Your tips and tricks for driving alone as a new driver, please?
March 28, 2014 3:48 PM   Subscribe

I'm almost 30 and I just got my driver's license. Yay! But I feel much more comfortable driving with my S.O. in the car, to the point that I get really nervous and make mistakes when I'm alone (city driving + non grid system). Can you spare any tips on getting comfortable with driving alone, especially in a high traffic city? The thought of lone highway driving, especially, is terrifying.
posted by Miss T.Horn to Travel & Transportation (28 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
You just have to practice. Try getting out really early on Sunday morning and going for a drive when there aren't many other people around.
posted by something something at 3:54 PM on March 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

Practice, really. Just a lot of practice. Practice at a time when there's not so much traffic (early weekend mornings?) and you don't have a schedule to keep to. It's really a matter of training your brain and your muscles to do all this random stuff together, and you can't do that without doing it a lot. It does get easier!
posted by rtha at 3:55 PM on March 28, 2014

Practice. I will say it is good you are comfortable with your SO in the car. Mine also got his license recently and he drives better when I'm not there, apparently I make him nervous.
posted by amapolaroja at 4:03 PM on March 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I know it's not what you want to hear, but there's no shortcut. I got my license at 27 and was terrified to drive until, at 30, I was forced by circumstances to drive frequently. It took a few months to be OK with it, and even then, I avoided freeways because they terrified me, until, at 32, I was forced by circumstances to drive on them frequently. Only way out is through. Just get as much practice as you can. I know, it sucks.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 4:11 PM on March 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Highway driving, just to reassure you, is the easiest type of driving.
posted by kindall at 4:12 PM on March 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

keep your direct focus as far in the distance as possible, it will keep you in your lane and help you anticipate upcoming turns and obstacles. Adjust your rear view and side view mirrors to eliminate blind spots, if adjusted correctly they should slightly overlap each other from left to right. Stay in the right lane until you feel comfortable. Stay out of the left lane during rain storms - the oncoming traffic will sometimes spray your windshield when you least expect it. Anticipate anticipate anticipate. Assume everyone is about to cut into your lane without signaling, assume the guy next to you will speed up and not let you in to your lane. Always keep clearance on both sides of your car in case someone darts into your lane and your instincts push you into the adjacent lane. Be on lookout for weavers in front of you, they are either drunk or worse - texting, give them a WIDE berth.
posted by any major dude at 4:26 PM on March 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Either odd hours, or figure out some way to take a drive out to a suburban area, drop your SO off at a coffee shop or something for a couple hours, and do that for awhile. The first bits of driving alone absolutely petrified me--I was also a late driver. But it did not take that long to improve. I had the advantage of already living in a small town at the time, though, so I was able to start there and then graduate to traffic. Definitely try off-hours with the highways, work up to rush hour.

One thing I found helpful was figuring out which exits in my area were particularly difficult during high-traffic times, and if I felt too anxious to do those exits safely, I already knew ahead of time when they were coming and that, for example, the next exit down was easier to get off at even if it'd mean a slightly longer drive home. And by the time I got a job in an area where the shortest commute involved an exit with a stupid two-lane cross, I usually felt good enough to do it regularly even during rush hour, but I felt less anxious generally because I still had the option.
posted by Sequence at 4:28 PM on March 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

It also really helps to really know the area you are planning on driving in before you go. Spend some time with google maps, learn the streets well, what directions they run in, what are parallel streets in case you miss your turn, etc. If you do this prep before hand, it's one less thing to worry about when you're on the road.

But everyone else is 100% correct when it comes to practice. Practice, practice, practice. Do it enough and driving will become second nature, but there's not a lot of shortcuts to getting to that point.
posted by cgg at 4:37 PM on March 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Use a GPS navigation system? Just having that voice as a reminder, a co-pilot to deal with the nav while you deal with the traffic, might help take a load off your mind on unfamiliar roads.
posted by straw at 4:46 PM on March 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Another vote for lots of practice, plus keeping distractions to a minimum --- if you insist on having the radio on, tune it BEFORE you move the car. Ditto the heater or anything else. Turn off your phone: do not make OR accept any phone calls or texts while you're driving, it can all wait until you aren't busy.

