How can I deal with anxieties about learning to drive as an adult?
August 10, 2015 4:05 AM   Subscribe

I am 38 years old. I have to learn how to drive. I am absolutely terrified.

The backstory:wWhen I was 16, my parents made me get my license. I did not feel like I was a very good driver, and after my road test, I basically never drove again. Now, as an adult, I have to re-learn this skill. It will open up a lot of doors for me, job-wise, and since I live with someone who has a health issue, it sees necessary. There have been a few times he was sick and had to wait for me to walk there and back to the store for him...

I went last week and passed the written test for the learner's permit. I had to really psych myself up for it, and I was terrified I would fail and everyone would know I wasn't smart enough. It may sound silly, but I really did have some huge anxieties about it! Now, I have to start in-class lessons, and then on-the-road lessons...

My parents think the issue was that I needed glasses and didn't know it, and now that I will be driving as an adult, with glasses, I will like it more. I am skeptical about this theory. I also think the quality of the other drivers has declined since I was a teenager. Very often, I will be walking somewhere and crossing on my green light, and a driver will screech to a halt a finger's length away from me, and then wave me through like they are doing me a favour. It's my green light! I have right of way! How does nobody remember this?

So, on the one hand, we have GPS now, and cars have many safety features. But on the other hand, our city is bigger, more crowded, and filled with reckless people. Husband is also a self-professed good driver, and has only has a few accidents. But two of them were with me, and they were quite scary for me. And he is quite an aggressive driver. I worry about him driving out there. I worry about ME driving! I am not sure how much of this worry is in my head and how much of it is 'it really is bad driving out there.'

We have a graduated licensing system, and he has to be in the car with me for at least eight months. I need to start this now. He has promised to wait to take me out until an instructor deems me road-worthy, and to to start me off with very small trips. He thinks that once I try it and see I can do it, I will be less nervous. Maybe? But in the meanwhile, how do I deal with this? Every time he leaves for work, I am thinking about how dangerous the drive will be for him, now that I am thinking of the road from the perspective of driving on it...
posted by JoannaC to Travel & Transportation (37 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
The way people do this is by taking lessons. If you can find a decent instructor, it's ten times better than learning from an amateur, who is someone you love and who you think is an agressive driver.
This is what instructors are for! They're professionals, let them do their job.
posted by Too-Ticky at 4:18 AM on August 10, 2015 [35 favorites]

I got my license for the first time at 25. I was very, very nervous to drive. I was a nervous passenger and a nervous pedestrian. Now I kind of enjoy driving.

I had a good instructor, and very much appreciated being in a driver's training car outfitted so that the instructor had his own pedal and brakes on the passenger side. He didn't ever use them, but it was comforting to know that he could have done if I needed it.

As I got more experience with being on the road, I began to develop a sense of what to expect from other drivers out there. I learned to drive in Philly and then immediately moved to Chicago, and let me tell you, there are a lot of bad drivers! Part of defensive driving is basically expecting that everyone around you is a moron who's going to pull some dangerous move sooner or later, so you become constantly aware of how to protect yourself from it. Even as a pedestrian, I no longer expect cars to obey traffic signals or respect my right of way, and am much more alert at intersections.

TL;DR: Get an instructor and force yourself to practice. It's scary, and it takes time, but driving becomes much less scary as you get better at it. You can do this!
posted by coppermoss at 4:37 AM on August 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

One thing I can pass along: never, ever let someone rush you. The road has assholes in a hurry. And they will try to rush you. That person will forget you in thirty seconds if you make them wait because you don't feel comfortable, say, turning left on a green light. Let em honk or eye roll or whatever. Fuck em. Take your time and proceed only when you feel comfortable.

I've been driving nearly 30 years, and I still remind myself of this regularly.
posted by persona au gratin at 4:38 AM on August 10, 2015 [31 favorites]

You can absolutely do this. It will get easier with practice, and also less scary. I was also a nervous driver for a while (got my license at 18 instead of 16, didn't really drive until I was 20). The most important things that helped me get used to it were a summer's worth of regular practice driving on really empty country roads . Do you have a calm place to practice that isn't in the middle of your city? Basically, driving is overwhelming at first because nothing's automatic and you have to keep track of so many things. So if you can reduce the amount of information you have to deal with and keep track of at first (i.e. find some big empty roads to practice on) then it's less overwhelming.

