17: Beyond the Test

Hi. It’s been a while. I thought it high time I gave you an update of what I’ve been up to since passing my test.

I highly recommend passing the driving test. I don’t mean that in a flippant way. For those of you working towards your test – be it a re-take or a first attempt – trust me when I say I know what you are going through. For those who are feeling the challenge, take heart: I was nervous, very nervous. But nerves can be overcome.

So I passed on 21st October. It remains one of THE defining moments of achievement in my life. I can honestly say that I cannot recall a time when I received so many heartfelt congratulations from so many people – mostly family and relatives but friends too. It is a real pleasure to see how delighted people are when you have good news to give.

I’m side-tracking slightly but I’ve just thought of something. If learning to drive is a big deal for you then here’s a tip: Don’t tell the world and all his friends that you are learning. Keep it quiet. Just think how surprised everyone will be when you tell them you’ve passed your test. If others know you have a test, the weight of their expectations may add to your own pressure.

It’s probably ideal to have a car ready to drive fairly soon after you’ve passed. However, depending on finance and other factors this can be easier said than done. In terms of getting my own car – I honestly didn’t really know where to start. Where would I look? What could I afford? Would it be reliable? What about all the other expenses like insurance and fuel? It felt a bit confusing.

By Christmas I still hadn’t set foot in a car again. By this time I felt a nagging pressure within. Don’t leave it too late, warned a slightly angsty internal voice. You’ll get cold feet. You’ll forget how to drive.

I got back in to the driving seat of a car last weekend. The car belonged to my girlfriend’s mother, who had just purchased a new vehicle. Enquiries were made about putting me on the insurance. Within half an hour of my name being added to the policy, I was driving myself and my girlfriend along a fairly narrow, fairly muddy lane in the New Forest.

The fact the car (a Fiat Punto) is an automatic was the first thing I had to get used to.

“Imagine you don’t have a left leg”, said Julia’s brother. “You do all the pedal work with your right foot.”

My first drive lasted no more than 15 minutes. It was just to get a feel of the car. I took it on a circular route. The gas pedal seemed really sensitive. It didn’t take much pressure for the little silver beast to lurch forward. The brake pedal is much wider than in a manual. Working with just my right foot felt a little strange at first. Despite that the biggest feeling I got from this drive was pleasure.

I’m driving again! I can still drive! I haven’t lost it!

I also reversed round a corner and did a turn in the road on this first drive.

The next day it was rainy and grey and horrible. I did another short drive in the morning as a kind of warm up. When I learned to drive with Tony I had been terribly lucky with the weather – I don’t recall it raining heavily (if at all) during a single lesson. Today I was working out how to get the front wipers swishing intermittently.

After this I completed half the journey back to my house, having been staying in the New Forest with Julia. This time I had two passengers. The drive involved a couple of roundabouts and a set of traffic lights.

Next time I will do the whole journey which will involve the dual carriageway and a bit of roadside parking. I just need a bit more practise to get used to this little car and get it under my control. I believe that confidence will build with experience and that I will gradually come to find the whole process of driving a more comfortable thing.

Like Bond, this blog will return. (All comparisons with said Spy absolutely end there unfortunately).

 

 

 

 

 

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16: The Big Day Arrives and…

Last week it was crunch time. I took my final pre-test 2 hour driving lesson on Thursday evening. I knew at the start that there were a number of things that would help me. First up was figuring out the complexities of Millbrook roundabout. Earlier in the day I had printed off a Google aerial photo of the lovely round thing that had caused me a certain amount of angst. My puzzlement was about lane discipline and how on a number of occasions I had strayed towards the wrong exit.

Tony got out his different coloured marker pens and helpfully drew clear routes demonstrating the spiral nature of the roundabout. So off we set and this time? Got it! No problem.

I wanted more goes at manoeuvres ( confession: that “m” word – I can never spell it properly. Thank God for spelll checkquers). Not only did I get to have a go at the bay park, which we hadn’t had time for last week, but we recapped on all the others ( I think).

Finally, I needed a reminder about the show me, tell me questions. Tony ran through them all. Lesson done. How was I feeling? Was I now quietly confident that I could pass? Or was I a gibbering nervous wreck? The truth is it had been one intense lesson. I felt the strain.

I awoke on Friday morning feeling in a reasonable state. Tony was picking me up at 10.30 for a final pre-test run in time for my test at the very precise time of 11.41. I didn’t want to sit around waiting and brooding so I walked to Lidl and looked for a box of chocolates for a friend I was visiting at the weekend. They didn’t have the one I was after.