You CAN do this; after all, tons of teenagers do, and as a grownup you're far more sensible!
posted by easily confused at 4:51 PM on March 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Why not continue driving with your SO in the car, or consider taking driving lessons, until you feel comfortable enough to go out on your own? If you still feel anxious about it, you may not be ready to drive in traffic at high-traffic times by yourself.
posted by chickenmagazine at 5:30 PM on March 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Regarding the proper adjustment of side view mirrors mention above: here's a pretty good post on how to do that. I couldn't believe I'd been driving for so long (decades!) before I learned this. It took a bit to get used to, but now when I drive a car that doesn't have them set this way I feel almost blind. Learn it this way from the beginning - it doesn't completely eliminate the blind spot, but makes it much smaller, and so makes lane changing and just general awareness of what's around you much less fraught.
posted by rtha at 5:33 PM on March 28, 2014

I got my license at 29, and 5 years later I am a pretty confident driver. Part of it was accepting that I have a terrible sense of direction, because a lot of my anxiety was fear of getting lost, so I always have my GPS or my phone which has maps on it. Even if I get totally lost I can pull over somewhere, turn on the GPS and it will guide me home. The other thing was that due to circumstances out of my control I had to drive a lot - my first act as a licensed driver was backing my Mum's car out of her driveway and onto a busy road. So yes, practice!

Also - have a think about what is different when you have your S.O. in the car? Do you rely on them to stop you making mistakes, or do you imagine being able to hand over control if you get into a situation you can't handle, or is it something else? If your partner routinely points out mistakes, work on making correct procedures (e.g. checking your blind spot, looking both ways before entering an intersection, stopping correctly at stop signs or whatever) part of your routine of driving. Narrating out loud when you're by yourself can help, strange as it sounds. Did you learn those weird mnemonics when you learned to drive? I'm remembering MISS for merges, changing lanes etc -
  • Mirror (check your rear view mirror)
  • Indicator (put your blinker on)
  • Shoulder (look over your shoulder and check your blind spot)
  • Steer (into the other lane)
...that sort of thing.

If you're imagining being able to hand over to your S.O. if you get into a situation that is too much for you, what kind of situation would be too much? Five years in, I have done lots of things that were a bit scary, but nothing that I actually couldn't handle on my own.

But I suspect that your S.O. is more of a security blanket, and probably you drive the same whether or not they are in the car - so remind yourself that you can do it, with or without them.

In Australia, becoming a fully licensed driver includes a final stage where you learn about risk taking behaviour and driving safely. I remember one section about mistakes -

Crash research shows that all drivers, even you, can and will make mistakes. It is estimated that drivers make a mistake that:
  • Could lead to a crash about every three kilometres.
  • Leads to a near crash about every 800 kilometres.
  • Leads to a crash about every 980,000 kilometres.
Understanding that you can and will make mistakes as a driver is important. This can help you to recognise that driving can be risky without having to take deliberate risks.

From: Driver Qualification Handbook, NSW Roads and Maritime Services, pg. 37.

This really stuck in my head, because it makes it clear that most drivers make mistakes every day, and usually they don't result in accidents. Having said that, as an inexperienced driver, you're most at risk because you are probably making more mistakes and are less able to avoid other people's mistakes. But on the other hand, particularly if you are anxious, you are probably less blasé about driving than a more experienced driver, and less likely to do things that are reckless.

Just after I got my license, a friend who has been driving for lot longer said that her confidence increased a lot after driving for a while, being involved in a couple of minor accidents, and realising that the world didn't end. (Insurance stats in Australia say that a comprehensively insured vehicle has a 1/7 chance of being involved in an accident every year). At the time I couldn't think of anything worse, but six months into my driving career I was in a minor at-fault accident, and while I was shaken and inconvenienced, the world didn't end. And although I still feel nervous driving past that corner, my overall confidence has continued to grow.

