Why is it such a big deal when someone can't drive?

Is learning to drive still the rite of passage to 'adulthood' it once was?

Is learning to drive still the rite of passage to 'adulthood' it once was? Photo: Stocksy

I'm twenty-eight (a few months shy of turning twenty-nine, to be honest) and I'm writing this on the eve of my driving test. I've been learning for several months and my kind, ever-so patient instructor gave me the all-clear to go for it. This most recent summer was the impetus for me to finally learn; I had spent many nights suffering in my stuffy, oppressively hot house, longing to be in the cool water at the beach, but public transport to beaches isn't great, and I wanted to bring my dog, and the politics of sand, etc. Relief from summer heat is of great importance to me, and getting a car and my licence would be the only way I could be assured of having the freedom to pop down to the water whenever I please. The more I thought about it, the more my fears of driving were allayed by the imagined pleasures of driving. This is all stuff you might know already, or heard when you were eighteen, but it took me a while to come around.

I knew Kate from my brief time at uni, and became a loose part of her inner sanctum of mates, aged nineteen. We went to NEXT (an 'alternative' club night back in the day; shout out to my fellow Lite Emos and Club Dorks), hung around the house playing Scene-It or going to comedy and live music gigs. This group of friends all lived in the same area; while I lived in the inner-north labyrinthine streets of Coburg at the time, they all lived in various outer-north suburbs like Lalor, Thomastown and Epping. End-of-the-train-line-type places.

As it happened, I did not drive at the time. They all did because, as any child of the outer suburbs will tell you, if you didn't have your license, you had a shit-ton of trouble going partying, or even just getting out of the house for the day. These suburbs were also public transport nightmares. I didn't want to, but I relied on these friends to ferry me home after a night out. Sometimes I asked, sometimes they offered; but as time went on, I could feel their generosity wane.

I talk about these friends in the past tense because I don't see them anymore. This is for a variety of reasons, but I have always felt that a growing, needling resentment of my lack of license really drew a wedge between us. I get it, of course; I imagine it's a pain in the ass to drive an hour round-trip when you've got enough perfectly nice friends right around the corner, with three-car driveways and nice wide streets. I felt guilty that my lack of driving skills put my friends out, and sad that they would invite me out less and less as time went on.

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It was also around this time that another friend, from a different group, got similarly jack of my lack of interest in becoming a driver. An aggressive and pushy person, she forced me into the driver's seat of her car one night. She maintained that she could, and would, teach me how to drive, and that it was easy, and that I was being silly for showing reticence. Fearfully and anxiously, I drove at maybe 15kms down the street with my friend shouting- unhelpfully, as you can imagine- to go faster, and to stop being scared. I was so nervous that I full-stopped before going over a speed bump. I drove for, perhaps, six or seven minutes before I made my friend get back in the driver's seat, having been properly scared and shamed. It would be almost ten years before I drove a car again.

Of course, statistics show that my generation is actually producing less drivers than previous ones. This is thanks mostly to increased public transport and road-share options, meaning we need to have discussions on public infrastructure and class before we really figure out who is driving and who isn't and why, but who has the time? Those that live in inner cities generally don't feel the need to drive, it being an added expense on the already high costs of living. Indeed, one of the many reasons I told myself there would be no point in learning to drive was that I would doubtless never be able to afford to buy a car.

There are also internal factors, like the anxiety that comes with driving. People that may have forgotten what it was like to be a nervous learner (or people that do not suffer the kind of daily anxiety, over even minute issues, that some of us do) often can't wrap their head around just how terrifying driving – and all the possibilities that might come with it – can be. Who'd have thought that being the sole controller of an explosive metal cage hurtling around amongst other similar machines at high speeds would be stressful?

Of course, there are many people who equate driving with a sort of rite of passage into adulthood. Like voting or being legally allowed to have sex, getting your driving permit is meant to be a sign to the world that you are no longer a child, and are fully able to flee the nest and make it in the big bad world. Driving plays into a fairly mainstream narrative of what we consider adulthood to be, though; it is part of the long list of "supposed-tos" that have become so rigid in our understanding of life (and its milestones and tasks) that some rarely question them.

Like old-world ideas about only having kids after marriage, or owning your own home (how much some perish the idea of renting, as if it were a death sentence!), driving – in your own car, of course, with comprehensive insurance and all – is all part of that 'To-Do' list that you get when you're finally An Adult. I feel like the reason people resent those who refuse to go along with the prescribed tasks of 'adulthood' do so simply because of some second-hand annoyance; they are, for whatever reason at the core, incensed at those that act in a way they perceive to be childish – hindering the forward movement of society, basically. In the same way I might get annoyed at someone that draws dicks on their voting ballot paper, or that guy that prank calls emergency lines, or those jerks that deliberately drive erratically, these people see my inability to drive a car as a sign of immaturity, and – in their mind – an unwillingness to be a 'Proper Adult' and participate correctly in adult society. They are angry at me, but also for me, in a way; they just want me to be a real person, you see. They think they mean well.

But as time goes on, we are reinventing and reshaping ideas of what everything means, which includes shaking off the arbitrary expected manners of 'proper adulthood'. The only solution, as we know, inherent in crushing divisive ideas about conformity and 'social etiquette', is to push back against it. In the same ways we battle, on the daily, rigid ideas in society that (whatever their intention) stymie our progress, we need only continue in the ways in which life is most comfortable for us. If that is driving, or using public transport (in which there is no shame; this is what it's there for), or cycling, well you do you.

My perspective hasn't changed dramatically; I haven't suddenly become obsessed with the idea of getting my license now. After all these years, what a strange turnaround that would be. But instead I have opened my mind more to the idea. It was bravery, really, that I needed in order to kickstart my driving life; as an anxious person, the idea of driving always terrified me, until I started regularly doing it and gradually became more comfortable with it.

It is one of the few times I might genuinely throw myself into a situation in order to cure my fear of it, rather than slink away in self-care and preservation. Although there were times I felt infantilised by my inability to drive, more often I didn't much care; I did not take it as a slight against my person, or some sort of black mark on my record. Who cares if I don't drive, or own a home, or want to get married and have kids, or have a 'proper' job (read: one in a fluorescent-lit office where there are eight guys called Dan)? Isn't it my life to be living, how I want to?

Full disclosure: I failed my test. I was doing well, even nailing the hideous reverse-parallel park that has plagued and stressed me all these months- until I misjudged and became confused by a red arrow/green light combo. I was frustrated and saddened by this, mainly because I had psyched myself up so hard for the day, but have since decided to 'get back on the horse' and have another go. After I practise those damn reverse parks again.

This article was first published via The Vocal