10.30. I got in the car and the first 10 minutes were okay. Then we drove in to a car park and things started to unravel. I had just stalled at a roundabout. I was rushing to move off.

“You’ve got to calm down!” But Tony knew this was easier said than done and suggested I interpret his words as “slow down.” We ran through some more manoeuvres. Then we drove to Maybush test centre.

There was a minor panic when I couldn’t find my wallet. I needed my provisional licence. Tony found it in the front of the car. It must have slipped out whilst I was driving. When we got in to the test centre waiting room we sat for about one minute. I was grateful for such a short wait. A friendly looking gentleman with a side parting entered and called my name. Great! He’s human.

And with that we got in to the car and I was driving out on to Green Lane.

Weather was good. I had hoped it wouldn’t rain. I felt alert but – and here was the nice surprise – not anxious. It was happening now. Already I had won a small victory – I was taking a driving test. I was actually bloody doing it!

The independent drive began with a map showing two roundabouts. All good so far. After the roundabouts I was told to follow road signs to Shirley, then head in the direction of the City Centre and head towards Shirley again. Believe me, this is much less demanding than it sounds.

At frequent intervals I was asked to pull in and then move off when it was safe to do so. About half way through the test I had a feeling that things were going ok. I prayed that this wouldn’t change.

Before I knew it I was heading towards the test centre entrance. And it was here that I became unstuck. I was a little late in stopping for oncoming traffic to allow them to pass. Hastily, I tried to move off. The car stalled. I put on the handbrake, put the gear in neutral and turned the engine back on as quickly as I could. But haste was my problem. Again the car stalled. One more go. Crikey – a third stall! This was irritating more than alarming. How dare I let myself down within the last five minutes. Somehow I got the car going and steered her in to the test centre car park.

I was asked to do my final task –  a reverse bay park. There were plenty of spaces to choose from.

I turned off the engine and prayed silently. And then the hammer fell.

“Well I’m sure you’ll be glad to know you’ve passed.”

Warm, pleasant relief came first. And as I write these words now I realise that in that moment my life changed forever.

Nearly a week on I’m coming to terms with the fact that I have passed my driving test. I’ve proved something, not just to the examiner but to myself.

Tony described it as a rite of passage. That sounds about right.

I don’t own a car yet  But that doesn’t mean my journey is done. In fact, I think it’s only just starting.

To everyone who has supported and encouraged me – thank you.

To anyone who is a learner driver and finds driving a challenge – take heart – I’m living testament to the fact that the most nervous of learners can take and pass a driving test.

To Tony – thank you for never getting tired of explaining the same things. Thank you for praising me when I did good. Thank you for encouraging me when I felt it was all too much. I think you get the idea.

Until next time …

 

 

15: Test Approaching: No U Turns

You  know what I’d love to be able to do? I’d love to be able to control the uncontrollable. If I had that special, magical power I would use it to make my life all neat and tidy. Where’s he going with this, you’re probably wondering. Next week I take my driving test. It happens to fall on a week where an awful lot of other stuff is happening. For example, I’m going to be assisting in the teaching of a new course for people with learning disabilities. It starts next Monday. I’m quite nervous because I’ve been told it can be demanding and draining and it’s something I have never done before. Even without that new course, work is going to be super busy anyway.On Friday afternoon, not long after my driving test, I will be attending the funeral of a colleague who died very recently.

So my point is, wouldn’t it be great if I could have full control and somehow take my test at the perfect moment. It would be on a day when it isn’t raining, I’m feeling calm and confident and there are no other pressures. On the test I wouldn’t stall, there would be no awkward moments encountering drivers coming from the opposite direction and I wouldn’t hit the curb when performing a manoeuvre.

What a fantasy eh? But life just ain’t like that. Perhaps some of you reading this feel the same.

I began yesterday’s lesson with the usual nerves. Would I have improved since last week? Would I mess up on meeting situations again?  Would I remember how to do a parallel park?

I think I need to emphasize something here. Tony is massively encouraging. He knows full well that I don’t particularly enjoy driving (although I’d like to think that will change). He knows that I get anxious. So yesterday’s lesson began with a conversation in which I asked a number of questions – about the test and about some issues that came up last week – and got some helpfully honest answers.

