I’m the Driver Now
Learning to drive as an adult was the hardest, best thing I’ve done.
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Thirty-seven, I decided, was old enough. Even here in Britain, that is an advanced age to begin learning to drive, but somehow, I had never gotten around to it. And so I found myself, one morning last fall, trying to master the exact sequence of foot movements required to hit something called “biting point.”
That’s the sensation you feel when the gears connect to the engine—when your left foot, on the clutch, perfectly balances with your right foot, on the gas, allowing the car to pull away smoothly without stalling. My friends regarded my decision to learn on a manual transmission as quixotic, even stupid. Didn’t I know that in a decade, all cars would be electric or hybrid, and therefore automatic by default? I was resolute. What if I turned up in a foreign country on a reporting assignment and had to explain, using a phrasebook and hand gestures, that I was no better than an American and couldn’t drive the stick-shift car they’d brought out for me? What if Malcolm Gladwell, who has used the ability to drive a manual as an interview question to weed out the incurious, wouldn’t hire me as an assistant? What if I found myself acting as a getaway driver? (Such thoughts plague me: I’ve never checked my ancestry by sending off a DNA swab, in case it impedes my ability to commit the perfect murder.)
I also wanted to take on this challenge for the same reason George Mallory climbed Everest: because it’s there. Admittedly, Mallory died in the attempt (also at the age of 37). A few years ago, I read a terrifying Atlantic article titled “Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think,” in which Arthur Brooks explains that you become less flexible in your thinking as you age. However, much like Pandora discovered Hope at the bottom of the box after letting out Fear, Anger, and Late-Night eBay Purchases, I have found some consolation: The knowledge you gain as you mature is just as valuable as the mental elasticity that you lose. In driving, that duality presents itself in the fact that teenagers are more likely to pass the test than are older drivers—but they’re also more likely to die in their first year on the roads. Only a fine line separates confidence from recklessness. Brooks’s article had made me worry about my withering brain, which made me want to prove him wrong. Stuff that, I thought. No surrender. I’m going to learn how to drive, and I’m going to make it as hard as possible. Bring on the manual gearbox. If you never do anything that scares you, how can you grow?
As it happens, not learning to drive as a teenager is not quite the weirdo phenomenon it might seem to most people. For the first time since about 2004 (skinny jeans), I am part of a trend. In Britain, fewer than a third of 17-to 20-year-olds now hold a license, down from half in 1994. In the United States, the percentage of 18-year-olds holding a license dropped from 80.4 percent in 1983 to 61 percent in 2018. Rising insurance costs, fluctuating gas prices, and environmental concerns have all contributed to the decline of the teenage driver. Nonetheless, getting behind the wheel remains just as aspirational—just as much a symbol of independence and maturity—today as it did in 1965, when the 20-something Beatles released “Drive My Car.” “I got my driver’s license last week / Just like we always talked about,” Olivia Rodrigo sang on her 2021 album, Sour, which was released when she was 18. “Today I drove through the suburbs / And pictured I was driving home to you.”
For that reason, despite being objectively quite old for a new driver, I hoped that having this skill might make me feel … more adult. The first time my instructor, Gemma, popped the hood and I beheld the brake fluid, radiator, and oil reservoirs, I turned to her and said, “This feels good. I feel like … a dad.” For women, driving has traditionally been associated with freedom—witness the joy of female Saudi Arabians taking to the road for the first time in 2018—or at least independence. “Most women in my situation are widows or divorcées who spent their lives under Old World rules, in which driving was a male prerogative and being ferried about a female privilege,” Katha Pollitt wrote of learning to drive at 52 after the painful end of a relationship. For me, it signified something else: competence.
That sentiment lasted about three minutes into the first lesson. Parked at the side of a road, gently edging forward, I became wildly panicked and slammed on the brakes whenever the car picked up speed. “We made it to nearly four miles an hour that time,” observed Gemma, a woman of almost pharmaceutical zen. After one lesson, I was so frustrated with myself that I theatrically banged my head against the steering wheel. Until that point, I had not known that that was where the horn was located. I felt like a clown, honking away in my clown car.
What Gemma regarded as nervousness was, to me, an appropriate level of caution about piloting a two-ton death machine. Even once we got moving—hour after hour, when all I did was turn left on quiet streets—I refused to relinquish what she called my “Hulk grip” on the steering wheel. This made turning corners a challenge, as I would contort myself like a pretzel rather than relinquish my 10-and-two chokehold. It took maybe four lessons before I was allowed, at last, to turn right across a lane of traffic. I had outdone Zoolander: I was an ambiturner!
When I mentioned to people that I was learning to drive, the second-most-common reaction, after mockery about the manual gearbox, was an expression of sympathy that I was doing so “in London.” Talk to anyone in Britain, and the streets of the capital assume a mythical dimension—a place of speed freaks, impenetrable traffic systems, and lanes so narrow that your side mirrors are two inches from the parked cars on either side. Learning to drive on them is like learning to surf on a lava flow.