Good luck! I did not anticipate it when I learned to drive, but the freedom of being able to drive from one place to another is one of the great joys of my life. I hope it comes to feel that way for you too.
posted by Cheese Monster at 5:39 PM on March 28, 2014

Have your SO sit in the back seat and talk to you less and less as you get more comfortable.
posted by Etrigan at 6:13 PM on March 28, 2014

My driving lessons followed the defensive approach described by any major dude, and although I am sometimes an anxious driver, those are tools that help me feel safe.

Pace your driving with the flow of traffic, keeping a good distance around you (try not to get boxed in), and just try to maintain awareness -- watch for things one or two lights ahead, and do a scan of the environment constantly as you go. This won't always be stressful, it will become habit after a while.

A lot of people don't signal - I check out the direction of people's wheels, or notice whether they're leaning towards the lines of a lane, and use that as an indication of their intention.

Review a map of the city - a good thing to do is then put it away, close your eyes, and try to connect the streets in your mind. Mentally go down those streets, switching between the bird's eye view represented on the map and your personal memories of the streets (like "ok, that's where the great shoe store is, Main St."; "ok, and Main St. connects with Grant St. after about three blocks") and then compare that to the map.

Same thing when you're driving - don't let the landscape just stream by, attend to landmarks and the names of the streets you're on.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:58 PM on March 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

"tips on getting comfortable with driving alone, especially in a high traffic city? The thought of lone highway driving, especially, is terrifying."

That's two very separate things. There's almost as little in common as between fine art painting and house painting. In both cases, same tools are used in very different applications and with very different skillsets.

Highway driving is chess. Mental endurance is required to stay focused through a long, methodical, non-densely eventful course of action. Lots of factors to monitor, none immediately dangerous, but you can't let bad factors aggregate. Build up your highway driving like you build up other sorts of stamina: gradually. Don't use the stereo. Concentrate. Force yourself to use mirrors at regular intervals, and not to get lulled and desensitized by that nonstop asphalt continuously coming at you. Think jet fighter pilot: senses on alert, but everything calm and precise and professional. Attention focused, but in an (again) relaxed and sustainable way.

Oh, and stay to the right on highways. If you're staying right, no one has a right to demand anything of you. The middle and left lane are the big leagues, and scary/angry things can happen if impatient people are behind you.

City driving is more like air hockey. Twitchy surprises and adjustments. You'll have no problem applying attention, because your attention can't help but engage. Here, it's a matter of priorities. Your first priority is not to kill pedestrians. You need to stay very clear on that. It comes BEFORE your priority to, for example, turn onto any given street. And pedestrians are unpredictable. Other cars of course must also be engaged with, and they're densely packed, but, unlike highway driving, speeds are low. High chance of fender bender, but low chance of death.

That thing about relaxing about making a turn onto the street you need is important (Louis CK has a routine on this). If you miss a turnoff on a highway, it's a big deal. But it's not gonna kill you to turn onto 22nd street instead of 20th. Again, manage priorities.

Differentiate carefully between the highway and city. If you've ever seen an urban-based cab driver on a highway, barely staying in his lane, you know what a fish out of water - unaccustomed to shifting between the two - looks like.

In both cases, build up gradually. No five hour road trips, and no multi-stop urban shopping trips until you feel comfortable with shorter jaunts.

Most of all, again, don't kill anybody. Again: don't kill anybody. It's easy to get complacent; to forget you're driving a deadly weapon. You're already a slightly uptight driver, so I'm not trying to worry you further. Rather, BEAR DOWN, apply focus, and be a mature fighter pilot. Being scared and jumpy doesn't help you not kill anybody (if your son or daughter had an emergency, you wouldn't freak out, you'd act decisively). Be your most grown-up, mature self. Driving is a grown-up, mature activity.
posted by Quisp Lover at 8:10 PM on March 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Me again (from previous answer).

Another way of saying it is, re: those mistakes you make, make mistakes which screw you up rather than the other people.

Make mistakes which make you late, or make you have to drive around, or make you have to spend time waiting (pull over if you need, to, let people go by, and proceed when things have calmed down. Do lots of things that take you safely out of the action when rattled).

Don't let yourself make mistakes that put people in danger or (lower priority) are discourteous to others (but don't let angry, honking drivers who are pissed at your errors pressure you into doing stupid things, either. Again: priorities!). Bottom priority is getting where you're going in a timely manner. As you get better at all this, you'll get better at that. When you're real good, you'll get there fast without threatening or annoying anyone. Let that be your deferred prize.