The other big thing that helped me was learning how to scan my environment while I was driving.

The pattern we were taught in driving school was: look out the front windshield, check your rearview mirror; look out the front windshield, check your left sideview mirror; look out the front, check your rearview mirror; look out the front, check your right sideview mirror; look out the front, check your rearview mirror, etc. This will give you a sense of who and what is around you, and will help you avoid any surprises.

Also, I apply something I learned from river running to driving, namely that it's a good idea to always look as far downstream as possible, because it helps you anticipate hazards. In terms of driving, that means looking as far down the road as possible. Don't let yourself get in the habit of just looking at the car in front of you.

Other things that helped me: to get started with city driving, pick one or two routes (from your house to the grocery store, etc) and just drive those routes repeatedly until you start to feel more comfortable with them. Gradually branch out and add new routes one at a time. Also, start building good habits from the very beginning: leave a decent amount of stopping space between you and the car in front of you, use your turn signals, check your blindspots every time you change lanes, always check an intersection before you move forward when the stoplight changes from red to green (just a quick look left, right, left look). Once those habits become automatic, then they help keep you space and also free up brain space while you're driving for other things.
posted by colfax at 4:40 AM on August 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

Don't worry about your husband's self-assessment, or his assessment of you. You want to become confident without overconfidence. "I'm a great driver!" Can become "I'm the best driver on the road" which can slip to "out of my way, other, less-good drivers!"

I mean, I've heard. :)
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 4:49 AM on August 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

If you can find the time practice in a huge empty parking lot for as long as your partner has patience. Just repetitive muscle memory and visceral familiarity with the machine and controls will make a huge difference.
posted by sammyo at 5:07 AM on August 10, 2015

I sometimes worry about the driving safety of people I love, because it's something I can't directly control, and I want to know they're going to be OK. But it may also help to have some perspective, and you will get that from learning to drive. It sounds like you've been so worried about your own (future) driving that you've built up the road to be a scary place, and it doesn't have to be so intense - the road is a place to be alert and aware, but it's not a daily life-or-death battle.

And as much as you may feel that drivers are worse than they used to be, the number of serious accidents has actually declined, despite more vehicles on the road. There are, of course, still bad drivers out there, but it's not a demolition derby. People can commute daily without incident for years; my girlfriend's mother drove daily in LA, and has never been in an accident in 40 years. I think my mother has gone 20 years without incident.

While you can never prevent other peoples' bad driving altogether, you can still make your own driving very safe. Part of being a safe driver means taking precautions against the unexpected: you stay aware of what's around you, you look before making a turn or changing lanes, you use your turn signal so other drivers know what you intend to do, you slow down so you can stop easily if you need to, and so on. A safe driver makes not only their own journey safer, but those of the other drivers around them, as well.

You'll pick up safe driving skills with lessons and experience - when you put them to practice you'll understand how to make driving safer, more comfortable, and maybe even fun for yourself.
posted by teponaztli at 5:23 AM on August 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

I was in your situation a little over ten years ago: learning to drive waaay after everybody else. Now I'm quite comfortable and have done two cross-country road trips, driven downtown in two of the largest cities in the US, weathered the worst winter conditions the continental US has to offer, etc. ...but the thing that I still struggle with is thinking too much about the whole prospect of motoring. I find that this affects me more *before* a road trip than during, FWIW & YM (heh) MV.

I also think the quality of the other drivers has declined since I was a teenager.

You're not wrong. I blame devices, mainly cell phones. My response is to assume at all times that every other vehicle is operated by a complete fucking moron. I call it "hyper-defensive driving." Only half joking here.

Also, I apply something I learned from river running to driving, namely that it's a good idea to always look as far downstream as possible, because it helps you anticipate hazards. In terms of driving, that means looking as far down the road as possible.

This helped me out early on, though in my case it was years and years of practice riding a bike in busy, car-choked areas. Which is actually scarier anyway :) So maybe getting in lots of bike hours in the early going will make it slightly easier for you to get in the "operating-vehicle-while-aware" zone.

