I didn’t learn how to drive a car until the age of twenty-five. A few years ago, if you’d asked me why I hadn’t learned, I would have given you an excuse. “I just don’t need to drive anywhere,” I might have said. Or, “I just haven’t gotten around to it yet.”
In reality though, I was afraid. The idea of being in control of a large hunk of high-powered metal made me anxious, so I didn’t pursue it.
Why bother putting myself in a situation that made me so wildly uncomfortable?
I work from home, so I didn’t need to drive for the sake of a commute, and there’s enough public transportation that I could survive without learning to drive, but still, it felt like I wasn’t driving for the wrong reasons. There were times where I did like the idea of driving and the fact that I couldn’t drive felt like a rite of passage that I’d skipped over out of weakness, rather than for the merely practical reasons.
Soon after my twenty-fifth birthday though, I reached my breaking point. I was going to learn to drive, no matter how difficult it seemed. And amazingly enough, I succeeded. In just two months, after years of being too hesitant to even attempt driving, I was legally allowed to drive a car by myself.
Here’s how I did it:
1. Start with the (absolute) basics
Driving is not a singular skill, and if you try to approach it as if it’s just one gigantic thing that you have to learn all at once, it’s only going to be more difficult for you to grasp.
In reality, driving is a series of interconnected skills that fall into three categories:
- Technical skills, which are the fundamental skills of interacting with a motor vehicle, such as turning the car on, using the various handles and switches, and adjusting the mirrors into their ideal positions.
- Tactile skills, which relate to the movement of the vehicle, such as steering with proper technique, making appropriately wide (or narrow) turns, and managing your speed.
- Perceptive skills, which are the skills that help you make decisions on the road, such as being aware of your surroundings, timing your entrance into a roundabout, and calculating when enough there’s space to change lanes.
When learning to drive, these skills need to be learned in this order. There will be some overlap — technical skills will develop alongside your tactile skills and perceptive skills are constantly developing whenever you’re driving — but you need a handle on the technical skills before progress can be made with the tactile skills, and perceptive skills can’t be mastered until the technical and the tactile skills feel effortless.
With this in mind, I’d suggest learning the technical skills without actually driving. Simply sit in the driver’s seat of car and become comfortable with the various switches, pedals, buttons, and handles without accelerating.
At a minimum, learn how to:
- Turn the car on and off
- Accelerate and brake with the foot pedals
- Enable and disable the left and right blinkers
- Switch between Park, Reverse, Neutral, and Drive
- Read and understand the speedometer
- Identify if any of the warning lights are enabled
- Adjust the seat for maximum comfort
- Adjust the side and rear-view mirrors
By learning these skills without acceleration, you can develop the technical skills of driving without any of the associated risk or anxiety. This, I find, is a far more effective way of learning these skills, rather than trying to get the hang of everything at once.
Tactile and perceptive skills are more difficult to learn independently of the other skills, but the remaining advice in this article should at least simplify the process.
2. Watch other people drive
You’ve probably seen other people drive before, but have you ever paid close attention to how they drive?
Ask someone to take you for a drive around some quiet streets and watch their hands and feet. You’ll see that, while there’s a lot of knobs and buttons in a car, the driver only uses a few of them over and over again. Also pay attention to their eyes and see how they repeat the same motions over and over again. They look forward, to their sides, in their mirrors, and occasionally to their blind spots. The “knowing where to look” part of driving is more difficult than knowing how to move your hands and feet, but it’s still heavily based in repetition.
What this exercise should reveal to you is that, although driving can appear to be a complicated mishmash of actions and thoughts, it’s actually just a handful of simple tasks done frequently. You will need time to develop the skills of these tasks, but by focusing on the repetitive aspects, you’ll see that the bulk of learning to drive is not as overwhelming as you first thought.
3. Get a great first impression
Your first time behind the wheel is incredibly important as it can greatly affect the future anxiety you feel while driving, either for better or for worse.
