It's very hard to explain; sometimes I'll say left and mean right; other times, when reversing for example, instead of just steering in the direction I want the back of the car to go, I imagine I'm facing backwards and then try to work out which direction that would mean steering in, which is obviously wrong.

3. I can't really focus on more than one thing at once. At a junction or roundabout I will be so busy trying not to stall the car that I can't possibly look at what the lights or the other cars are doing. I feel like I should have got past this by now. There is the related problem of not being able to process the various rules of the road while driving because I'm a) too distracted by the actual driving and b) too stressed to think calmly - I've passed my theory test, and if you ask me when I'm calm and relaxed what lane I need to be in if I want to turn left or whatever it's obvious, but if you ask me when I'm actually in the car I won't have a clue.

4. I'm very bad at judging physical spaces (I suspect this may be another feature of my dyspraxia). I'm not at all confident about whether a gap in the traffic is sufficient for me to go, and I have not really developed much of a sense of how much space the car takes up so I can never confidently work out how close another car is to the left or right.

5. There are a whole bunch of psychological blocks largely to do with confidence, such as:
a) if I mess up one thing early on in the lesson I go into a total flap and then can't get anything else right for the rest of the lesson;
b) I have a lot of guilt about being on the road in the first place when I'm so rubbish (if I'm doing a manoevre and another car comes along I'll just mess it up because my impulse is just to get the hell out of that person's way as fast as possible);
c) at no point do I ever feel relaxed, safe or in control (sometimes I have to actually remind myself to breathe), and obviously this massively impacts my ability to make decisions;
d) I've now got it into my head that I can't do it, so of course I can't;
e) it just seems like too high-risk an activity for me to be doing badly;
f) normally if I don't get the hang of something straight away I just chuck it in.

Worst of all is the insurmountable hurdle that I will never get confident without practice but I can't practise because I'm not confident. It would be massively helpful to practise in my husband's car, for example, but I've stalled in it so many times that I'm now paranoid about it, plus I'm terrified of driving a car that someone else doesn't have control of.

So my question is threefold:

1. Are there real and significant disadvantages to starting again in an automatic? And if I did, how many of the above problems would it solve? It seems to me that though I would still have issues with judging space etc, I would at least lose my paranoia of stalling, and some of the cognitive capacity that gets taken up by gears would be free to focus on other traffic etc.

2. If that isn't a good idea (and I am in the UK, where automatics aren't that common), can you think of anything else that would help me?

3. In the worst case scenario, do some people really never, ever get it? And when will I know if I am one of them?

(This is all somewhat complicated by the fact that I don't really have any objective measure of how badly I'm doing. I will tend to err on the side of pessimism when judging my own progress at anything, but then I do feel like I am having significantly more problems with driving than other people seem to. It's no good asking my instructor because obviously the more lessons I have to have, the more he gets paid, so it's kind of in his interests for me to keep plugging away with it even if a sensible person would have given up by now; if he'd just said in the first few lessons "look, you're unlikely ever to get the hang of this", I would have saved an awful lot of money.)

Any advice would be useful - everybody else just tells me "oh, it'll click eventually!", and no clicking has so far been forthcoming! Many thanks in advance for anything you can think of.
posted by raspberry-ripple to Travel & Transportation (32 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
TOTALLY start again with an automatic. I say this as someone who is dyspraxic and used to drive in the UK. Driving an automatic will remove a huge element of what you are currently extending brain power on. And it really isn't starting over at all; 100% of what you've learned is relevant.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:36 AM on October 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

Automatic, definitely. I've got bad L/R problems and would not have been able to assimilate all the other driving information I had to learn if I was also trying to get the foot stuff worked out. Do some more practice driving in a "not live traffic" situation (parking lots, empty roads, driveways) and you will get more used to the distances and intervals. You may also have a compounding anxiety problem that is making it difficult for you to pay attention clearly which might be its own problem or might not. I know many more people who have terrible assessments of their own driving than people who are truly terrible drivers. I'd give it at least one more shot.
posted by jessamyn at 11:41 AM on October 29, 2012

I originally tried to learn to drive by driving a stick shift. I got so stressed out trying not to stall or burn rubber (and always, always did at least one of those two things, often the latter immediately before the former) I couldn't really pay attention to much of anything else. I then tried an automatic, took to it almost instantly (YMMV of course), and went back to learning stick after about three years of driving an automatic.