And in terms of your anxiety about your husband "out there": first off, I'd hesitate to even call it "anxiety," because yes, it's dangerous. One of the rituals in my marriage is that we always tell each other "Drive carefully" when one of us is driving without the other. That said, he's proven his ability to you, so take comfort from that...and from the fact that your overall comfort with the road will increase, as his has. (On preview: what teponaztli said about your perspective changing.)
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 5:29 AM on August 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

to be frank, you're not wrong. driving sucks and i try to avoid it as much as possible. for years i didn't drive at all, and then eventually decided i should in another country (driving on the other side of the road).

the surprising thing was, that second time round it was quite a bit easier. first, you already know a lot of it. second, you're quite a bit older and, at least in my case, more capable of tolerating all the idiots. so i drive when i need to. i do so fairly well, i think, and when idiots rush past me or force their way in front of me i take a deep breath, realise they are idiots, and get on with my own life.

so yeah, all i did was take a few lessons and practice in a friend's car. you get the hang of it.
posted by andrewcooke at 5:34 AM on August 10, 2015

Sounds like this is really an anxiety problem, not a car problem. Supposing you learned to drive, and you went out in some gnarly traffic and had a fender bender.

What would actually be worse?

A. The reality of dealing with your insurance company and sorting it all out, disruption to your day, not being able to use your car while it got fixed.
B. The really horrible anxious feeling you get while thinking about it.

I'll wager you're more worried about _feeling anxious_ than you are about the actual hazards of driving. Like, you're worried that you'll get in a difficult driving situation, and then this anxiety will kick in, and you'll hyperventilate and go into panic mode, which will feel horrible and also make you unable to continue driving safely. So right now you are anxious just thinking about possibly getting anxious.

I notice that you also described having anxiety around strangers judging you for failing your written test - another situation where the anxious feelings are probably way more unpleasant than the silently judgey strangers.

If I'm right, then hop yourself to a psychologist who can help you with the anxiety, whether with meds or CBT or whatever it is, because dealing with that anxiety will make it WAY EASIER to handle the real risks of driving a car.

Either way, request a driving instructor who is specifically good with anxious people. Have no qualms about firing them and moving on if they aren't patient and helpful with you.
posted by emilyw at 5:39 AM on August 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

Definitely thirding the 'driving instructor'. Some driving schools advertise as specialising in either adult learners or nervous drivers (or both!) - one of them should be a big help, and can also help you talk through some of your other fears.

Once you have the basics down, there are defensive driving courses that can help - they can help you understand the kinds of things that might happen on the road, and have someone explain (and then get a chance to practice in controlled settings) what you'd do about them.

You'll probably still need to practice with other people, but I found it so frustrating to drive with my mother when I was learning (after I finished college, not as a teenager). I borrowed family friends with a license to get practice.

You can do this, though! My older brother (who is over 50) got his license for the first time this year, and there's stuff he's still working on, but he's doing great.

One of the things that's most complicated to learn, I think, is how to deal with unusual situations (weird intersections, turning rules in complicated settings, how much space to leave in what kinds of traffic). If there are routes you and your husband drive often (or expect to drive often), talking through those while you're not the one actually driving might be a big help, before you start trying to drive them - practice "Here's where I'd start slowing down. Ok, that light, they're turning left, and I can turn left too. This one, I have a red arrow, so I need to wait."

Find times when the roads are clear (earlyish weekend mornings, maybe?) when you can go practice things like dealing with intersections when there aren't a lot of other people around. (I moved back to the Boston area 3 months ago, and learning to deal with the driving in traffic again thing took a lot of mental energy for a while. Now that I know the quirks of my usual commute route options and where I need to pay particular attention, it's a lot less complicated.)
posted by modernhypatia at 5:59 AM on August 10, 2015

I learned in my 30s. I took it very, very slowly. For a while I could go from my rural town to one neighbouring rural town. That was enough to get groceries; great. Once I was confident with that, I started going to another town. Then a town two towns over. Then to a park-and-ride where I hopped a bus to get into the city. I just let the boundaries expand as my comfort level allowed.

Now I look back at the time when highway whatever was intimidating for me, and think that's hilarious. I love driving. I like to think I'm good at it. Loads of fun. I even like freeways.

But going from "doesn't drive" to "hops on the freeway and makes a long trip" quickly would have been hard, anxiety-wise. Give yourself as much time to figure it out and get comfortable with it as you can manage. If it takes you a month to do more than just circle round the parking lot, stay cool, be a parking lot circling pro before hitting the side streets.
posted by kmennie at 6:48 AM on August 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

I learned to drive in my 30's, and my husband had to regularly hear an earful about me being terrible at this, and everyone around me being worse. :)

I nth the driving instructor. Specifically, tell them that you are a nervous adult and see what they say. It doesn't seem like it but there are a ton of us out in the world, and driving instructors with any experience will have seen many anxious people and adults behind the wheel for the first time. Many of those shops have cars with an extra brake and/or gas and/or steering wheel for the instructor, which I found comforting.

