Monday, February 25, 2019

There Really Aren't Any Rules: Learning to Drive in Your Twenties

Southern Ontario is connected by a series of highways/freeways called the 400 series, which intersect at various points and link all the major and medium sized destinations in our small, densely populated corner of the world. The ability to drive on one is what separates the introductory level drivers (G1, the equivalent of a learner's permit elsewhere) from the intermediate level (G2.) And confidence in your ability to drive on them is what separates those drivers from the permanent class (simply called G.)

The first time I ever drove on the 400, it was a pitch black freezing rainstorm in February. I had been out with my co-workers from the bookstore, holding our long-delayed Holiday bowling party. One of the girls, Sam, had recently moved back home with her mom and wasn't ready for the party to end, so two of our coworkers and I were persuaded to keep it going by hitting a pool hall and drinking away the winter blues.

By the end of the night, it was clear neither of my two male co-workers were really up to the task of keeping pace with Sam's legendary ability to hold her liquor. By the time we left, one had already spilled his guts on the bathroom floor. Being that I was borrowing my mom's car I was extremely eager to get them home safe in good time, lest the Honda be befouled by his stomach gunk. In the stress and chaos of the night, I missed my turn onto the arterial road I thought I would be taking back to our neighborhood, and found myself coming up on a spiralled on ramp.

"Wellp," I thought to myself  "This is happening."

By this time, I was legally permitted to drive these roads but I'm sure you know that in the best conditions it takes time and practice to get truly comfortable in an environment surrounded by cars and trucks going 120 km/h, let alone at night with solid pellets crackling against your windshield. The environment, however, made everyone that much more cautious I think, and I only had to go two exits of white knuckled, "oh god I can't do this" driving.

I had had my G2 for a few months but not had time with either of my parents to try my luck on the highway. Not deliberately, but I have often found myself opting for life decisions that find me falling feet first into a baptism of fire. When I finished my official driving lessons, I asked my instructor "What about the highway?" She said, "Oh, when the time comes, you just do it."

Thanks to her instruction I actually failed my G2 twice. 

I never seriously thought about getting my license until I was 25. The fact that I went ten years without it in the pedestrian-and-transit-unfriendly suburbs of Toronto should tell you how blase I ever was about driving. Partly it was psychological - I didn't think I'd be good, I didn't think it would be fun to learn, and I didn't find it necessary.

I also felt - and maybe they'll deny it but hey this is my blog and my feelings - a lack of support from my parents. They would nudge and ask about my intentions, but always indicated they didn't really want to teach me. Mom gets stressed. Dad hates being a passenger. Being divorced made it difficult to co-ordinate. It fell by the wayside.

Like everything in my life, it happened in its own time, really my time - when I called my blog Better Late Than Never, this is what I'm talking about. At 25, I cracked open the driver's handbook. Then I promptly closed it because it was boring, and just drilled and drilled on practice tests until I felt ready. I sat my written test on a rainy Wednesday afternoon a week after my 26th birthday, a decade later than most. I passed with an 80%.

The process of learning to drive was as painful and frustrating as I assumed. I don't like trying anything I'm not already good at. I don't enjoy being corrected. I hate lacking instincts in any endeavor. What I'm saying here is, I am a normal person. And I had thought I was honestly past the part of life where I was learning new things (so wrong.)

My dad actually proved an extremely helpful and patient guide, when the time finally came. My mom was supportive too, although on an early outing she kept pointing at houses along the street and saying "look what they've done to their porch, oh what's that flag?" (it was World Cup season) and that was maybe not the best. Still, she taught me lots and gave me access to her car when needed.

This, incidentally, is why you should really learn to drive in your teens - guaranteed free time, no stigma about being new and bad, and usually a dynamic with your parents where you're openly relying on them for things. Luckily for me - not to sound like a big shot or anything - my relationship with my parents at 25 was very similar to where it was when I was 15. (Wait, is that a bad thing?)

We'll skim the part about sitting in evening class sessions with one other guy, a teen, except to note my instructor noted that "there aren't really any rules, just be a good driver." Thanks, I thought, that sounds like an insane thing to say to ostensibly impressionable young drivers. Glad I'm paying for this.

To be an in-car instructor I'm sure you need nerves of steel but man they could get testy. With so much at stake you would think they'd assume less about my innate ability to manipulate a motor vehicle. What's hand-over-hand? Where are the wipers? How fast should I take this left turn?

The vital piece of info that was omitted - from my second in-car instructor since I took so long between lessons that my first changed companies - was reverse parking. I may someday procreate but I will never truly be a dad until I can reverse-park a car. On the day of my first test, I had pulled headfirst into the space. Surely that tipped the examiner off: this chump can't back in. Blood in the water. 