I picked up stick shift almost immediately. Everything about the road and driving was familiar - all I had to figure out were the new controls. Still somewhat stressful, sure, but being confident on the road and behind the driver's seat in the first place changed everything. Two half-hour lessons after I first tried stick, I went on a road trip in a finicky 1980s Civic with four friends and had almost zero problems along the way.

Try automatic. Learn to drive well and to keep track of the road. Then once you're confident go back and try stick again.
posted by Urban Winter at 11:43 AM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

You can pry my manual transmission from my cold dead fingers, but driving/piloting your vehicle and operating it are two separate things, and when both of those things are unfamiliar, it is a LOT to be trying to manage all at the same time.
Use an automatic transmission so you can concentrate on driving in the world around you, then later you can learn the manual transmission when you've got a little more mindspace for learning to operate a vehicle better.
posted by anonymisc at 11:45 AM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

You've totally described my experience of attempting to learn to drive a manual when I moved to the UK. Right down to freaking out as soon as someone came up behind me at a roundabout, having great difficulty with spatial awareness, etc.

Have you had all your lessons with the same instructor? 46 hours with the same levels of frustration, fear, and stress points to a bad fit with the instructor, I think. You may get along really well with them, but if they're not creating the correct opportunities for you to learn and grow more confident, I think it's worth trying someone new.

That said though, yes, I think you need to stop trying to learn on a manual. I found learning on an automatic so much easier, simpler, and more enjoyable than trying to coordinate gear stick, clutch and gas, judging other car's speed relative to mine, etc. Give yourself the breathing room that an automatic will provide, get more confident with that, and then if you're still interested in learning a manual, start from there with a better foundation.
posted by catch as catch can at 11:46 AM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think you should absolutely try an automatic car, not having to focus on stalling the thing or when to change gears made learning to drive much less stressful for me.

I hate driving, like HATE (if I could make those letters much larger I would). I don't feel comfortable behind the wheel at all and the list of things that give me anxiety while driving is extensive. My boyfriend asked one time, he had to just stop me when we got to item like 20 because he couldn't listen to them anymore. I've been driving for 12 years, so there is a chance, yes, that you will never feel totally comfortable but you do workarounds.

Here are things that help me a lot:
1. I do what I need to do to be comfortable (even if it drives my bf bonkers), I stay in the right lane so I don't have to change lanes unless absolutely necessary, I take longer routes to avoid busy roads, I won't go places where I have to make an unprotected left turn, etc.
2. I almost never drive at night, and if I do, I wait until late when there are fewer cars on the road.
3. I have had the same car for the last 10 years so I know exactly how big it is and how fast it accelerates, etc. We are close to me needing a new car and the thought of even test driving one makes me nervous.
4. Drive by yourself. Other people make me nervous.
5. If you are driving too slow, people will go around you.
6. You can always turn around or drive around the block if you need to. Don't worry about making it across lanes of traffic quickly.
7. Practice in a big parking lot, seriously. Just find an empty parking lot and drive around it for like an hour a day or something, getting used to your car.
8. I google maps/satellite flyover everything before I drive there for the first time. I want to know where stop lights are, I want to know what side of the street it is on, etc.
9. I just take the route I am comfortable with, even if it takes longer. There is another exit to my work parking garage that would let me out about a block closer to where I need to be but I'm used to the other one, so I take the other one.

I still don't feel 100% comfortable but yes it has gotten MUCH better. I drive myself to work every day and let me tell you that was a pretty big accomplishment for me.

