Thursday, March 10, 2011

Motor skills and blinking lights

Within weeks of my eighteenth birthday, I got my drivers licence and - on the same day - moved out of home. I bid adieu to life in the suburbs and was ready to rock the uni student lifestyle.

It was another fourteen years before I drove again.

There were various reasons for this - no money for a car, no access to the family car, living/studying/working in areas with good public transport, and likewise, no need for a car when we lived in London. Londoners will moan about their public transport, but it's actually pretty good (as in, "Bugger, just missed the tube and now I have to wait a whole four minutes for the next one! Woe is me!") and the networks of both the London Underground and buses are extensive.

But I digress. I didn't drive for fourteen years, and I can't blame it entirely on the above reasons.

Anxiety played a big part. As the years went by, and my physical memory of being behind the steering wheel retreated, so did my confidence in my ability to drive safely. Or even drive at all. Often, the most stressful dreams I had involved having to drive somewhere, alone, and not knowing how to start the engine, or know which pedals to push. Then once the car was started, I'd have trouble steering it, or controlling the speed. Those dreams were awful, and did nothing to make me want to drive again. Ever.

By the time I hit the big 3-0, the Faery's birth was imminent and we knew - despite getting by fine with our inner city lifestyle - that we needed to buy a car, so we did. Shopping, strollers and buses don't go well together.

Even then, it took another eighteen months before I was driving again. It was hard to explain to people why I didn't drive. I'd attempt explanations, but I'd see in their eyes that they just thought I was strange. Or pathetic.

Then one day - after attending a funeral - something in me switched. I really did feel pathetic, and I was tired of relying on other people to do the driving. It felt humiliating - with a toddler - to have my mother in law drive us places if needed. I also owed J more than just a few nights as designated driver.

I forced myself to get on with it, and eased my way back into driving in the same way that a person learns from scratch. Thankfully, without the added pressure of having to pass a test - I'd always made sure to renew my licence over the years. Hey, it had served as convenient photo ID, if nothing else, in my twenties.

An advantage of getting back on the road a little later in life is that 95% of the driving I've done has been with the voice of a little person in the back seat, asking me impossible questions and challenging my focus. These days, I am used to driving and dealing with the Faery (and Miss Pie) at the same time. When I have a rare drive by myself? I savour the silence. No music for me. Nope. I drink in that silence, and relish every last drop of it.

It was about three years ago that I got back on the horse, so to speak. I'd really only been driving regularly for two years before we decided to make the Big Move to L.A.

You can imagine, then, the terror that filled me at the thought of having to get used to driving all over again - on the other side of the road (for readers who may be unaware, Australians drive on the left side of the road).

There was no getting around it, though. To live in L.A, you need wheels. It's as simple as that. The public transport is woefully inadequate, and in my limited dealings with the buses, extremely difficult with a stroller. Although the buses are designed to allow wheelchair access, the drivers still insist I remove Miss Pie from the stroller and fold it up. Even when there are no wheelchairs already on the bus (unlike Sydney buses, where it's perfectly acceptable to wheel a stroller on to a bus). Bollocks to that.

Within a month of arriving here, I was comfortably driving J to work, picking him up, and popping out to the local malls. With noisy kids in tow.

There are actually a few things that I prefer about driving on American roads. The lanes are wider, and busier roads will always have a designated lane for left turns, so you never feel at though you are holding up traffic as you wait. There are special lanes not just for left turns into streets, but spare lanes in the centre of busier roads where you can sit safely while waiting to turn left into driveways. I approve.

I also like the fact that - provided it's safe to do so - you can turn right when stopped at a red light.

Parking is a cinch, too. Many car parks have spacious angled spots, where you drive nose in. Impossible to screw up, really, which makes me snigger all the more when I see momentous parking fails - and I see them frequently.

I've reached the conclusion that Los Angelenos are terrible drivers.

It's not just the failed parking attempts that leave me feeling smug. It's the fact that people rarely indicate when they're changing lanes, or turning. It's as though the drivers here genuinely do not know what an indicator is, and I'm not exaggerating. Friends who hail from other states and cities have agreed with me that this is a big problem in L.A.

One acquaintance, originally from Tennessee, told me that after seven years in L.A, he no longer 'signals'. He says he's noticed, amongst other drivers, that if he indicates to change lanes, they will speed up to not let him in. There seems to be a mentality that if you want to be able to change lanes, you need to do it on the sly.

It doesn't explain why people rarely indicate when turning, though. From a pedestrian's point of view, this really pisses me off. I don't understand - do they think they'll get zapped by the indicator if they use it? I actually enjoy using indicators. There's something hypnotic about the tick-a tick-a tick-a and blinking lights.

It's now been a year - almost - and I can report that I have only driven down the wrong side of a road once. Ahem. In my defence, I was turning left - at the northern end - into a very wide, empty boulevard. There was no traffic around, and then half a block down, I noticed that the angle at which the cars were parked looked odd... woops. A quick turn around, a red face, and all was well in the end.

Now, there is only one obstacle left for me to conquer, and that's the freeways. I can't bring myself to drive on them, even though I know it can save time. The high speeds, and needing to sometimes cross five lanes at a moment's notice to access the correct freeway change or exit, combined with other drivers who don't indicate, all make it seem downright dangerous to me. It scares me.

I haven't got around to getting my Californian licence either, which technically - as a resident - I'm supposed to have by now. Oops.

As for those sweat-inducing dreams?

I haven't had one for a few years. Hopefully, that chapter is closed. Locked up, and key thrown away.

The local stretch of the 134


  1. Just looking at that thing gives me the heebies.

    I'm another one - licence but no drive. Been licensed since 1989 but never owned a car for much the same reasons as you.

    J has a car and I still don't drive it. The steering isn't the best and it isn't available during the week so we still catch the bus and train. I can't believe those bloody bus drivers over there make you take the baby out and fold up the stroller.

    I went on a bus in LA with J and it was quite an experience. That was the day though that I found Phillipe's French Dipped Sandwiches quite by accident so all was not lost. Ha!

  2. Mmm... I keep meaning to check out those dipped sandwiches...

    As for the bus drivers? Don't get me started.

    It's nice to know there are others out there who haven't really driven, for much the same reasons. I feel less silly now.

  3. You have to get the baby out and fold the pram? That's outrageous!

    I so love to drive. Public transport brings out the OCD in me. I feel like I need to scrub myself afterwards. Waaay too much humanity squeezed into a tight space.

    I think the fact that you're driving on the wrong side of the road, in LA no less, is amazing.

  4. Not only did I have to fold up the stroller while holding Miss P, I had F with me, no one to help, and people PUSHED around us to get on the bus. The driver said he'd help when it was time to get off, but he didn't.

    Bunch of arseholes, the lot of them. But for 25c a ride, what was I expecting?