If anything, my friends’ apocalyptic warnings lowballed the experience. As I drove around my home in Hither Green, South London, every day seemed to be a slow-motion remake of that car-chase sequence through Shanghai in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Garbage trucks appeared out of nowhere, bikers swerved across my path, and pedestrians wandered into the road, eyes locked on their phone. All that was missing was some builders unloading a sheet of plate glass, perhaps, or a roadside vendor spilling a cartload of oranges. During one lesson, on a busy two-lane highway, a Canada goose and six fluffy chicks strolled out ahead of me just as I was wrestling with third gear. I swerved to avoid them, imagining the double shame of driving home with a huge LEARNER sign on the top of the car and a smear of blood and feathers across the front grille. Then, in my back mirror, a miracle happened: The traffic stopped in both directions, and everyone waited for the goslings to waddle slowly across the road. It was like the Christmas Truce.
Everyone I knew told me that the rule for driving lessons is that you need one hour for every year of your age. (Insurance companies are less optimistic, reckoning that even younger people need 45 hours). That reflects the slower reaction times and greater nervousness associated with adulthood, as well as the brain’s dwindling plasticity. From birth to age 2, a baby makes 700 neural connections a second. That process slows as the brain matures, and a psychological shift also occurs: We insulate ourselves from our own weaknesses. I was terrible at team sports at school; today, I no longer play team sports. I once knew what a quadratic equation was; these days, I would fire up my phone’s calculator to subtract 37 from 64. The things that I was always good at? Well, that’s different. I’ve honed those skills so well that people will pay me money for them. But a well-worn groove can become a prison. The better you get at something, the greater the rewards—but the less acquainted you become with humiliation or humility. “One of the biggest reasons it gets harder to do new things as you get older is that new things are generally undignified at first (indeed, this is an excellent heuristic for discovering them) and the older you get, the more dignified you’re expected to be,” the tech investor Paul Graham wrote recently.
Learning to drive was part of the same impulse that led me to join The Atlantic as a writer, leaving an editing and management job that I loved but that was no longer a challenge. Writing is a daily confrontation with your own limits; every morning, you sit down at your computer, open a document, and you are still not Joan Didion. This is good practice for aging; you can tell yourself that you don’t want to do something, when the truth is that it frightens you. Unless you allow yourself to feel like a rube, you will shrink yourself with every passing year.
After three months of competent ambiturning, I was ready to leave the nursery slopes of Hither Green, with its near-uniform 20 mph speed limit, and head to the wilder pastures of next-door Bromley, where the roads are “faster.” This is freedom, I thought, stepping on the gas, hearing the call of the open road as the Ford Puma soared majestically up the long hill at Beckenham. “This is still only 18 miles per hour,” Gemma interrupted. “Look how many cars are behind us.”
I sped up and held my breath. Each time, it was a little easier. The joy and sadness of learning is that what was once terrifying becomes boring. One after another, actions that had previously provoked a new outbreak of the Hulk grip became second nature to me; I knew that something had clicked when I nearly breezed through a stop sign because I was too busy regaling Gemma with the latest developments in the Johnny Depp–Amber Heard libel case.
Soon enough, Gemma and I were like a boring remake of Thelma & Louise, roaring across South London while maintaining appropriate mirror checks and slowing for pedestrian crossings. I was finally ready for my test.
A British driving exam runs for 40 minutes, with 20 minutes guided by the satnav and 20 minutes by the examiner. A learner must perform one of four maneuvers: backing into a marked parking space, driving forward into a space and reversing out, parallel parking, or pulling up next to the opposite sidewalk and reversing for two car lengths. One in three tests also involves an emergency stop—a possibility that I relished. Stamping on the brakes and screeching to a halt made me feel like I was in a telenovela, reacting to the news that my best friend was pregnant by her own brother. No, Carmen, that cannot be! The U.K. driving-standards agency has been making its tests progressively harder for years—part of a pattern where young people are made to jump through hoops their parents never experienced, all while being told that they are lazy and useless. The pass rate in the area where I took my test is less than 50 percent—lower for women, and lower still for women over 35. I began referring to this as my “first driving test” to cover up my nerves.
The night before, I woke up every hour, tormented by visions of failure. Gemma told me that she’d once had a pupil who became so confused by reverse parking during the test that she ended up totally sideways, across three bays. Another had become overwhelmed by nerves, so he did everything perfectly—at 12 mph. Fail. Friends urged me to go to the doctor for some beta-blockers—one said that her physician called the anti-anxiety pills, which slow your heart rate, a “handbag drug”—but, as with the manual transmission, my pride and innate masochism won the day. I would do this clean, or not at all.
In all honesty, I had expected to flame out, and for this story to end with a teachable moment—a recognition that failure brings even more personal growth. But I passed—even though I stalled when turning a corner five minutes before the end of the test. When Shane the Examiner gave me the news, I felt genuine happiness, a rare sense of pure achievement. Yes, I had been lucky, and yes, Gemma was a saint, but I had worked for this. I was no good at driving, and I had done it anyway. That somehow meant more than excellence.
Wow, I thought. I’m bad at so many other things. What should I try next?