I guess part of what I'm trying to say is it is ok to be kinda neurotic about your driving. I give you permission.
posted by magnetsphere at 11:50 AM on October 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

Agree switching to automatic makes things much easier. You can learn to drive without also having to learn to deal with the transmission at the same time. Then, once you have all the actual driving stuff nailed, THEN you can try to learn manual.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 11:51 AM on October 29, 2012

- Automatic, absolutely and definitively.

- Learn to ride a bike first if you don't already, on the bike trail, and then on the road in town for short trips. Make yourself use the hand signals. You'll find traffic is easier to figure out than you realized.

- Find a recreational go-kart track to get used to the pedals and the steering wheel in a safe environment. You'll find it's not so scary, and it will be pretty intuitive after a few laps.
posted by Slap*Happy at 11:51 AM on October 29, 2012

I learned on an automatic in my teens and only learned shifting on a standard transmission when I needed to get my motorcycle license year before last99. (I don't need a seperate license to try driving a standard car, however, which increasingly strikes me as strange.)

But yeah, it absolutely helps to learn on an automatic first. Just much less to concentrate on at one time. Once you've been driving for awhile and your monitoring of traffic becomes second nature, you can add in the standard transmission actions.
posted by Kurichina at 11:59 AM on October 29, 2012

1. Start over with an automatic. It is much easier to learn manual after you've mastered simple driving.

2. Don't practice on the open road. Find a field, or a large open space (I learned in the parking lot of a huge store early Sunday mornings.) Drive around all you like in the parking lot. No other cars to freak you out, and you can get the hang of starting, stopping, turning, etc.

3. Perhaps driving isn't for you. No biggie, if you have access to good public transport, just be a commuter and don't drive.

I love to drive, I think it's fun. If it's causing you this much terror and discomfort, why bother?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:01 PM on October 29, 2012

Thank you so much for all your thoughts so far. I don't want to thread-sit but I just realised I omitted an important detail - I am 30, and I realise it's significantly harder to learn to drive when you're a bit older. Just thought I should add that!

I should also probably add, as Slap*Happy mentioned bikes, that I ride my bike to work through town every day and am totally confident on the road and with other traffic around. This makes me suspect the anxiety thing really is a huge part of the problem.

Thanks again for everything so far!
posted by raspberry-ripple at 12:01 PM on October 29, 2012

I was not licensed until my late 20s. Tomorrow I am driving 150 miles for a job interview and my main complaint is the weather. There is hope!

Right now, you are at Level 1. You are at Level 1 in a class that is kind of crap at this particular task. (Much like me. I still constantly give directions by gesturing because otherwise it's all about Your Other Left.) It's okay. You gain experience slowly, but you're still gaining.

You start out fighting bunny rabbits. Roundabouts? Those are serious, Level 2 kinda stuff. You don't need to master them now unless you know you're going to hit one on the test. If it's like in the US, start planning now where you're going to take your test, because there are definitely some way more newbie-friendly testing places. However, your other concerns in #3? Are the reason why the Manual Transmission is like Level 2 equipment. Or level 3. Or 10. The thing stick shift drivers with a good feel for it forget is that they can be super finicky. Older ones especially take a practiced sense of timing. Screw that. I started learning originally on an older manual that I stalled at every single stop sign and it set me back several years. Go get in a newbie car. Get better gear later if you feel like it.

As you practice, you will gain a sense of where the car is. As you practice, you will become less awful. But you don't need to feel guilty. You're a newbie! If you can survive the trip, it doesn't matter if your turns are rough. Your only goal right now is to train enough to make it to Level 2, not Level 5. Level 2 is licensed. Level 2 is "still basically crap at driving but not an actual danger to anybody". For adults, shooting for Level 2 is incredibly difficult. We want to be Good Drivers before we get out there in traffic. 16-year-olds don't worry about that. You need to be able to get through the test, not perfectly, but without missing so many points you fail. That's all.