To ensure that your first experience lessens your anxiety, plan out an extremely unambitious practice session. In my case, for instance, I drove around a small and empty parking lot, which allowed me to get a feel for the car without stirring too many butterflies in my stomach. After I’d done a couple of loops and parked a couple of times, I called it a day, ensuring that I finished the session on a high note.
This “stopping on a high note” tactic is similar to a tactic that Ernest Hemingway used to write his books:
The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day … you will never be stuck … That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start.
If you’ve already attempted to drive and it didn’t go according to plan though, fear not. Take some time away from driving and treat your second attempt like your first attempt by practicing in a different location (and if, possible, with a different car with a different person). By switching things up, you can trick your subconscious into believing that the first attempt didn’t really “count”.
If you still have your doubts that the practice session will be a success though, simply aim lower. Even if your goal is to just turn the car on and drive in a straight line, that is perfectly fine. It doesn’t really matter how you succeed. It only matters that you do succeed. That success will then feed into your continued progress.
4. Invent your own practice routes
I live near a small national park that has a quiet, looping road with a low speed limit and only two lanes. This, I decided, would be my training ground as a new driver.
My sister would drive me to a car park near the middle of the loop, and this is where I’d take over and (very slowly) drive around the loop myself. There were a couple of car parks I could practice turning into, speed bumps I could practice decelerating over, and a roundabout I could practice entering and exiting, but it was mostly just a matter of staying within my lane.
Over the course of 3-4 weeks, I drove this loop dozens of times, and with each loop, I became that little bit more confident in my ability to handle the vehicle. Then, when I ventured outside of the national park, I created similar routes for myself, closer to time. I’d pick a handful of streets to drive around and focus entirely on mastering those streets until I had the confidence to go further afield.
There’s a few benefits to this approach:
- You don’t have to do anything that you’re not somewhat comfortable with.
- You can develop your comfort level slowly, with minimal risk.
- Your progress becomes easier to gauge, as you can measure it against the previous times you’ve driven the same route.
It’s worth noting that, during this time, I was mostly interested in the technical and the tactile skills of driving, rather than learning how to make complicated decisions on the road. That’s why I followed simple routes that allowed me to focus on accelerating, decelerating, steering, using my blinkers, and fundamental tasks. It’s only after I developed these skills to a competent degree that I felt confident enough to approach more advanced driving situations.
5. Practice in small chunks
If you have a choice between practicing once a week for two hours or four times a week for twenty minutes, choose the latter option. It’s less practice time overall, but it’s important to consider the issue of diminishing returns. If you’re a beginning driver, two hours of driving is going to be exhausting and you’re going to start making mistakes, which will only fuel the anxiety you feel.
Personally, I found that twenty minutes of practice per session worked best. Within that timeframe, I was able to drive around a practice route a few times, solidifying some skills I’d already learned, while also developing the foundations of a new skill I was trying to develop. This was all without tiring myself out, losing focus, or putting myself at risk of mistakes.
When approach these sessions, it’s also important to realise that the goal isn’t to make some big, gratuitous attempt at progress every time you sit behind the wheel of a car. Instead, you want to do what you can do today and then try to do a little more tomorrow. Instead of worrying about “breaking through your comfort zone”, think about nudging against its edges.
6. Drive a smaller, less powerful car
You might not have a choice in the matter, but if you do, it’s important to consider that the car you learn in can make a big difference in how easy it is to learn to drive.
My dad’s car, for instance, steers like a brick, so it always felt like I was fighting against the car instead of driving it; my mother’s car is a Mazda 3 Sport, which accelerates too quickly, with the teeniest amount of pressure applied to the pedals; and my sister’s car at the time was a Volkswagen Beetle, which was so incredibly slow and easy to control that it almost felt impossible to get into an accident, even if I’d wanted to.
As you can probably guess, I spent most of my time learning in my sister’s car, and I’m not sure I could have learned to drive without it. In fact, if I knew then what I know now, I might have even bought a smaller, less powerful car so I had something comfortable to learn in. Specifically, the Hyundai Getz seems like my ideal car, as it’s small, affordable, and gets decent reviews in the context of city and suburban driving.