For the kind of anxiety I was experiencing around driving, the only way out was through. I really had to take a deep breath and put on my big girl pants every. single. time. for a long time, and to shamelessly bribe myself for all that hard work. As I was learning, it was helpful for me to talk through what I was doing as I was doing it, to ask my many little anxiety-based questions as I went and be reassured that no, the drivers didn't hate me because I was going at exactly the speed limit. I don't think I will ever enjoy driving, but I can and do drive regularly now without screaming about it. It's possible. And it is convenient to not be as limited by the bus schedule, weather, and my husband's ability to drive me somewhere.
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:50 AM on August 10, 2015

I am not sure how much of this worry is in my head and how much of it is 'it really is bad driving out there.'

At some level if you are going to have to learn to drive, it doesn't matter what the breakdown here is. You are going to be a happier person if you can manage the worry in your head whether it's rational or not. I agree strongly with emilyw, you have an anxiety problem (I say this as someone who also has an anxiety problem concerning a lot of things) and you will be happier AND a better driver if you work on managing the anxiety. What works for me....

- Defensive driving - wear a seatbelt, don't drive distracted and pay attention to the other cars and you're already head and shoulders above many people driving. If you look after you and are alert (but not panicky) about the driving environment you are in you will do better.
- Predictability - one of the reasons anxious drivers can be bad drivers is because they panic and don't trust the other drives and do weird things like stopping on the on ramp because they can't see the merge working out right. Convince yourself that even though some drivers are jerks, most of them are trying to follow the rules of the road in their own way and so you should to. That person who shook their finger at you? Asshole. They exist, just like they exist off the road.
- Set yourself up for success - you are learning to drive so that you can do it in an emergency. Good for you, that's a hard thing. So many of the day to day issues about driving are ones that you don't have to fret about so much. You worrying about your partner on the road? That's clearly you perseverating about a thing you can't control and anything you do to address your anxieties will make that easier to handle. Have small accomplishments that you can do (I second driving in a parking lot for a while so you get the muscle memory down) and get under your belt so you can gain confidence.

Smart people with anxiety can be difficult because they are so sure they have reasons for all of their worries. And even though that is true, it also doesn't matter. There are some realistic things you can do to mitigate risk but one of the biggest things you can do is find ways to calm down so that you can drive better. I know it's not as easy as that, trust me, but looking at minimizing the worry as part of the process of becoming a better driver may help you fame it in a way that can allow you to work on it.
posted by jessamyn at 7:16 AM on August 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

I basically had to re-teach myself to drive when I got to grad school and had a car for the first time. I was a nervous teen, too nervous to really learn to drive. But when I got to grad school, I had to have a car. I think the first time I was in a car alone was when I had to bring my car home from the dealership across town. For a long time I only went to the grocery store a mile away and even that was scary. But slowly I got better.

Then I was scared of long road trips, but it came to pass that I had to start driving from St. Louis to the outskirts of metro Chicago on a regular basis. And at first it was scary, but I managed.

I refused to drive in winter weather. But then I had a baby in daycare away from public transit and there was a huge blizzard and I had to get that baby home. Lot of white knuckles but I eventually got better and more confident.

The last one I haven't overcome yet and at the risk of piggybacking a question, would LOVE advice on, is driving the expressways (and Lakeshore Drive) in the Chicago area. I am terrified of these. White knuckled as a passenger, can't imagine driving them. But I want to go to a place in Michigan, without my husband, and I don't think it's possible to get there without driving through some pretty gnarly, crowded, very very aggressive expressways. This is partly my frightened lizard brain talking, and partly a data-processing problem: I feel like I have some control on the suburban surface roads - I can control my speed and monitor cars around me to avoid hazards. On multi-lane expressways, everything is moving much faster, and there are SO MANY CARS zipping around from all directions, and I feel like I need to track them all, but my brain freaks out from the overload. My baseline strategy would be just staying in the right lane even if it means having to accommodate lots of merges, but these expressways also come together and apart in lots of weird ways and you're bound to run into situations where it's HA HA YOU HAVE 30 SECONDS TO CROSS FIVE LANES OF TRAFFIC OR YOU'LL BE HEADED TO TIMBUKTU. Plus i perceive a general attitude of IF YOU CAN'T DRIVE 85 MILES AN HOUR AND SWERVE AROUND LIKE THE REST OF US IT IS NOT APPROPRIATE TO BE ON THIS EXPRESSWAY.