So, then, the last thing. The confidence thing. I got home from my newly-passed driving test and was too petrified to get into the driver's seat of the car again for days. When I did it again, I drove around the block. That was it. Alone. Then to the store, alone. Then further, and further, and then pretty soon driving felt fine. It had not felt fine the entire time I was learning. Driving with someone else in the car is a crutch. You need it to be safe for the sake of others, but it hinders you. If you can possibly arrange it, find a place to go practice--a cemetery, a giant parking lot that's usually empty, something like that--where you can kick your usual driving partner out of the car and go it alone. A couple hours of this and you start to feel like the car is a thing you control, not a thing that you barely restrain from killing people with as long as you have a second set of eyes.

It is doable. It is so doable. But it probably won't stop being terrifying until after the test. That's okay. Roll with it. Driving down the highway with the stereo blasting and grinning your head off comes later. Level 2 will be full of terrifying new things, but eventually you'll find you're navigating rush hour with minimal worry and it will finally hit home that this is what it feels like to drive like a grown up. Level 10 is pretty nice, but you can't skip the steps in between. Once you do the unpleasant grindy bits, then you get to have fun.
posted by gracedissolved at 12:09 PM on October 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

I am 30, and I realise it's significantly harder to learn to drive when you're a bit older.

I learned to drive when I was in my late 20s; I think (or at least hope) I'm a better defensive driver as a result, and was better able to provide my instructor with feedback on the bits that I found more challenging.

After 46 hours, it's definitely worth seeking recommendations for a new instructor to start afresh in an automatic. A decent one will have an automatic with dual controls available (mine did, though I never used it when learning) and will also be sensitive to your problems so far.
posted by holgate at 12:14 PM on October 29, 2012

I am 30, and I realise it's significantly harder to learn to drive when you're a bit older.

This is true when you are 60. It is not the case when you are 30.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:16 PM on October 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

If it makes you feel any better, I'm 44 and just got my permit a few weeks ago. It's harder to learn later in life, certainly, but I'm proof that it can be done. And, like you, I have to actually think about which is left and right and feel really weird and awkward driving (until just now, like yesterday when something started to finally click). My instructor has said all along that it's just a matter of practice until it sinks in. Don't psych yourself out of driving just keep practicing. Good luck!
posted by marimeko at 12:17 PM on October 29, 2012

Never say die.
Start over with an automatic car. That will make it easier.
posted by Flood at 12:49 PM on October 29, 2012

For the left and right thing: that happens to a lot of people. I saw a thread in here a week or two ago where someone said they use their name to tell the difference. So, for example, if you are driving with Jane in the passenger seat and Jane is giving you directions to get somewhere, she insists that Jane says "Turn jane-way" or "Turn raspberry-ripple-way" and never uses the words "right" or "left".

It happens. There are tons of people who don't use street names but they know to turn at the big tree or yellow house. As long as you know your way around (from your bike) and/or you look it up on googlemaps ahead of time, or your passenger is willing to use words that work for you, then that's all you need.
posted by CathyG at 1:08 PM on October 29, 2012

I'd learn on an automatic. Some people can learn on manuals, but it's just additional stuff that you have to master before you're really ready to drive.

You should also find a big, preferably empty, parking lot to practice in. You should under no circumstances be tooling around on roads with other cars until you really feel comfortable moving the car around, and in particular stopping it and performing avoidance maneuvers. In a manual, that means you have to have the clutch/brake/gas stuff all internalized to the point of being unconscious, which takes a lot of practice.

I think you are trying to move through the process much too fast. If you're out on roads in traffic when you're that uncomfortable with the car and with the basics of driving (and confidence is a big part of that), you're basically doing the driving equivalent of learning to swim by being tossed into the deep end of the pool. Except that in the pool you might only drown, in a car you might take some other people with you. Not ideal, and I am deeply distrustful of anyone who thinks a good way to learn to drive is just to pull out onto roads with other cars.