“YOU CAN DRIVE!” This is something Tony reminded me of yet again yesterday. It’s good to be reminded of this. If – like me – you are given to self criticism and doubt – it’s important to have a reality check. Part of that reality is that I WILL get a driving licence. If I got it next week that would be amazing…I mean really amazing. Another part of reality is that I might fail next week. So right now I am trying to prepare myself. I want to be reasonably hopeful but keep my expectations grounded in reality.

Today we covered all the manoeuvres except the bay park. The turn in the road improved. The reverse round a corner took a few goes. On the parallel park I got muddled over my wheel turning but I got there in the end. We ended with the show me, tell me questions. These are the questions that an examiner will ask at some point during the test. They include:

  • How do you check your indicators are working?
  • How do you check your oil, washer fluid and water levels?
  • How do you turn on front and rear fog lights?
  • How do you turn on dipped and main beam headlights?
  • How do you test your brakes?
  • How do you check your tyre is properly inflated?

As we went through these pretty quickly I think I’m going to need a bit of a recap next week. However, I’m told that the examiner will ask only TWO of these questions – one show me, one tell me.

10 days to go. Just ten days. Before then I have three hours worth of driving to do with Tony.

It’s true. I don’t cope well under pressure. It’s not something I’m proud to admit. But just suppose that I don’t let things get to me on the day. Just suppose that I don’t lose my nerve and keep a steady course. It’s not impossible.

 

 

14: The Mock Test

It would be too easy to say “I failed the mock test.” Whilst this would be accurate, in isolation it presents a negative. There were positives. Quite a few actually. In fact, had Tony not had to intervene on two occasions – both in quick succession and falling within the last five minutes of the 40 – I would have passed.

I have to admit, I thought last week’s lesson with its three test routes was a kind of mock test in itself. Nope. A little tension took hold when Tony announced that today we would be doing a mock. Despite this I was determined to remain calm and not let nerves get the better of me.

So off I set. The “test” involved an independent drive (I think this lasted around 10 minutes) and a manoeuvre. It involved a few roundabouts, some nasty little bumpy narrow roads in built up areas and a drive from Millbrook in to the City  Centre on the dual carriageway.

Tony had told me at the start, that if things fell apart, we would abandon the mock as there would be no point in putting me under that pressure if it created that outcome. So after half an hour or so, I had a strong sense that things were basically going okay. I felt in control of the car and had remained calm at the wheel. There had been a few meeting situations which I felt I had handled well. Up to this point, I wish this had been my real driving test.

St James Road. On the left are a long line of parked cars. Coming towards me on the right are a succession of moving cars. The road looks awfully narrow. Am I meant to stay put in my safe place and allow the cars to move past? Will I fail on hesitancy for waiting too long for too many cars to pass? I make a judgement and proceed.

Suddenly Tony’s right arm shoots out like a snake and grabs the wheel.

“Too close!”

I know it’s game over. Flustered I make exactly the same mistake. Again the hand shoots out, averting crisis.

I think at this point I ask, “Does that mean the test has stopped?”

“We’ll talk about this in a minute.” I wonder if Tony sounds slightly irritated. Irritated with me for making the same mistake twice or irritated with me for asking the question? I write this only because this thought strikes me in the moment. The flustered moment.

NOTE: Tony is a very calm man.

NOTE 2: Tony HAD to intervene for the sake of safety.

NOTE 3: Paul worries. A lot. Fact. Worries include being liked and getting on with people. Paul is oversensitive. This disposition has not served him well in a variety of challenging situations.

NOTE 4: Paul and Tony get on. Tony knows what Paul is like. Tony NEVER lets the positives pass without flagging them up. Tony also never lies to Paul, which means being honest about things that need to be improved on.

The mock test ends. The flustered moment has quickly passed. Paul feels calm, even quietly pleased with his drive EVEN THOUGH HE KNOWS DAMN WELL that he didn’t pass.

So switching back to past tense, first person: Tony praised me for the good. And then he outlined a string of minors.

At this point I felt it would have been lovely to end the lesson. But there’s over an hour to go and that’s lots of time to work on improvement. The rest of the lesson is a mixed bag. There’s a lot of good stuff, but as I approach home there are some meeting situations which don’t go well. Anxiety switches common sense off and poor judgements are made.

Happy thoughts to end with:

  1. Experience will make me better able to deal with meeting situations.
  2. I’m doing lots of stuff right.
  3. I will never ever be perfect. And neither will you. Quite a liberating thought don’t you think?