I has angst, can you tell?

Well, anyway, hopefully you can tell I know where you're coming from and I can promise that if you just start at the level of "drive around the block once a day" then pretty soon a block can be two and then you can go to the grocery store. And many things that seem insurmountable will become surmountable once you just can't get out of doing them. Good luck!

Drive careful!
posted by telepanda at 7:19 AM on August 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

I was you, and still am, somewhat- I am 36 and have never had a driver's license. I have a learner's permit now.

I used to be really afraid of driving, and I still am a little. But I no longer panic when I drive on the road and am just a little tense- getting there. Still afraid of highways and merging.

What I suggest is to go slowly. At this age, most people you know take driving as second nature and they won't really understand how slow you need to take it and that you need to work up to the car being able to maneuver the car so you can be more at ease with negotiating traffic. So practice somewhere without traffic for awhile just to get used to the car.

What makes me anxious is traffic, complicated intersections, remembering lights, highways and merging- right now it all seems overstimulating and when I get it in I get nervous- HOWEVER, I am pretty comfortable with maneuvering the car itself at this point and I know I just need to get used to all of the sensory overload which comes with practice. You'll get there.

It also helps me to 1. think of the fact that practically everyone drives and manages more or less okay and 2. to think of the things which are easy for me to do (swimming, riding in an airplane) which make others anxious but are no big deal to me; hence realizing it is "in my head".

You can do this! Just go slow and ease into it.
posted by bearette at 7:53 AM on August 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Another 'late' driver here, I got my license when I was in my thirties. You should definitely get lessons from a professional teacher. It will be easier on your and your husband's relationship and you will receive better instruction. After you have taken a good amount of lessons, start driving regularly so that the physical mechanics of operating a car become rote, and you can focus on the quality of your driving.

You can do this!
posted by stowaway at 7:57 AM on August 10, 2015

You can do this. You have to feel ready to do it-- which you may not. But maybe after one professional lesson it will feel less scary. That's how it felt for me. I got my license two years ago at 34. I just couldn't learn with my spouse as teacher, and signed up for private lessons from a driving school. IT WAS GREAT. I took about 3 lessons, an hour each, and then took the driving test, which was all of 5 minutes long.

I still felt nervous for a long time, until I just had to start driving myself to work every day. And now I actually really like it.
posted by kelseyfrost at 8:06 AM on August 10, 2015

I would recommend working through The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook (it's available through all the usual suspects and also Kindle) as soon as possible before you do anything else, so you will be armed with some basic CBT tools for dealing with the anxiety.

Half this battle is you reframing it as something other than "terrifying", because that's not useful to skill acquisition and is a terrible passenger in your car. You need to start finding ways to think of this as just a thing people do, and they deal with the risks (pretty well, on the whole), and it might not be your favorite part of adulting but also not actually drama-worthy.

And god, yes, I would pay a literal stranger off the street to teach me to drive and do my training time with me before I would let someone close to me do it. My parents and I nearly divorced each other over learning to drive, and I was 15. Take lessons, and then seriously find other people you do not love to do some practice with.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:24 AM on August 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

I wrote up there about managing the anxiety itself, but I have another answer that's about teaching and how teachers manage anxious learners. (I used to teach skiing and a lot of novice skiers are VERY anxious about it).

If I were teaching you, I'd make sure to start out teaching you one simple thing. It might be "play with the accelerator trying to make the car drive a constant speed". I'd do it in an empty car park with nothing to hit. You wouldn't have to think for one second about stopping the car or steering - that would be 100% my problem (I have my own set of pedals, right?). I'd talk you through it very calmly and steadily. We wouldn't do anything more complicated until you were super comfortable with it.

Then I'd add one more little thing to try. We're going to drive at that constant speed, just like before, then when you're ready, slowly and calmly you're going to take your foot off the accelerator and gently and smoothly apply it to the brake. I'll talk you through it, we'll rehearse it a few times verbally first if we need to, and I'll have you do it again and again until you can do it repeatedly on your own without feeling stressed about it. If you have a flappy moment, I'll back right off, I'll talk you down calmly, and we'll practice something easy that you can already do before we work back up to the start/stop scenario and get really comfortable with it.