The way I learned to drive (and I have since trained several other people to drive) is by practicing in parking lots for what seems like an absurdly long time. You want to get to the point of feeling comfortable, of feeling like you could easily get out on the actual roads, and then do more parking lot practice. And more. To the point where it's really boring and you're itching to do something more interesting. And then you move out onto actual roads, and if anything doesn't go well, you go back to the parking lot for a while longer.

If you can get some markers to drive around, that would be very useful. Traffic cones are OK. The ideal thing is actually pieces of wood (think yard sticks) stuck into coffee cans full of dirt. You can use these to simulate other cars when practicing parking and other maneuvers (if you hit them, they'll fall over and you know you messed up). This is a trick I learned when I was being trained to drive large emergency vehicles.

Honestly, you could do worse than to set up the competency course used to train emergency vehicle drivers (in the US) and go through it in your car; I guarantee you that by the time you can run through that course in five minutes, that you'll be far more confident in your car than you currently are, and probably ready for the road.

Don't push yourself to get out on the road and into traffic until you're totally confident with the lower-level skills of just operating the car, and getting it to move the way you want to. If that means you spend a few months of weekends in a car park, that's totally okay — it's better than rushing out onto the public roads and getting in a crash.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:17 PM on October 29, 2012

Pardon my pun, but Stick with it!

Well, stick with the driving, not necessarily the stick shift.

46hrs may feel like a lot of practice time, but it's not really. Do you feel skilled after your first work week? Your first set of swimming lessons?

A hopeful anecdote: Last summer, at 35, I decided to take up sailing and started with 30hrs of instruction. It was fun but OMG complicated: wind, sail, partner, rudder... You've got to be watching 3+ things and doing 2 or more, all the time. I'd say half of my class passed after the 30 hrs... And it was mostly those who were younger or more athletically inclined. I continued to practice all summer, tried the test 3 more times but couldn't pass. My 50-something friend practiced like a demon over a two week period and passed but was still anxious.mBut, I love being out on the water, so I signed up for the class again this spring. 2 sessions in, it all came together. And I passed, and passed the second level later in the summer.

Learning and new language and movements takes time. Especially when you're accustomed to thinking of yourself as uncoordinated.

Practice until you're comfortable, especially I safer spaces like unoccupied parking lots.

You can do it!
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 1:23 PM on October 29, 2012

I got my license just after my 30th birthday - I felt a lot of the anxiety issues you're having and I also have terrible issues with right and left (though I'm not at all dyspraxic). I hated that I couldn't do this thing that seemed so easy for everyone else I knew. I'd start lessons every few years, fail a test, have a meltdown and shelve it.

My problem was that I couldn't process what the driving instructor was telling me to do whilst I was in the middle of figuring it all out. My 'a ha' moment really came after I started ignoring the instructor. I'm actually pretty aware and responsive so driving the car was not that problematic once I stopped having to react to external instructions/corrections, and could choose to act on information for myself. Obviously this isn't possible during lessons so I bought a cheap old small car and had my then boyfriend sat with me and make no comment whilst I drove it round car parks and deserted building sites at weekends. My confidence grew once I could actually feel when the gears needed changing without berating myself for not 'getting' what the instructor was telling me I should be seeing or thinking during a specific maneuver. After about three months of this I went back to one lesson a week with an easy going instructor and passed the test two months later. Practice really does make it second nature.

I'd also recommend extended practice with the hazard perception simulator (I bought a cheap PC version) - the one I had was pretty cheesy but it really helped me learn to trust my peripheral vision.

However, another friend of mine felt he didn't want to do the whole clutch thing from the get-go and got an automatic license for a car he's been happily driving for ten years now. Either way it's definately doable, and if you enjoy driving (I really, really love it) you'll be so glad you did, it does feel like it's taking forever but once it's done, it's done.

