My seventeen-year-old daughter, Isabella, is going for her driver’s licence and she’s got through the theory test. We’ve driven around the block a few times, knuckles white, mouth dry with fear – and that’s just me!
However, when I sit in the back seat of the AA Driving School instructor’s car, an awful truth begins to dawn on me: I don’t know half the stuff he’s teaching her and I’ve had my licence for 23 years.
To be totally honest, driving is not my favourite pastime. To some people it’s easy, but I’m sort of spatially compromised. I find it very hard to work out exactly what’s where and that’s not ideal in a big city with increasingly busy roads.
When I learned to drive in the mid-1990s, aged 30, my very patient instructor said he’d had only one other learner who needed as many lessons as I did. My final tally was 12 or 13. Amazingly, I passed the test on my first try. The three point turn went swimmingly and I managed the hill start, but there was no motorway driving and the whole thing was over in 20 minutes. I was still a nervous driver, but at least I was legal.
I expected that my confidence would grow over time but instead it waned and over the past couple of years things got worse. I found myself avoiding Auckland’s motorways – especially via certain on-ramps that confused me – and after wrecking a hubcap, I couldn’t bring myself to try parking close to the gutter, instead parking practically halfway out in the road (which I now know is against the law). More and more, I was taking the long way around on journeys across town.
After my shock and surprise when observing Isabella’s driving lesson, I decided that the time had come to face my fears and try to build some confidence.
Bruce Fox, who is Chief Driving Instructor at AA Driving School, asks what exactly has been worrying me.
“Well, for a start there’s all this emphasis on checking your blind spot,” I tell him. “Of course I look behind me when I change lanes on the motorway, but I don’t think much about it the rest of the time.”
If Bruce is horrified, he hides it well and jumps out of the stationery car to demonstrate the concept himself, moving his body in and out of my blind spot.
“You have to be really careful – imagine if there was a cyclist there, or a motorbike was trying to pass you,” he says. “It’s important to use all your mirrors, constantly – and turn your head, too. That’s not just on the motorway, it’s everywhere, every time.”
I ask Bruce if it’s possible that most of my generation are equally as ignorant of blind spots as I am.
“Well, put it this way: a lot wouldn’t pass their driving test now,” he replies. “There’s more traffic than ever, our cars are getting faster; it’s even more important to follow the rules.”
It worries Bruce that many of us in our middle years got our licences at 15 and won’t be tested again. He would like to see some sort of revisiting of driving skills at around the age of 50. “It’s never too late to learn.”
Today he has me driving my car towards the motorway onramp at Auckland’s hectic Gillies Avenue in order to go over the harbour bridge to Silverdale.
I always avoid this particular one when going north, because you need to cross three lanes – and that much lane-changing terrifies me. With Bruce beside me, it makes more sense. I take the lanes one at a time, indicating in advance, checking my mirrors carefully – always aware of blind spots. He congratulates me for consistently leaving plenty of room between me and the car in front and for holding my steering wheel in a ‘quarter to three’ position. Here, I'm more likely to maintain my grip on the wheel if the airbag deploys on impact, reducing the risk of injury.
“Lots of older people still do the ‘ten to two thing’,” Bruce says.
He believes driving requires various strategies that can be adapted to different situations and that the ever-increasing road toll is down to drivers making poor decisions.
“There’s still too much of this ‘it won’t happen to me’ attitude.”
He’s concerned about the dangers of texting when driving and wants more of a clampdown on this dangerous practice.
I do a few things wrong: stopping on a green cycle lane at a red light after leaving the motorway, forgetting to indicate out of a roundabout and letting my speed creep over 100km on the open road.
Overall though, Bruce assures me that I’m perfectly capable and doing well. I do feel a whole lot better about my driving now. In future I won’t be singing along to the car stereo, as I’ve realised how important it is to put all my focus and energy into what I’m doing. I check all around me, constantly.
It’s jolly good luck I haven’t come to grief in the past and now, with my new-found confidence, I can hardly wait to hit the harbour bridge again. But not literally, of course!
Reported by Louise Richardson for our Win with AA Directions issue