The following is a coming of age story. It is about one man’s triumph against insurmountable odds. It is a tale of frustration, despair and, finally, victory. It is the story of how I go my driver’s licence.
Despite living in various Australian country towns all my life, I managed to reach my 17th birthday without ever having sat behind the wheel of a motorised vehicle. No driving around a relative’s farm. No tearing up the bush in a go-cart. I was never even the little car when we played Monopoly.
So there I was, a vehicularly illiterate 17-year-old who only managed to get his L-plates because of the laughably easy written test (Sample questions: At a stop sign do you a) stop or b) go?). My father, possibly foreseeing the ordeal I would be undergoing, said he would under no circumstances teach me how to drive and would rather pay for as many lessons as it took rather than be in a car while I was in control.
If that seems rather harsh, it should be noted that my hand-eye coordination was so bad I was unable to tie shoe laces until I was 11. They first time I managed to catch a ball during a competitive tee-ball game both my teammates and the opposing side spontaneously applauded.
My first driving instructor was seven foot tall American who somehow managed to fold himself into his dual-control Hyundai every lesson. He had the charming habit of leaning out the window and shouting suggestions at female pedestrians.
I failed about five driving tests that year, including a near-miss with a sausage sizzle in a Bunnings carpark and an unfortunate reflex decision to play “punch buggy yellow” with my rather taciturn tester.
The next year I moved to Perth for university and was fortunate to live in student housing on campus. Some people say the best part of university is the intellectual stimulation. Others say it is the lifelong friendships. For me it was being able to walk to class. I did help liberate a number of street signs from their poles but for the first two years of study my only dealing with the road was by the medium of the Transperth bus.
Unfortunately as graduation loomed I realised if I wanted to become a journalist I would have to eventually pass my driving test. Sure Clark Kent didn’t have his licence but he made other arrangements that weren’t available to me.
My second driving instructor was a straight-talking Indian man. He was so straight-talking that after my second lesson he said “Ben, you will never be able to drive a manual car. Do not even try” and then gave me the phone number of an instructor who specialised in automatic driving.
As well as teaching clutch-challenged people how to drive, my third driving instructor appeared to operate some kind of courier business. A typical lesson involved him telling me to drive to a specific address and park out the front. He would then get out of the car, knock on the door, be given a box, get back in the car and tell me to drive to another address. Again he would get out, knock on the door, hand the box over and return to the car with a brown paper bag. The lesson would end with him looking inside the bag, then smiling at me and saying “Well done Ben”.
I failed three driving tests while under his tutelage, including a heart breaking incident when I passed every single exercise but went through the wrong entrance to the depot at the end of the test and was failed.
While his unique methods were not the reason I continually failed the tests, I felt it was time to get a new instructor.
Lucky instructor number four was a laid-back surfer type whose maxim of “wear shoes, don’t wear shoes, it’s all the same to me” was oddly comforting. His lessons coincided with a tester who liked to tell prospective drivers “Hit a dog, automatic fail. Hit a cat, automatic pass”. I don’t know if he was joking but after failing another two tests I was getting desperate.
And then, after five years, 10 tests and about a thousand dollars spent on lessons, it all clicked. I got into the car, indicated correctly, merged seamlessly, even reversed parallel parked. There was no moment when driving suddenly made sense to me. I was just as nervous before that test as with all the others. It was as if God, the universe or even then West Australian Transport Minister Alannah MacTiernan just decided it was my day to pass.
I wish I could say the moral of the story was never give up but if I had failed one more test I would have honestly just invested in a book of taxi vouchers and saved myself the stress. But whenever I see an L-plater on the road, I give them all the time and space they need. Because while some people are lucky enough to get their licence straight away, for others it was the hardest thing we ever had to do.