Also - being older when I passed was a good thing in my book. I was far too highly strung in my twenties, driving is safer when you've mellowed a bit!
posted by freya_lamb at 2:01 PM on October 29, 2012

A small bit of advice: Don't worry too much about left and right. Sure, they are important to communicate with someone who is helping you to learn, but you don't often need to use the words left and right while driving. Don't stress too much about the words; just think about where you want to go and steer there. Driving is not a verbal exercise.
posted by ssg at 3:01 PM on October 29, 2012

I would move to an automatic. When I was a teenager, I couldn't process the clutch & gear shift. I didn't start driving an automatic regularly until my late 20s. When we got a standard 2 years ago, I had 3 lessons then lost interest. However, a month ago I made up my mind to try the standard again after watching many episodes of Top Gear. I stall out the car almost once a trip & I'm scared of hills, but I can get across town & back again at the ripe age of 42. So if a standard doesn't work out for you now, perhaps it will in the future.

And if you have a game console like an Xbox maybe you can practice with a racing game.
posted by dragonplayer at 3:31 PM on October 29, 2012

Hey, if it turns out that moving to an automatic isn't a convenient option for you (e.g. you don't have access to an automatic car) then maybe what you could do is try to isolate the shifting and piloting aspects of things and learn them one at a time. It kind of sounds like your instructor is trying to teach you to shift and to drive simultaneously, which strikes me as not the easiest way to do things since you are having to learn lots of different things at the same time.

You want to get at least moderately comfortable with shifting by just sort of putting around in some big empty parking lots or closed road courses before you take the car out on a road, is what I'm saying. When you go out on roads you want to at first do it at night or in the early morning when there are few other cars around, and do it on nice simple stretches of road where you can mostly practice starting, stopping, and turning, and where you can mostly do it at your leisure. This will take a while! I can see it taking at least 20 hours of practice just to get the hang of the shifting itself, and I can totally see it taking much more than that if you are simultaneously trying to learn to shift, maneuver, watch the road, navigate, and field such obstacles as other drivers, pedestrians, and traffic signals.

You shouldn't be trying to do it all at once. Ideally you should try to gain a basic level of proficiency and comfort with each aspect of driving in turn, learning them one at a time as much as possible. If you're currently trying to learn to do three different things none of which you feel comfortable doing alone, then your progress is going to be much slower and more frustrating. You may want to talk to whoever is teaching you about going back a few steps and trying to improve your proficiency with some of the actual mechanical aspects of operating a car (like the clutch/shifter, the brakes, the accelerator, and the wheel) and to try to get a feel for each in turn before you combine them and before you add all the distractions and decisions of real-world driving to the mix.
posted by Scientist at 3:47 PM on October 29, 2012

I'm from the US, so obviously my learning experience is somewhat different than yours. The driving school only had automatics and my family only had manuals, so my driving lessons were all on automatics and the rest of my practice was in manuals, as was my final test. I also ended up failing the test a few times before I finally passed (partially because the driving school insisted I have my final lesson as a refresher the day before the test, and it takes a little time to switch back to a manual transmission mentality).

Have you been using the same car each time you've driven? Manual transmissions will vary between models of cars. Changing cars all the time can cause problems, or if you're always using the same car maybe it has a trickier than normal clutch. My first car had a particularly tricky clutch. One of my friends wanted to try learning manual on it (because his parents were going to buy a manual car), and he couldn't get a handle on it at all, then when his parents did get the car he had no problems with it at all.

It's perfectly normal to be nervous when you're learning to drive. It wasn't until sometime after I got my license that I stopped being at least somewhat nervous while driving. I'd be more concerned if you weren't.

When you're learning how to drive, there are a lot of unfamiliar things you're trying to do at the same time, so I wouldn't worry about getting left and right messed up too much. (and turning while reversing just gets more confusing the more you think about it.)