My second test was the day after my first meeting with my now fiancee. She had wished me luck and said she was sure I would get it, which showed how much we still had to get to know each other. I had drilled and drilled in the month since attempt #1 but my second attempt was little better than the first. This time my downfall was parallel. For what it's worth, soon afterward I watched a helpful Youtube video on parallel parking and have become a nationally ranked champion. My parallels are a thing of beauty, to be admired with the awe and reverence one might give a mighty waterfall or a majestic falcon.

Still can't back in though.

I didn't end up passing the test until my third try a year later, fully burned out and now too busy to try again. Our relationship was always defined by her driving - like my dad, she hates being a passenger. Like my mom, I love it. I prefer staring out the window and getting lost in my thoughts. So there wasn't much impetus except a ticking clock. After obtaining your G1 you have 5 years to get your full G or else the process begins again (you also can't get your G2 until a year after your G1 so that eats some time.)

On my third try, I used an instructor car. "Don't worry," he said - the owner of the school I had used - "They always pass us, unless you're really not ready." I wondered if that meant there was something shady going on. On this test I nearly drove through an intersection where a young woman was pushing a stroller and the examiner had to use the passenger side break to stop me, but I passed, so draw your own conclusions.

Until this point I hated driving and always got a pain in my stomach when my scheduled sessions occurred because, with G1, it always meant someone had to be there to criticize me. Once I had my G2, I became more confident and felt that freedom other people associate with the road. It turns out that driving, like dancing or lovemaking, is easier and more enjoyable without an audience

The feeling was mutual - once my G2 license was in hand, my dad smiled and said, "Great. I'm never gonna be your passenger again." I also still had a girlfriend who both preferred to drive and had more access to a vehicle than I did, so my practice slowed greatly.

In May of 2018, my 5 years would be up. Six months earlier I had moved to downtown Toronto, where car ownership and usage was not just unnecessary, it seemed like a detriment to a happy lifestyle. My exam was scheduled for April. I had driven the highway only a handful of times, and only once since the beginning of the calendar year. I desperately did not want to fall back to the bottom of that ladder because if I did it seemed likely I would not even try to climb again.

I did a really stupid thing.

I took a day off from my office job and rented a car. I drove from downtown Toronto back to my suburban hometown - on the 400 (specifically, the QEW, the most congested roadway in North America.) It was actually a fun, easy drive given I was well away from rush hour. I went to the DriveTest centre and logged in on one of the new machines they had installed since my last visit. It was absolutely shitting rain. You could not imagine wore conditions to take a test. Luckily I didn't have to. Unluckily, my sign in didn't register properly and no examiner was coming for me. It was the end of the day by the time I had it figured out.

I drove home dejected. In a torrential downpour what had been a 30 minute commute that morning took 3 hours, the last hour of which I was literally within sight of my home. Toronto, don't ever change* (*please do.)

I made an appointment to return the following week, somehow evading a ton of bureaucracy, an extra payment, and time it would take to secure an official test time. If I failed, I would be lucky to fit in one more attempt before the drop dead date, and luck is not something I've ever been able to rely on in my error prone life.

I want to re-emphasize how dumb I was to do this, but I rented a car again, this time from a renter closer to the test centre, so I could drop it off there and ride home stress free on the train one way or the other. The desk clerk wished me luck, noting that I needed to place tape over the rear camera, as those were ineligible to take the test. 

This day was blazing hot, and it felt like it took far too long for the driver to reach my car. I was fretting, my stomach churning. My only comforting thought was how many dumbass teens pass this test regularly. Surely I, at now 30 damn years old, was better than most dumbass teens. When she arrived, I made feeble small talk in an attempt to break the ice, since I had heard from my friend Monika that she had gotten an examiner so gabby she pity-passed her for letting their conversation distract her into guiding the car onto a construction site. 

Mine was mostly unmoved. With quiet seriousness, she took me around a nice suburban development to test my skills - motoring along  looking both was when I stop, three point turns... I made sure not to almost hit anyone. The only major gaffe was forgetting to put my four-ways off when I stopped to the prompt of "Pull over as though something's wrong."

I felt like things were going badly, but luck actually did come through. The thing that trips up most people - getting on the highway and merging - was a snap. My secret: a car was getting on right ahead of me, so, as in 90% of life (dancing, lovemaking, etc) all I had to do was follow someone else's cues.

There really aren't any rules, just be a good driver.

When we pulled in, she told me not to bother reversing, which for a moment made me think it was somehow s total failure, but I passed. The long saga of learning to drive was over and I will never have to put myself through the gut wrenching stress of an in car exam for the rest of my life, even though, when you think about it, people really should be tested every so often.

Now I'm back to my condo in the skies above Toronto, looking down onto the Gardiner. I'll drive again someday, but who knows when that'll be. I remember walking home after my first in class lesson and watching cars whiz by, thinking "How do they make it look so easy?" Well of course it's easy- there really aren't any rules.*

Note: there are literally hundreds of rules and the police will notice if you break one.

1 comment:

  1. Good stuff Scotty! I didnt get my license till I was 31 lol