Re: letting angry, honking drivers who are pissed at your errors pressure you into doing stupid things, an anecdote, really important to hear. I'm waiting on a long, long line of cars to make a left turn at a major intersection. The car at the front of the line, waiting to make a left, is being a bit hesitant. The cars in back all start SLAMMING on their horns. The frontmost car, with a nervous, inexperienced driver, starts inching forward, clearly very upset about the situation. A car is coming straight at her, headed straight through the intersection. The assholes keep honking. Driver keeps inching. Finally, unable to take the peer pressure and stress anymore, she PLOWS into the oncoming car. All from the perceived pressure to turn left.

Understand what can happen when you lose your sense of priority.
posted by Quisp Lover at 8:20 PM on March 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh yeah: even as a now-seasoned driver, I still look at the route I'm going to take beforehand and get as familiar with it as I can so I can concentrate on driving . It's a great habit to have, and makes driving much, much less stressful.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 9:56 PM on March 28, 2014

I started driving late, too, and was pretty freaked about it. What really helped me when I couldn't imagine being able to do all those things simultaneously (and not kill anybody) was to remind myself of how many idiots I have known in my life who are also decent drivers. Seriously. I reminded myself that I'm smart and I can multitask and if everybody else can manage it, including the rock-stupid, so can I.

It also helped me to plan routes, as somebody suggested above, to avoid stuff that stresses me out, like left turns on busy streets. And I still try to not drive during rush hour if I can. But practice is what really helped me--I finally learned to drive in my 30s because I had a new job that I had to commute 30 minutes to get to, so I just had to do it. I left home every day really early, then went slowly and cautiously, staying in the right lane the whole way, making lane changes far in advance, and focusing on what I was doing.

I know it seems insurmountable right now, but you can do this. Just focus and take one step at a time. Don't let anybody rush you, and if something seems risky, don't do it. I found that playing some calming music on the radio helped me to keep down the noise of my own fretting. If you find that you get wound up and distract yourself with "what if" thoughts, keep refocusing your attention on what you're doing. Yes, bad things can happen, but they probably won't, so keep breathing and take it slow and steady.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 10:04 PM on March 28, 2014

I bet I know why you feel better with your SO in the car: having someone else in the car distracts you from your own panic at being alone in dealing with the situation. I hear ya on that one. But other than that...what everyone else said about GPS use and printing out directions on Mapquest first and making all radio adjustments beforehand and just getting used to the idea slowly.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:49 PM on March 28, 2014

For me, eliminating all distractions so I could concentrate on my driving was the worst thing for the anxiety. If jenfullmoon is right that your SO's presence is a distraction from panic, try to increase the amount of distractions just to the point where you're less nervous but not to the point where you'd need to look away from the road or anything.

Instead of just listening to music, sing along to something familiar and sort of bounce to the rhythm.

Listen to an audiobook of something engaging that you've read before, so you can escape into it during boring stretches of driving and stop paying attention to it immediately when you need to.

If you meditate, you can do a driving meditation, where you bring your awareness to everything you need to pay attention to for driving at that moment, but you're doing so with the gentle, nonjudgmental attitude you practice during meditation.

Pretend you're playing a video game where the goal is to be the calmest, happiest driver on the road, and you're winning.

While parked at home, "drive" with your eyes closed. Imagine your route. Touch the blinker and run your hands across the steering wheel to mime the motions. Turn the radio up when you "get to the highway." Pay attention to how your nervousness manifests, and release those muscles / exhale. Imagine getting safely to your destination.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 3:37 AM on March 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Keep the car doors locked. Always use the parking (aka emergency) brake.
posted by Carol Anne at 8:15 AM on March 29, 2014

When I took drivers' ed, we were warned that the first time we drove alone, it would feel really strange. The instructor recommended narrating what we did (I'm putting on my seatbelt, turning the key in the ignition, putting the car into drive, looking both ways before pulling out, etc.) to make the transition easier.