One thing a few other people also brought up is that I learned the basics of the manual transmission by starting and stopping while driving in circles in the school parking lot, which will help with the basics of dealing of a manual without having to worry about traffic and the rules of the road.
posted by ckape at 4:21 PM on October 29, 2012

Disclaimers: I know nothing about dyspraxia, stick shift driving, UK driving, or how lessons work there. (46 hours worth of lessons? Bwahahahahaha, here we got six hours of paid instruction.) So most of what I might advise may be useless to you. magnetsphere and gracedissolved pretty much covered them for me anyway. However, I can speak to one thing...

It took me 16 years to get my license. I terrified the shit out of the people who attempted to teach me (and oh lord, VICE VERSA) before I found someone who'd also had a driving phobia and was willing to gentle me through the process. I can't speak for the dyspraxia stuff, but if I managed it....
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:38 PM on October 29, 2012

Use a driving simulator. Desktop computer with big screen, a good steering wheel/pedals, and diving software. Here is a good list of titles and this one is sold to driving schools.
posted by anon4now at 5:25 PM on October 29, 2012

I learned on a manual in the US (which is relevant as a) there are no roundabouts in Chicago and b) it's a lot easier to get a license in the US--my dad failed the British test after having had his US license for several years). I sort of think it might be easier to learn on a manual. There's a much steeper learning curve at the very beginning, as you have to figure out how to not stall, but I feel I have a much better idea of what the hell the car's doing. For example, it's much easier to know how fast you're accelerating because you can hear when you need to shift and, well, you're shifting. I don't own a car, so almost all the driving I do is cars from a car share scheme, which are automatics and it's disconcerting.

One thing that makes it easier to learn on a manual in Britain, versus the US, is that when you stall, whoever's behind you will realise you've stalled and haven't just stopped randomly. They'll probably give you extra room on a hill start, too. You've got L plates. The whole point is to alert other people that you're learning.

Most of my early driving practice was in a hospital parking lot, in the dark, after my mom got home from work. When I would get frustrated, my mom would make me get out of the car and do jumping jacks. Doing jumping jacks in a deserted parking lot in the dark is a good way to feel like a complete idiot, but it worked. There was enough room to get up into third gear and drive round in circles to practise shifting to turn. An industrial estate on the weekend would probably be a good place to practice--if you're lucky a big parking lot, but failing that, empty roads to practice turning. You don't have to drive there--on a provisional license, you need someone with you, so get them to drive there. Tell this friend what you do and don't want them to do. Tell you when to get out and do jumping jacks? Yes. Attempt to offer advice while you're driving? Maybe not.
posted by hoyland at 8:32 PM on October 29, 2012

When I was learning my dad was fond of quoting one of his dad's sayings "A car has four sides, and you need to know what is going on on all of them." I think it's a good reminder to repeat to yourself periodically to remember to be mindful of your surroundings when driving. Another thing my dad made me do when learning, especially when working on parallel parking, was get out of the car and walk all the way around it several times first. This was to get an idea of how big the car really was, and realize how much space I'd need when parking. I think that migt help you with some of your issues about how much room you need. Really consciously try to memorize the dimensions of the vehicle you are using. (And yes, automatic, so much easier to focus on actually driving without worrying about stalling out.)
posted by catatethebird at 8:59 PM on October 29, 2012

I finally passed my test, in the UK, at the age of 31 in an automatic. So I'd definitely recommend it.

I did some learning in a manual in my twenties, ran out of money, and then coming back in my thirties couldn't seem to get the hang of it. I plan to get a manual licence someday... but haven't bothered yet. It can be a problem, because auto cars are a little rarer (but that's changing). It means I can't drive my partner's car, but he sees that as a benefit.
posted by SuckPoppet at 10:12 AM on October 30, 2012

Thank you to ALL of you - I could really have favourited almost all of these replies.