Next lesson, we'll start from the beginning again. We'll practice the steady speed thing for a little bit before we do the drive and stop exercise for a little bit, and only if you're still comfortable with both of those things will we move onto the next thing, which is maybe "turn left" or whatever.

At some point we might practice "drive down this really boring road, and just focus on maintaining an appropriate speed and a good distance from the traffic in front". Again, I'll be talking you through it the whole time. I'll be saying "look, we can see some brake lights, so let's slow down a bit". "how comfortable are you feeling about our distance from that blue car?". I'll do this for as long as it takes for you to be really comfortable doing this task on your own, so you can calmly drive along, identify hazards way up the road that mean you should slow down a bit, then you'll always have plenty plenty of time to deal with unexpected stuff, because you're leaving enough room. Again, if you get in a flap about anything we'll back off, work on things you're already good at for a bit, and we'll only go back in the traffic when you're calm about it again.

I hope you can see that it's possible for a GOOD driving instructor to teach you to drive and to keep you safe and have you emerge at the other end a confident driver. By focusing on only one unfamiliar task at a time, by staying 100% calm the whole time, and by knowing how to back off if you are flapping. Like, there was this one time I had a nervous skier doing an exercise, I was looking up the slope and I could SEE some random person coming flying out of control right towards her. I talked my student ever so calmly through a turn away from that person, so she never even saw him as he came barrelling past two meters away behind her. Just because traffic is unpredictable doesn't mean your driving lessons have to be unpredictable.

I want to point out that if your BF is not specifically trained in teaching anxious people, he won't know any of this stuff. He might well get you into a situation you're not comfortable with and then be telling you too many different things at once, so you get overloaded and it doesn't go well. If that's the case, it's REALLY FINE to say look BF, this isn't working out, and go back to your friendly driving instructor for a bit. That situation is SO NORMAL and says nothing about your driving ability.
posted by emilyw at 8:31 AM on August 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

Want to second persona's comment about not letting ANYBODY rush you. Wait for a break in traffic that suits you and not the asshole behind you. You'll be driving at your own pace, so learn to take comfort in that. People who are born confident can be a danger to others; you're going to slowly build confidence.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:37 AM on August 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

I learned to drive as an adult. I grew up in NYC where many people just don't learn to drive, and so I didn't until, like you, it didn't seem to be acceptable anymore.

Yeah, it was scary. When you're an adult you're much more aware of the implications of car crashes. I spent a long time getting heart palpitations every time I even THOUGHT about having to drive.

You know what helped? The only thing that helped? Doing it. A lot. Practice was the only way through my fear. Driving daily. Less than daily didn't seem to work, since I did that for a long time with no improvement, it was only when I had to drive regularly that I really got comfortable with it and stopped being afraid.

The only way out is through. It is going to suck for a while but it will get better, I promise. It might be harder for you than it was for me, since you'll have to have your spouse in the car with you at first which might stress you out even more, but you'll gain confidence as you rack up time spent behind the wheel.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 8:44 AM on August 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

A bit of practice with the BF might be fine, but definitely leave the bulk of the teaching up to an instructor. Especially if as you describe, your BF says he is an excellent driver but you think he is aggressive. IMO, an aggressive driver is NOT a good driver, and could make your anxiety worse if he's all GO GO MERGE MERGE or whatever and you're being more cautious.

I used to think I was a good driver too (and objectively, I've experienced very few accidents and only one minor fender-bender was my fault) but as I've gotten older I've become way more cautious of a driver. Now I look back on how I used to drive and I'm like UGH.

(I learned late too, btw--I was about 21 or 22--and for me being older helped a lot compared to my experiences trying to get my license as a teen.)
posted by misskaz at 8:45 AM on August 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

I learned to drive at the same exact age as you and I have a few encouraging thoughts/tips for you.

1. I could not drive with my husband in the car. My brain automatically prioritizes his voice over everything else so paying attention with him in the car is just not possible for me. This is a problem for most couples - and on top of that, you will, consciously and subconsciously, try to avoid looking stupid in front of your significant other, which of course is utterly impossible since looking stupid is integral to learning! Just bite the bullet and get an instructor.

