Driving lessons

In July 2015, I enrolled at a driving school to finally learn how to drive.

I was born and raised in a city with excellent public transport, by parents who did not own a car (my mother has no driver’s license either). When I was six, I knew what stops we needed to get off at to go to church, to visit relatives, and to get back home, and while I usually took the tramway to school with my elder brother, I was perfectly able to do so by myself if or when I needed to. I know great stretches of the subway map by heart, and whenever I need to get anywhere within the city, I look up how to get there on the company’s website and pick my favorite option.

Cars mostly seemed loud and smelly to me when I was a child, and I didn’t like that I got sick reading in them (which never happened with the tramway or subway, although buses suffered from the same problem – I still don’t really understand why). They certainly didn’t seem necessary, and often not even terribly useful: my grandmother never failed to complain about how long she had to look for a parking spot whenever she visited us by car, and my grandparents from a rural area usually chose to visit us by train rather than dealing with the urban traffic.
They also seemed like a luxury item, and still do. I’m always somewhat puzzled about people (even teenagers!) in American series or movies driving and even having their own cars, especially if they’re otherwise portrayed as rather poor. The abysmal state of public transport in most of the USA is probably a big factor there – my father grew up in a rural area, and he got a driving license for motorbikes as soon as he could (and one for a car later – the age limit on the former was lower at the time) simply to be more independent. Maybe there are also lower upkeep costs? Fewer mandatory (and costly) inspections? Cheaper gasoline?

One of the things that might be cheaper is the driver’s license itself, and from some of the things I’ve seen in shows, it certainly seems so. (Most of that is the driving lesson Walter White gives Walt junior in Breaking Bad, and the Big Bang Theory group going to the DMV to get Sheldon a learner’s permit with no more to do than fill out a questionnaire, although especially the latter might not be accurate.)

Getting a probationary driver’s license in Austria requires (not necessarily in that order):

  • 32 theoretical lessons in which you are told about the rules and laws pertaining to traffic, traffic signs, some car mechanics, and various other stuff,
  • passing a computer exam on the learned material,
  • completing a first aid course (must happen before the theoretical exam),
  • being declared fit to drive after a cursory medical exam (must happen before the first practical lesson),
  • at least twelve practical lessons with a driving instructor if you have an experienced driver to practice with outside of driving school plus a certain number of kilometers you drove with said experienced driver, or at least eighteen lessons if you don’t have anyone else to practice with,
  • and of course passing the practical exam.

The pricing varies between driving schools and usually doesn’t include the medical exam or the first aid course. When I signed up, the cheapest offer I could find was over € 800 – the same driving school now offers the same package deal (the one for people without external drivers to practice with) for € 1308. I would never have been able to afford it on my own – my father paid for me, as a birthday gift.

I finally decided to do it anyway, partly for practical reasons (more job offers and being able to go places with the dog I had shared custody of at the time, which doesn’t apply anymore) and partly just because I felt like it was a skill I should have as a grown-up. (Not that I feel like a grown-up most days.)

So I spent most of August sitting through the required theoretical lessons, learned how to do CPR, and sat in front of the official form I had to fill out for the medical exam sweating over whether to put down my transgenderness as a mental illness. (Having an official diagnosis for an illness that basically doesn’t exist anymore when it’s treated is kind of weird, especially when there are other things about your headspace that feel considerably less neurotypical, but were not officially diagnosed.) I eventually put it down just in case and told the doctor about it, and she blinked at me and nodded and (fortunately) declared me fit to drive anyway. (In Russia, this would have gone differently.)

Then I had the first practical lessons and regretted my decision.

As a pedestrian, I am small and lithe, quick to react and change speed and/or direction as needed to dodge obstacles or get out of other people’s way. I have wide peripheral vision and a head mobile enough to provide me with 360° vision if needed, horizontally as well as across planes – I can look at my own feet, over my shoulder at my back, and wherever else I need. I can even duck or jump to look under or over obstacles, although I basically never need to. I can turn around on the spot, step sideways, or move backwards at a moment’s notice and without needing additional space to maneuver in. Whenever I am overwhelmed by my surroundings and/or need a moment to get my bearings and orient myself, I can find quiet spots in corners to simply take a break. Even with my super noise-cancelling earphones and my gaze directed to the ground right in front of my feet (my usual way of moving through this world), I have an uncannily accurate sense of my own speed and enough awareness of my surroundings to avoid accidents even without paying any conscious attention. The movements themselves are fully automatic as well: walking, stopping, turning, running, it all comes naturally.

