I Want Your Car Stories! | How I Grew a Driving Phobia

Afternoon. I can’t believe how autumnal the weather is today. Yesterday I was in shorts and a t-shirt and thought I might fry to a crisp, and this morning I wore gloves walking the dogs. I had to learn where the windscreen wiper controls are in my car (heads up, car designers: those little symbols make absolutely no sense).

Today I want to talk about cars, actually. Well, driving. I think the last time I wrote here I was looking for a job alongside my internship; now I have one! I think it’s bad luck – or stupidity – to talk too much about new jobs before you’ve put a few hours in, but I start in September and I’m tentatively excited. There’s just one catch: I have to drive there.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever bored you all with the exact details of how I learnt to drive, or rather how long I took to learn to drive. I started lessons the summer I left school and passed my test last December. There was a break of a few months when I moved, so I think it took two years. I immediately went to South East Asia and didn’t sit behind the wheel of a vehicle until April, so it’s safe to say my practise-acquisition rate is low. This is mostly my fault. When I was about eight and we were walking home from school, I saw a teenager get hit by a car. I can’t actually remember actual collision when I think back, just weird details like the woman who was driving was taking her grandson home from school, and she wore glasses. But it must have stuck with me, because ten years later I sat in my instructor’s Kia in a side road in the suburbs and couldn’t believe I was trusted to operate a car just like that. Aside from the standard sight test, no one wanted to check I was competent enough to drive on an actual working road. I did not feel competent enough to drive on an actual working road. I felt strapped to a friendly, powerful machine with too many working parts that can be accidentally used to kill.

It probably didn’t help that I’m not naturally good at any of the skills driving requires. I have no sense of direction, my reaction times aren’t that quick and I don’t trust my own senses. I also soaked up all of those driving awareness adverts as a kid – don’t drink and drive, don’t do drugs and drive don’t be that person – and while I was in senior school, a girl a couple of years above me died in a horrible car accident that reverberated through all the schools in the area.

I’m very aware that humans are very easy to kill with cars and I’ve spent most of my life assuming I’ll kill someone with mine.

When I was taking lessons in a dual controlled car with an instructor I trusted – hi John! – the dread in the pit of my stomach gradually ebbed away. When I bought a 2002 Nissan Micra off my cousins’ nan so I could practise with my family, it snapped at my feet but rarely came closer. I used to go out at night, which I weirdly found easier because I’m always more alert when it’s dark out, and piled up the hours. Dread flitted into my car here and there, but everything seemed to be on track (ha). I scraped through my theory test and took my practical with the attitude that if I didn’t pass, I could try again after I came home from Asia. Fear circled, biting at my shoelaces, but I repeated that anecdote that, hey, people who pass second time are safer drivers. I passed first time.

About a week after I came home from Asia, I picked my nan and my brother up for lunch, ignoring what was by then butterflies, and settled back into the Micra thinking ‘goodness, how did I sit comfortably before, it’s quite clunky on junctions, I must say that this car probably isn’t built for me. Perhaps when I have a job I shall upgrade to a comfier one.’ I had sweaty palms, but I had literally just crossed South East Asia. I could cope with a ten minute drive in a car on my own. On our way home, an SUV hooted me on a roundabout; I physically jumped from my seat and when we got home I realised I was shaking. I could not cope with a ten minute drive. The certainty that I’ll kill someone one day was back in my bones. Like I haven’t got enough to think about.

I’ve tried a few cures since then. I sold the Micra to my friend Robyn and bought a newer Mini because they are supposedly good for shorter drivers. Also, they are in The Italian Job. It’s comfier and smoother, but more expensive to insure which does not help my stress levels. I learnt that vehophobia is one of the ten most common phobias in the UK (and judging by how many articles I found, it’s fixable). I keep up with Maggie Stiefvater’s Jalopnik articles and look up car maintenance on YouTube. I go for drives with my uncle on different roads. I do the weekly commute to the supermarket with my mum. When there’s someone in the passenger seat to talk to – and to remind me where I’m going, because 21 years of living in Southend has not imparted any knowledge of the road system – I’m okay. I’m nervous, but in the same way I get nervous for job interviews. It’s a bearable nervous. But when I’m on my own, I’m eight again.

The boy who got hit by a car that time was fine, by the way. The driver was doing about 20 miles per hour and if I remember correctly, the boy had run out between two cars to catch the bus and sort of bounced off the bonnet. No blood or death or anything like that.

My certificate says I’m a qualified driver. I’ve spent hundreds of hours behind the wheel. I don’t shake, vomit, cry or hyperventilate when I’m driving. I like cars. I like the smell of petrol and wind on my face during an evening drive and I fully intend to one day purchase a vintage muscle and drive it across a desert. I am very good at parallel parking and don’t overtake in stupid places. I can drive, for god’s sake. I’m just paralysed with fear by the thought of my impending part-time commute to the other side of Southend. I don’t like being scared, I don’t have time for it and it’s interfering with my plans, but I can’t afford refresher lessons or therapy. I can’t afford a sat nav either, which would probably help. It would give me something to talk to, at any rate…

I’m not sure what to do next, other than force myself into my car and drive until the dread disappears or I don’t notice it. Maybe I should nose the Mini into a tree to get the inevitable over with. Maybe I should spray paint it to feel cooler and therefore braver. Maybe I should sell it and take the bus.

I have a request for you guys: tell me your car stories. Tell me about taking your driving test and backing into a bollard and knocking your wing mirror off on a van. Tell me about your first car and your last car and the weirdest shit you’ve come across on the roads. Tell me which car you’ve always wanted and which one you’ve ended up with. I want something to think about on the commute.