2. If you have to take a road test, go to the test facility ahead of time and see the lay of the land, just so your anxiety doesn't get the better of you (and not just earlier on the same day but rather well ahead of time so you can sleep on it and integrate the memory). Ditto for when you get a job, drive there and back at least 5 times during non-peak hours, it'll do wonders for your confidence!

3. The most difficult part to learn is merging, because it's super hard for an untrained eye to estimate distances between moving vehicles. The good news is that there are cars now that literally tell you when it's safe to merge! If you can get one of those you'll just have to know how to drive forward and stop, which is quite a bit easier :)

4. Driving in a busy city is actually easier than driving in an empty city/suburbs. When it's crowded, the traffic gets slower and the drivers get more alert. I've found it much easier and safer to drive in New York City than in Minneapolis suburbs, for example.

5. This business about drivers waving your through when it's your turn to cross anyway is just your anxiety speaking, I think. As a driver, you know green from red and you waive just because that's what everyone does, a sort of "how are you" when you don't really expect an answer. You perceive it as power trip but it's just this teeny friendly social tick. Ditto for the car stopping at what you perceive to be the very last moment - a car has a lot of momentum due to its weight, and all drivers are highly attuned into the visceral feeling of how far in advance they need to start breaking, so what you perceive to be the last moment is actually action initiated well in advance. Those drivers do see RED and they act accordingly... the rest is just your anxiety making you feel panicked.
posted by rada at 8:58 AM on August 10, 2015

I was recently you! I learned to drive this spring at the age of 29. Things that I've found helpful:

1) Like folks have said, real lessons with an actual instructor. I tried just practicing with friends, and everything about it stressed me out--I didn't like being responsible for their cars, I didn't want to look dumb in front of my friends, they had no memory of what it feels like not to know how to drive and wanted me to do things way sooner than I was comfortable with (John, I haven't touched a car in 14 years; I am not going to get on the interstate today). With the instructor, I could assume that she knew what she was doing, she knew how to explain things (like the mechanics of parking) to new drivers, she had her own brake if necessary, and I kinda liked having giant signs announcing to everyone else on the road that I was new.

2) Before I drive anywhere new, I still somewhat obsessively look at maps and figure out exactly what turns I have to make. If I'm feeling particularly anxious, I can check google street view and see things like "is there a light at the intersection where I turn left?" or "what does on-street parking look like in this neighborhood?".

3) Drive more, drive regularly, breathe deeply, start small and work your way up, and don't feel rushed, regardless of what you think other drivers or your passengers might feel. It's kind of a joke between me and my girlfriend that I'm a slow driver and if she's feeling really antsy about time, she's more than welcome to take over driving.
posted by Vibrissa at 9:19 AM on August 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'd add a couple of things, first always turn off your phone. You want to minimize distractions, especially as you're building up skills, and so many of us are hard-wired that we must respond when a phone rings. Just turn it off whenever you get in the car.

Second, and seemingly directly contradicting the first: as long as you have your phone with you, it is impossible to get lost! I can't tell you how reassuring this is.

When I first started driving, I was always scared to go to a new place because if I took one wrong turn, I feared I'd be unable to get back to my route, or even find my way home. This isn't an issue anymore, so don't worry about missing a highway exit or turning on the wrong street. It'll be OK. Find a safe place to stop and figure out where you are and where you need to go.
posted by Eddie Mars at 9:40 AM on August 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Nthing all the previous advice. I've spent the past two and a half years learning how to drive, due to exhaustion from managing depression/anxiety. My driving instructors allowed me to take as much time as possible, and spent a lot of time teaching me visual tricks and geometry in order to understand how to line my car up, and how to feel it. I also spent a lot of time watching DMV videos, and trying to remember all the steps and making them automatic, which takes practice and muscle memory. I just drove for the first time with my friend in the passenger seat yesterday - it was great, and actually really fun!

I also got to drive my friend's Mazda 3, which handles extremely well. Perhaps learning how to drive in a car you would like can help?
posted by yueliang at 11:10 AM on August 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

I got my license for the first time about six months ago. I am 41.
Take driving lessons. I love my husband but taking driving lessons was the best way for me to learn to drive. Driving instructors teach people how to drive for a living. Most are at least reasonably good at it. What I ended up doing: once a week for a while and then when work-related stuff meant I had to have a license, I signed up for a lesson a day for the two weeks leading up to my driving test.

