Through my eyes: getting into gear

 By Grainne Coyne

“Clutch, brake, handbrake, handbrake!”  To drivers, learner drivers, or perhaps those with the patience to teach others how to drive, these words will sound all too familiar. It’s hard to forget the first time you put your hands on the steering wheel and take that first spin in the car.

I remember my first lesson like it was yesterday. I was 17 and after constantly nagging my dad for a lesson, he finally gave in. My little brother would swear that he suffered whiplash as result of that first lesson – something of an exaggeration considering I only slightly jerked the brakes out of panic when the car began to move forward. I froze for the rest of the lesson, forcing my dad to steer the whole time.

After that, though, I began to make some progress. I learned to start the car, steer, brake without giving anyone whiplash, and even use the clutch appropriately. Driving lingo became easier to understand, as did the use of hand signals, indicators, signs and lines on the road. The day before my Leaving Cert results, I sat the theory test and, to my relief, I passed- even though numerous questions on tractors let me down.

I could now move on from reversing in circles in fields to actually driving on main roads – a prospect which did not appeal to my dad. Despite us having a healthy relationship, our tempers usually clashed when it came to the issue of driving. So my parents hired a professional driving instructor, even though I would debate his qualifications in my later years of driving lessons.

I had no problem starting the car and moving into first and second gear, but the idea of third was too frightening to consider, and thus I was the most painful person to drive behind. I crawled around my home town and panicked when another car came towards me. After six paid lessons, little progress seemed to have been made, much to my instructor’s frustration.

College then got in the way and it wasn’t until summer time that I was allowed to put my hands on the steering wheel once again. This time it was decided that if my father and I wanted to maintain a good relationship, perhaps it was best to let my mother teach me how to drive.

This would have been great, had she not been too scared to get in the car with me.  After many botched attempts, my mother hired yet another professional instructor who was seemingly more patient and attractive than the first. Despite the fact that I was only coming to grips with indicators and fourth gear, he decided that I was ready to hit the big city. I was not.

Prone to the dramatics, I would safely say driving around the city centre at rush hour was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life so far. I cut out so many times that I lost count, I almost ran over tourists, and freezing at roundabouts and major junctions was such a common occurrence that the beeping horns became just background noise.

Having escaped the city with both our lives intact, I had made some improvements when it came to driving. I was finally able to change into fifth gear and after being thrown into the worst possible traffic scenarios, a lot of manoeuvres seemed less daunting. My mother still wasn’t convinced though and a year after passing my theory test, the driving seemed to stop entirely and I began to focus more on college work instead.

There was the odd lesson which would usually end in angry words being exchanged, and sometimes tears. But when applying for my second provisional licence, I knew I had to take the initiative. Convincing my mother that I was safe as a learner driver could be, we ventured to take driving lessons together and eventually she developed some form of confidence in my skills.

It was still slow progress though. We would only drive certain routes and still avoid busy areas, or indeed anywhere where there was a possibility of other cars. Gradually, I gained the confidence to drive around congested areas with ease. I still felt that I wasn’t ready to sit the actual driving test, that I had too many faults to count. These included my complete inability to reverse in any form, park in a straight line, and turn in the road. Some gear changes were quite jerky, and I even managed the feat of driving with no gears at all from time to time.

I finally decided to bite the bullet and book the test and two weeks later, I got the e-mail. The date suited me perfectly and I had over a month to prepare, but in typical fashion, it was cancelled, and the new date was scheduled for two weeks’ time – for which I was in no way prepared.

I crammed and practised as much as I could for the impending test day. Sitting numerous mock exams, though the first one left a lot to be desired, I felt a bit more prepared for the test.

I was able to do a turn in the road, but I still could not reverse around corners. No matter how much I tried, I couldn’t grasp it, and it seemed like the more I practiced, the worse I got. But for some reason, the day before my test, it clicked. I actually felt ready for once, but it didn’t stop the nerves building up.
The actual test passed in a daze. Everything ran smoothly (aside from me having to run back to my car to get my licence – not a great start), and the test went as well as it could, considering the roads were busy with children heading home from school at the time.

I could list all the mistakes I made, but was not sure if they would cost me the right to remove those pesky L-plates from my car. Walking back to the test centre, I knew it could go either way. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the result I had hoped for.

It was the offence of driving too close to a line of parked cars, thereby causing a hazard, which ultimately caused me to fail. It still bothers me that it was that sole thing (an offence whose existence I’ll admit I was not even aware of) which let me down. In fact, I was upset to the extent that for weeks I didn’t tell many people I had sat and failed my test. Some still won’t know until now.
I know it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I am not the first to fail my driving test and I certainly won’t be the last. But after years of learning how to drive, to fail as a result of one (admittedly significant) fault grinds my gears.

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