What freya_lamb says about not being able to process what the instructor was saying really struck a chord with me, as I don't process verbal information well at the best of times (I am an extreme visual learner). I absolutely feel stupid for not being able to focus on what my instructor's saying because I'm thinking about so much else. The trouble is, he tells me what to do aaaaall the time, even when I know what to do, so just as I'm thinking about braking or changing gear he'll tell me to brake or change gear, and then this startles me out of my concentration (and makes me think I'm being criticised for not having done it already) and messes me up. Related to what magnetsphere says about workarounds, I do think the best bits of driving I've done have been when I've been driving with my husband in his car, because he shuts up and lets me get on with it, and I can do whatever inane calming rituals I like, like talking myself through what I'm doing or humming a tune or just calmly swearing to myself...

About practising in car parks etc - fairly early on in my lessons after a stalling incident we went to a car park where I went round and round and round stopping and moving off until I was doing it perfectly and beautifully and smoothly every single time. Then I got out onto the road; I got to a junction, the light went green, I realised there was someone behind me and I had to GO RIGHT NOW and of course I stalled. Again.

This is a huge part of the problem, I think. I can practise and practise and practise until I can stop and start and change gears standing on my head, but as soon as there's any pressure - such as a light going green, or seeing a gap at a roundabout and having to go before it disappears - it all goes to pieces. I was explaining this to a friend earlier, and she was saying that stalling isn't so bad - as hoyland mentions above, the person behind knows you've stalled - but few things induce panic in me more than knowing I'm getting in someone's way, so to me, stalling is absolutely to be avoided At All Costs. If someone sounds their horn at me I then have to devote what little is left of my brain to trying not to burst into tears...

I do think that at the very least I may need a change of instructor. I do get on with him, and until recently he's been very good at making me laugh when I get stressed to calm me down a bit, but I feel as though he's losing patience with my incompetence now, like he keeps expecting me to get better and I don't. This just compounds my guilt about being rubbish and makes me feel even more like I just need to get the hell off the road. I think an automatic may be the way to go because while a lot of you are (correctly) suggesting I learn one thing at a time, I think the can't-drive-under-pressure issue - and the lack of quiet roads near where I live - means that I really need to learn how to deal with traffic around me before worrying about gears, rather than the other way around.

What seems to me like the best solution is to find a driving school that does lessons in both manual and automatic cars and ask them to give me an honest assessment of where I am at the moment, and based on that, whether there's any point in carrying on with manual lessons or whether I should go straight to an automatic. A new start with a different instructor may be all I need to jolt me out of my defeatist mentality, after all.

Thanks again, so much, for all your thoughts on this - I really, really appreciate it, and I feel so so much better about the whole thing. After hearing various "well I passed my test the first time after 3 lessons so I can't help you" stories, everything you've said has really reassured me. (My husband looked at this thread and said "Isn't it lovely that all these people you've never met want to help you with this?" And I said, "Yes, that's Ask Metafilter for you". :) )
posted by raspberry-ripple at 4:03 PM on October 30, 2012

I am also terrified of but capable of driving, and didn't learn until I was 27 or so, and second what everyone else says. I started in parking lots, giant empty parking lots, and eventually starting taking very short detours to empty roads next to the giant parking lots, then slightly longer detours onto nearly-empty roads near the parking lots. I also drove around and around and around and around a nearly empty park for ages. The idea was to really space out the things that freaked me out (like other cars), until they didn't freak me out so much. I took the same routes over and over so I didn't have to figure out what lane to be in and also what to do about that other car. After a few years of this I can now drive both downtown in a very dense city and take highways I am not familiar with, with only occasional minor freakouts, and am graduating to doing this in a variety of unfamiliar cars.

Also to make you feel much better, in Pennsylania you *have* to spend at least 60 hours practicing before you can even take the test, and from what I understand our test is much easier. You can definitely do this.
posted by sepviva at 4:35 PM on October 31, 2012

I am just checking in to say that I could have written your question. I have never heard the word dyspraxic before reading your question and I googled it and basically burst into tears because I never realized that anyone else felt like that. Holy shit you changed my life just by asking that question.
posted by jennybento at 6:39 PM on November 2, 2012

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