 

 

 

 

13: Composure

Hi. I’m back from holiday – I went to Portugal for a week. Beautiful country, lovely people. But that’s not what I’m here to write about. Moving on…

It’s been a few weeks since my last blog. And two driving lessons, one either side of the holiday.

So what happened this week? Well, I had lesson 14 yesterday. It followed another fraught day at work. I was tired and doubted whether my driving would be up to much.

Happily, I was bloody wrong. By the end of the lesson I had driven along three different test routes. Before the first Tony warned me: “I’m giving you a heads up. The next ten minutes could be hell for you.” In previous weeks, statements like this had swung the needle to critical on Paul’s anxietyometer. But on this occasion I raised my game and kept my composure.

The upshot is that Tuesday’s was a good lesson. I felt myself improving. I also noticed something interesting: I was enjoying driving. At least some of the time.

Yeah, there were errors. But I tried my damnedest to correct these. And before I forget, I must make a note of the following:

  • Keep an eye on the display above the steering wheel. It tells you what gear you need to change to and when.
  • When picking up speed, don’t be afraid to move through the gears sequentially e.g. first into second into third etc. As opposed to trying awkward leaps from fifth to second for example.
  • When changing down to first at the approach to a junction DO NOT RAISE YOUR FOOT BACK OFF THE CLUTCH BEFORE STOPPING. Excuse my use of capitals. They’re not meant to strike fear in to the heart of any learner reading this. Just a reminder of something I need to be aware of.
  • When stopping at traffic lights it’s okay to slip into first gear whilst waiting, particularly if you’re not sure how soon the lights will change to green. At least you’re ready to go.
  • Remember to raise the clutch slowly after changing gear. It will save you a jolt.
  • Meeting situations (note to reader: not dates). Remember that on a road made narrow by cars parked on either side, the driver coming towards you will also need to react if there is not sufficient space for you to pass each other simultaneously. Tony’s rule: IF IN DOUBT, WIMP OUT. But don’t wimp out by simply stopping in the middle of the road. Stop at a suitable space.
  • Stay in your lane on a roundabout.

The lesson ended with me feeling I had worked hard and made improvements. Tony has a lovely style of simplifying things and it’s working for me. The simpler the rules are, the easier it is to learn.

If any one reading this blog is struggling to pluck up the courage to learn, I can sympathise. But if you’re like me and get anxious, I know for certain that with the right instructor and a little perseverance, it can be done. A year ago, I doubted I’d be doing this. But the confidence is continuing to build.

It’s not quite time for me to crack open the champagne yet (HEALTH WARNING: I AM NOT ADVOCATING DRINK DRIVING). But I’m considering buying the glasses.

 

 

12: Hope

So – did you read the last blog entry (number 11)? If you did, you’ll know that during my last driving lesson my stress levels rocketed,  my confidence took a sky-dive that Pierce Brosnan’s stunt double would be proud of and I was left a little frayed at the edges. So you won’t be surprised to learn that I was a little tense when I got in to the driving seat last Tuesday. I think I felt resigned. I was expecting to make mistakes and I was expecting to encounter stressful situations.

Tony asked me to pull over. Ok, what’s coming now, I thought to myself.

“How do you think that went?”

I told him I felt the drive had gone a little better than expected.

It was with some surprise that I learned I had been driving for twenty minutes. Twenty minutes! Blimey – where did that go?

Even better was the news that I had passed the minors game (read last blog entry). The only difference this time was that Tony was playing it in stealth mode – marking me secretly on my minor errors. I got four minors (a fifth would be game over).

I’m pleased about this. Delighted really. All of a sudden it seems like I’m back on track to go in to my driving test knowing that I can drive without making major errors. Already I have driven for the equivalent of half the length of the test with just a handful of minors.This doesn’t make me a learner driver genius. But it was a much needed boost.

I guess performing well as a driver in a test or lesson can be a bit like walking a tightrope. I imagine that skilled tightrope walkers have learned to concentrate on their challenge enough to complete a walk successfully without dwelling incessantly on the danger of falling 50 feet. If the fear was that overwhelming it might cause them to wobble, lose balance and plunge to their peril. I hope that when I take my test next month, I will keep my nerve.

One of the things I’ve really learned from Tony is the duality between brain and body. The body learns to drive through muscle memory. After a while it knows what to do. Unfortunately brain thinks it knows better than body and starts to interfere. Result? Anxiety and uncertainty and mistakes. In my case, one mistake upsets me and because of that I make another.