As a driver fused with a car, I am a huge, lumbering, asymmetrical beast. My vision is reduced to almost a single horizontal plane, limited on all sides by the machine surrounding me, filtered through dirty glass and sometimes redirected by small, equally dirty mirrors feeding me disjointed pictures of the outside world. Noise is filtered, directional hearing useless as soon as a window is cracked open. Whatever senses usually let me know if there’s an obstacle before me even with my eyes downcast (the flow of air? something else?) are cut off completely. There’s no way to check distances between the own body (the car) and the surroundings; no way to tell how close the tyres are to the sidewalk or how close the snout is to the white line drawn on the street or the end of the car in front of me. Every maneuver is cumbersome and needs an unknown and large amount of space, and a completely non-intuitive sequence of actions from clutch control to where to look in what precise moment. The controls are foreign, unknown, and unpredictable at first. And in addition to all this, the speed is cranked up unbelievably: every situation must be fully assessed, every decision made and every reaction executed in the blink of an eye, one after the other, with no way to take breaks. I am trapped in a car trapped in a line of cars trapped in a street, and there’s no way out, and every wrong decision or too long hesitation is a mistake that causes annoyance at best and actual lives at worst.

If not for the amount of money already spent by that point, I would have given up after the second lesson.

Some things have gotten easier with practice. I am better and more quickly able to tell which aspects of any given situations are immediately relevant to me and which of those need to be attended first, although I still fuck up sometimes and pay so much attention to where I’ll have to turn that I almost miss the red lights. Shifting gears has become more natural, although I am still often uncertain about which one I should be in. I can drive off without killing the engine almost all of the time, although sometimes I still do when I’m distracted by difficult traffic situations. (Which, unfortunately, are usually also the ones where killing the engine is most inconvenient.)

I’ve gotten used to the heavily restricted sensory input and can manage using just my eyes without freaking out about it, and I’ve been through some common traffic situations often enough that I don’t have to think too long about them before I react. I’ve learned some maneuvers by rote: I can parallel-park pretty well between the poles in the practice area.

Novel situations, or even small variations in the ones I’ve learned, can throw me off pretty easily, though. I don’t know how to assess how close my tyres are to the curb when it’s actually a curb instead of the nicely-visible hedge in the practice area, or how exactly to translate poles to other parked cars, or how to do any of that in a different car with other dimensions. I’ve managed to build scripts for how to react in common situations, but they’re inflexible, and changing one small part of the situation might overwhelm me completely, because building scripts has not actually made me better or faster at making decisions of my own.

I don’t know how other people do it. I’m pretty sure that it works differently for most people somehow – judging just from the fact that I’ve needed way more lessons than other people and the fact that multiple driving instructors were pretty stumped as to what to do with me, there must be something atypical about me here.

In any case, the driving instructors I’ve had moved from “what the fuck are you doing” to “well, most of the time you’re doing well, but sometimes you just have these weird… moments of madness” over the course of my education. I’ve created and gotten used to enough scripts to fake it well enough most of the time. (Which is how I go about most of this whole “being human” thing, to be honest. Or at least that’s how it feels most of the time. I don’t know what it’s like for others.)

And some of my very instincts are just plain wrong. I keep wanting to get through difficult situations as fast as possible and responding to this in the dumbest way possible by speeding up/not slowing down enough, which means I create more stress and difficulties for myself because now I have to act even faster, and it’s not like I get a break as a reward for getting through difficult situations quickly anyway.

This behavior was also what the examiner criticized after my last attempt at the practical exam (the first one failed spectacularly, pretty much for the same reason, and re-taking it was not cheap, either).
He passed me anyway, though. Guess I did enough things right. (Aaand the fact that the driving instructor stealthily put on the brakes from the passsenger seat a little in a few situations probably helped, too.) I’m sure you won’t worried about the safety of other people on the roads at all after hearing this, and happy for me especially if you live somewhere nearby where we might conceivably run into each other on the road someday (heh heh,  “run into”, see what I did there?).

No need to worry too much: I don’t have a car to practice my new skills in anyway.
Which kind of sucks, because I still have the second phase of my education to complete, and that might be pretty hard if I just don’t practice at all between now and then because I’ll just forget everything.

Ah well, I’ll see.


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