7. Give yourself a tight deadline
I went from never driving before — and being terrified by the thought of driving — to passing my practical driving test in less than two months. I didn’t need to get my license that fast, and I don’t think I’m a particularly quick learner, but by giving myself a tight deadline, learning to drive felt like less of a burden. I was no longer looking ahead to a year or more of feeling uncomfortable and anxious. All I had to do was commit to a couple of months of regular, focused practice. This ensured that, every time I went for a drive, my skills hadn’t become rusty, which meant I didn’t have to waste time regaining skills that I’d lost. I was able to maintain my forward momentum throughout the entire process (with only a couple of hiccups along the way).
8. Expect things to go wrong
It’s important to accept ahead of time, before embarking on this journey, that your progress won’t be linear. As long as you don’t try anything too ambitious, you won’t make any serious mistakes, but you will still have practice sessions where driving doesn’t feel as natural as it does at other times. Maybe you drive into a curb, or someone honks their horn at you, or you cause an awkward situation at a roundabout. The point is, you will make mistakes and not everything will go according to plan.
But here’s the good news: by accepting that, yes, mistakes are inevitable, it’s easier to accept them as an integral part of the learning process. Learning what not to do is a fairly important part of learning what to do, after all. If you try to ignore the potential for mistakes though, they’re going to feel like a much bigger deal when they are when they do eventually happen, and that shock is going to shake your confidence.
9. Focus on the process, day by day
Anxiety arises when someone spends too much time getting caught in their thoughts and obsessing about the future or the past. When I thought about learning to drive, for instance, I often found that what kept me from driving was the thought of complex driving manoeuvres, like changing lanes and parallel parking. There are many simpler aspects of driving that you learn before tackling either of these things, and yet it was the thought of “one day I’ll have to do them” that kept from attempting to drive at all.
To solve this problem, I had to push thoughts of the future out of my head and focus on the immediate skills that I needed to develop — steering, turning the car, dealing with roundabouts. Only then could I start to make progress.
Focusing on the current task at hand without thinking about the future doesn’t come intuitively to most people, but if you just approach your goals inch-by-inch, you’ll find that your anxieties won’t have as much room to breathe.
10. Get professional driving lessons
From my perspective, working with a professional driving instructor was about as scary as driving itself. I’d heard horror stories about instructors yelling at their students or not explaining things properly, and I didn’t want any part of that. And yet, I also knew that I needed professional instruction. It was the only way I could safely experience more advanced driving situations and also spend more time behind the wheel of a car without roping in family members to help me.
In the end, there were two things that helped me overcome my anxiety of signing up for lessons:
- I spent a month practicing in my sister’s car, simply getting a feel for controlling the car, so I at least wouldn’t crash the instructor’s car within minutes of the first lesson.
- I only signed up for a single, one-hour driving lesson, which meant I only had to survive for sixty minutes if the instructor turned out to be a jerk.
Fortunately though, the instructor was incredible. He offered practical advice when I made mistakes, had more confidence in me than I had in myself, and knew how far to push my abilities without setting me up for failure.
By the time I passed my practical driving test, I’d had fifteen professional lessons, and while they weren’t cheap (around $70 per lesson) they were instrumental to the progress that I’d made. You can learn to drive with fewer lessons, but budgeting enough money for at least 4-5 lessons over the course of a month would be ideal. If you can’t afford those lessons, I’d argue you can’t afford to drive.
11. Watch videos by The Learner Driver Centre
The Learner Drive Centre is a UK driving school that has published a ton of incredible videos on their YouTube channel about learning to drive. Depending on your location, there might be some nuances that you have to account for (like driving on the opposite side of the road), but most of the advice is applicable to everyone.
As a starting point, watch the “Getting Moving” video, which explores the fundamental details (the “technical” skills) of operating a vehicle:
You might also like to watch the “Claire’s Driving Lessons” series, which follows a learner driver’s journey from having never driven before to getting her license:
They’re not exactly thrilling entertainment, but they are the most comprehensive driving instruction that I’ve found online, and by seeing what professional lessons were like, I felt less anxious about getting lessons myself.