Your friends/family do not understand what it is like to learn how to drive. They've been driving for years and learned how to do it when fairly young. Take their advice with a whole salt shaker of salt.

Weird thing which helped me: driving around on a ride-on lawn mower (most people don't do this, but I use one at work all the time). It helped me learn how to back up and also decreased the fear - it is pretty hard to screw up on a mower that goes about 3 miles per hour, you also have no blind spots and you aren't driving in traffic.

Good luck. I'm rooting for you - I know this isn't easy.

I'm also in the category of people who haven't mastered highway driving yet. But I know that I'll figure it out at some point in the next year and that's okay with me.
posted by sciencegeek at 12:19 PM on August 10, 2015

Everyone else has covered it, but absolutely, a good driving instructor is the answer. I am 37 and just got my class 5 Canadian driving license - the full, no restrictions one. I'm still not a great driver but my previous anxieties are greatly reduced.

To look for in an instructor/school:

* A car with full dual controls. Even if you have a full blown panic attack while driving, the instructor will simply take over. Bar you physically attacking and preventing the instructor from driving, there is almost nothing you can do that will cause any injury or harm to yourself or others. This let me start to relax, which led to me slowly acquiring my very modest driving skills.

* More important than the first point is a teaching style and personality that meshes with your own. My own instructor remained calm and patient throughout many many mistakes and blunders. His calm demeanour and obvious confidence that he could spot my errors and take over if necessary helped me to gradually build the confidence that I was in a safe space to learn.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 2:04 PM on August 10, 2015

When I was 16, my parents made me get my license. I did not feel like I was a very good driver

You felt this way because teenage drivers are really shit at driving. They pretty much know it too, but just run with it because they're teenagers. It'll take several years before you're actually really comfortable with driving, especially when in an unfamiliar city, or especially a different state (signs will be different).

So at when you're 39 and still feel like you're still a shit driver who is easily confused and makes mistakes, please realize that you feel that way because it's true. Sometime in your early 40s you will be fine though.

(The above advice assumes you will be driving on most days for the next several years. If you avoid driving and only use a car when you absolutely have to, then you will always suck at driving.)
posted by ryanrs at 2:10 PM on August 10, 2015

I have been in your shoes. Still am to some extent.

The advice I got was "practice a lot in low-risk settings." There are some things I'm still not comfortable with, but now that I have to do it every day I've gotten more confident as a driver and am much less anxious.

Good luck!
posted by bunderful at 2:38 PM on August 10, 2015

Just like with anything else, practice is key! You have anxieties about the unknown, which is quite a normal reaction at any age. Once you become familiar and comfortable with operating a car, you will realize your fears were simply that of the unknown and not driving itself. As for your age and just starting to learn how to drive, it is not a big deal, what is important is that you are going through with this because people including yourself will benefit from it. Who cares what other people think, if we live our lives constantly concerned with what others will think of us, who are we really living for? I say do what makes you feel good and don't be concerned with others.
posted by NormanGoodman at 3:38 PM on August 10, 2015

The average quality of drivers has not declined since you were a teenager, at least not in the US as a whole. Traffic fatalities have gone down, even as miles traveled have gone up. There are fewer drunk drivers.
posted by Anne Neville at 6:04 PM on August 10, 2015

...And read Katha Pollitt's Learning to Drive!
posted by imanastasia at 7:02 PM on August 10, 2015

Lots of good advice here. Echoing something Jessamyn said, people don't want to hit you. They'll generally move out of your way of they can. So you have some help in avoiding accidents. To take advantage of this, make it very clear to those around you what you're going to do. So things like turn signals for a while before you slow down to turn. Gradual braking so that you don't get rear ended. Changing lanes gradually if possible.

When I was driving after reading your question, I was thinking about all the stuff I do when driving in order to make things safer. And a lot of it really is common sense. And a big part of that is letting everyone around you know what you're doing a while before you do it.

Good luck!
posted by persona au gratin at 3:46 AM on August 11, 2015

Your husband may not be the right person to learn to drive with. Can you perhaps ask friends? I didn't get anywhere with driving until I found someone calm to do it with. No way could I do it with family.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:21 AM on August 11, 2015

Not concrete advice, but here is a lovely cartoon story written by a woman who learned to drive as an adult. I learned as an adult too, and this woman's fears as described in this comic really resonated with me. Good luck!
posted by pseudostrabismus at 1:26 PM on August 11, 2015

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