Today gave me a chance to try something new – the commentary drive. This was something I attempted towards the end of the lesson after Tony gave me a demo. Basically, it involves talking out loud as your drive – specifically commenting on the road ahead, any potential hazards and what action you take as a driver. The crucial thing for me was that it stopped me from dwelling on mistakes. Why? Because I was too busy verbalising what was happening ahead in the road. I’m told it’s ok to do this in a driving test.

One of the areas to work on as a driver is my positioning on roundabouts and my approach to junctions. Let’s deal with junctions and explain what I do when approaching a T-junction to take a left turn. Because I am so focused on looking to the right to check for traffic I tend to drive to the centre of the road. What I should be doing is initially looking in the direction I am turning and then following the curve of the road round to the stopping point. After being made aware of this mistake I made conscious efforts to improve. I think I started getting it right.

Roundabouts. They’re still a challenge for me. At one mini roundabout I waited a little too long. My focus was on the fact that there was traffic approaching it – not on the direction the traffic was taking. Besides the issue of positioning, my speed drops. I’m not sure why this is. I think I may be trying too hard to get one aspect of roundabout driving correct (positioning?) to the detriment of other aspects.

I mentioned tightrope walkers earlier. Keeping to the line of circus metaphors, wouldn’t it be great to do that thing that some clowns do – riding a unicycle, whilst juggling three balls at the same time. The demands of driving feel like that sometimes.

It’s now a week since I had the lesson described above. Today, a colleague gave me a lift home from work. I was in total awe of the grace and agility with which he drove his vehicle. For him, nothing was complicated. Manoeuvres were executed with perfection, gears were changed with ease and roundabouts were…well…just driven round.

I’m going to be positive. Progress was made last week. Next week I’m going to make some more.

 

 

 

11: Shutdown

Pressure.

What a word. It’s a bastard is pressure.

Three days ago I had my last driving lesson. As the car set off with me at the wheel I was okay for about the first 30 seconds. Then I missed a sign and almost missed a turn. Bad start. But much worse was to come.

I tried a new strategy on Monday. Work finishes at 3pm and the driving lesson started at the usual time of 3.30pm. On driving lesson days I normally catch the bus to allow myself plenty of time to get home. All things considered, my work day had gone pretty well. Mindful of not wanting to break the fragile and transient mindset of feeling comfortable I decided I would walk. I reasoned that if any anxieties about driving started to creep in, I’d expel the adrenaline through the exercise.

Yeah. Seemed like a nice idea.

I can’t remember much about the first part of the lesson other than that I drove to Romsey. Tony asked me if there was anything I wanted to practice. I said reversing in to a bay park – something I hadn’t done for weeks and weeks. Funnily enough, he’d been thinking the same. So the Rapids car park seemed like a good place to give it a go.

I had forgotten the technique and wanted to know the reference point for when I was meant to turn. And then there’s that thing about the steering wheel. What way am I meant to turn it?

I should think we devoted a good half hour to sorting this out. It seemed like hard work to get the car exactly where it was meant to. What Tony successfully got across to me was – and this may sound ridiculously simple – you turn the car in the direction you want to go. Even if you’re reversing. So if you want to slide the car back in to the third bay on the left after the parked car, you turn the wheel…yep, to the left.

“We’re going to play a game”, said Tony. “A game of minors.” Rules are straightforward. The aim was for me to accomplish a 20 minute drive with no more than five minor errors. Every time I was to make a minor, Tony would flag it up. His task was to put me under pressure.

Pressure.

It was game over after…hmm…6o seconds? Maybe less. I exited the Rapids car park on to the main road. I approached a roundabout and a sort of panic set in. Which lane? Where was the second exit?

Not sure what happened then. It’s a blur. I think Tony might have grabbed the wheel at one point.

Everything during those brief moments felt indescribably wrong. I felt like everything I was doing to the car, in the car, with the car was just…so damn awful.

For the first time since I returned to driving, a new feeling was growing: Doubt. Was I really good enough to be on the road? Would I be able to take a driving test, let alone pass it? As we drove in the direction of home, I lost faith. I couldn’t conceivably see how I could ever be anywhere near adequate in a million years. Let’s face it – if you can’t handle pressure then why would you get in the driving seat in the first place?

We reviewed the lesson right at the end. Through the minors game Tony had identified what he needed to. But the lesson had taken it’s toll on me. I tried not to show emotion. But I did.

I’ve got a driving test on October 21st.

Dear God…a miracle please.