I still occasionally do this if I'm tired or otherwise need to remind my brain to focus on driving as its primary activity.
posted by casualinference at 9:35 AM on March 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think a good way to build confidence and muscle memory is to repeatedly drive a safe route. This will get you into the rhythm of driving, and will gradually introduce you to new variables (cars pulling out unexpectedly, distracted pedestrians, etc.) in a familiar context.

As you become comfortable with your chosen route, you can branch out and add on to it, returning to your familiar route when you become anxious or need a confidence refresher.

There's a lot of muscle-memory type stuff that you simply need time behind the wheel to build up so it becomes unthinking and second-nature. Eventually, your car will feel like an extension of your body. You'll get there.

And mistakes are part of the learning process. Remind yourself that, whatever comes up, you'll be able to handle it. And remind yourself that there are trained professionals who will step in and help (tow truck drivers, medics, insurance agents) for anything that falls outside of your control.

Control what you can (drive with full focus; turn your phone off; make sure the car is in good shape; know your route in advance; be well-fed, well-hydrated, and not needing to use the bathroom), and let go of what is out of your control.

You got this.
posted by nacho fries at 9:43 AM on March 29, 2014

The first time I drove alone after passing my test was to drop off my dad somewhere, so I had to drive back alone. It was only a short journey to get back home and I was absolutely exhausted by the time I parked the car. I didn't really get into the habit of driving much, I moved and didn't have a car for 4 years and when I started to drive again it was in a right hand steered car driving on the other side of the road...I almost ended up in a ditch within 5 mins of picking up the car. Then I started a job that entailed a daily commute of 50 mile (round trip) and within a month I was perfectly comfortable driving both in urban traffic and on highways. So practice is the answer.

I have since driven several hundred thousand miles in different countries on known and unknown roads. I've not owned a car now for the last 4 years and whenever I drive it's a different car (hire cars, car sharing scheme), meaning that I do not know how the car I drive will react or else where some if the controls are. But I have got the experience to deal with these situations.

Whilst I am perfectly comfortable driving both in urban traffic and on highways I do find highways much more relaxing. I love to go on road trips all alone. So expect that you'll come to prefer one over the other as you gain experience.
posted by koahiatamadl at 10:21 AM on March 29, 2014

definitely get a GPS if you don't have one. that will eliminate a ton of anxiety about making wrong turns or getting lost.

and to add on to what quisp lover was saying: let the honkers honk. it took me a while to learn that. but you need to be safe and the honking assholes can just deal with it. they're the ones doing it (driving, life, etc.) wrong.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 12:41 PM on March 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Re: Quisp Lover's sadly awful anecdote - one time when I was learning to drive and was stopped at a stop sign, another car pulled up behind me. The visibility at the corner was pretty poor so I was taking my time to inch out while checking. The driver behind honked repeatedly, and I began to panic and move off faster. My driving instructor slammed on the dual-control brake, and sat there waving his arms at the guy as he leaned on his brake. This experience really put honking a..holes in perspective (seriously, what was wrong with him to honk at a learner??) and also made me realise that honking is just noise. Honking can alert you to a danger that you weren't aware of, but in this kind of situation it's usually just about the other person's impatience (and/or bullying desire to victimise a weaker target) and has very little to do with you or your driving skill.
posted by Cheese Monster at 3:05 PM on March 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

I also encourage using GPS. But for different reasons than the other posters. When you miss a turn off (for example because other cars aren't letting you in), your GPS doesn't get annoyed. It just very calmly recalculates the best route from wherever you ended up. Learn to emulate your GPS!

There's no need to get uptight if you miss a turn-off, miss a highway, miss a parking spot, or just generally don't wind up where you'd intended. Even if you end up going in the complete opposite direction of where you need to go! There's a weird human impulse to get incredibly stressed when this stuff happens, and it's ridiculous. No matter how lost you get, no matter how off-track you get, that night you're going to go home and sleep in your bed. Life as you know it will not come to an end.

That sense of looseness, if you really cultivate it, will take an enormous amount of your uptightness away. You're driving! You're free! It's fun! What, you also need to get exactly what you want to go in the most efficient and timely possible manner? Why, exactly? :)
posted by Quisp Lover at 8:25 AM on March 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

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