As a youngster, I always took it as a given that I'd get my drivers' license someday.
In December 2008, I will turn thirty years old. I still don't have a license. This no longer bothers me in the least. But it certainly seems to unnerve others, as I often find myself in the position of being expected to justify and explain my indefinite non-driverhood. Apparently, according to some, non-driving Americans are somewhere on the rarity scale between the Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat and the Yeti.
But contrary to popular opinion, no, we are not mythical beasts. Plenty of people don't drive, and yes, some of us live in the good old US of A. Non-drivers include children 16 and under, elderly persons, blind persons, neuro-atypical persons (though neuro-atypicality certainly doesn't necessarily preclude driving), urbanite hipsters, skate punks, exercise enthusiasts, farm workers, and others who just plain don't like driving.
In other words, despite the car-obsessed culture we North Americans live in, not all of us drive. And while some of us may want to drive, not all of us do. And it's high time we had our say.
So here's my story, for what it's worth.
The first time I attempted to operate an automobile, I was about sixteen. I don't remember much about that attempt, except for the fact that it didn't last very long. Nobody was injured, but I seem to recall someone yelling "STOP!" after I'd gone a few clumsy feet in the driveway.
I didn't attempt driving again until I was eighteen, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, I didn't need to drive in order to get anywhere I needed to go; my high school and the public library were within walking distance, so even though I sometimes got a ride with someone, I wasn't stranded when I didn't have a ride.
For another thing, I didn't see the point of trying for a license when I couldn't afford a car -- I had no expectation that my parents would buy me one (and it bugged me to hear other teenagers talking as if they were somehow "entitled" to cars), and I didn't have personal funds sufficient to buy one myself, let alone deal with insurance and gas and maintenance.
And finally, I simply wasn't all that interested in driving, as I was plenty busy with school, and my hobbies (reading, art, computer games) didn't pose heavy transportation demands.
But one day, my stepmom randomly asked me if I wanted to try driving again. I accepted this offer, and managed to make my way slowly around the parking lot of the local junior college in her tan minivan. I don't think I did too horribly, but it wasn't exactly an experience I was compelled to repeat soon afterward; it was very mentally exhausting. And soon I got caught up again in other things that didn't involve driving or attempting to drive, and the whole idea of doing so simply fell off my radar.
Fast forward another three years or so. I'd transferred to university after completing my general education requirements at two local junior colleges, but I was home on summer break working as an engineering intern (at the same company I now work for; they hired me on after I graduated). My parents were starting to get concerned about my non-driving status at that point, judging from their repeated and pointed suggestions that I get my learner's permit. Eventually I guess the nagging got to me, as I went down to the DMV one day and passed the written test, thereby qualifying myself for behind-the-wheel instruction.
The day the driving instructor showed up in the little gray automatic with the extra brake was the first day I actually went out on a real road (as opposed to a driveway or parking lot). I was 21 years old, and still more or less optimistic that all I needed was a bit of practice in order to become a skilled, safe driver. So practice I did. And within a few hours of instruction, I was definitely a bit better than when I'd started at controlling the car. I was able to start it up, make it go straight, and steer, (albeit somewhat clumsily) around curves in the road.
The instructor had me drive on residential streets for the most part, which weren't too bad, though I had some trouble whenever there were other cars in the vicinity, as I found it very difficult to predict their behavior and judge where they were in relation to the car I was in. There were several incidents in which the instructor either had to slam on the extra brake (which I didn't find overly discouraging, as I knew the pedal was there for a reason) or grab the wheel from me in order to avoid Massive Crunchy Death, but I pressed on. We tried going up a really twisty mountain road at one point, and I actually didn't do too badly there, as there were very few other cars and the ones that were present seemed to be driving carefully and fairly slowly. And a few times, I ended up on the freeway.
The freeway experience was probably the biggest eye-opener of all with regard to what the demands of driving actually were. I actually liked driving on the freeway in some respects -- the "going really fast in a straight line" part was exhilirating, and several times I had to be reminded to note the speed limit. I also appreciated the "no stoplights" thing (as it meant less fiddling with the controls while simultaneously trying to pay attention to the road). But when it came to steering, merging, changing lanes, entering, or exiting, I was pretty well flummoxed. It became apparent to me fairly early on that freeway driving required a lot in the way of rapid responsiveness, and that even tiny movements of the steering wheel could have major effects on the car's trajectory when said car was careening along at 80 MPH.
I obviously didn't end up crashing and dying, but frankly I still chalk that up to luck and the presence of the instructor. But I finished my six hours (or whatever it was), and got the little permit certificate. I was pretty proud of that, and still figured that all I needed was more road practice.
After finishing up with the driving instructor, I mostly went out on the road with my dad. I could tell he and my stepmom were doing their best to help and encourage me, but at the same time, I also felt really pressured -- they would randomly quiz me on things like three-point turns (using napkins to represent cars) during dinner, and I was not very good at answering accurately in real-time, which frustrated both me and my parents alike. Once they had me drive the lot of us to the pizza place, and not only did I end up "drifting all over the road like a drunk", I also over-shot the driveway to the parking lot, and was in tears by the time we actually reached our destination. Another time, I was out driving with my dad, and he had to prevent me from driving through another car -- basically, we were at a green light (which my brain took to mean "go"), but the car in front of us wasn't actually moving yet.
Sometimes I seemed to do okay, but gradually I started noticing that I was really only "okay" when I had the whole road to myself. Any other large, moving objects, and I'd suddenly become exceedingly confused -- it was almost like the presence of even one other vehicle would break the whole scene around me into little pieces, which I then had to scramble to figure out the significance of. I'd been vaguely aware of this when I was driving with the instructor, but I'd not figured it to be anything unusual; I still figured at that point that everyone processed visual data the same way I did, and that if other people could drive, there was no reason I couldn't learn as well.
But the more I went out on the road, the more it became clear to me that I wasn't getting any better at dealing with multiple random moving variables in my visual field. Sure, I was getting better at manipulating the steering wheel and signal lights, but I was also still regularly forgetting which pedal was the gas and which was the brake, and just generally not dealing well with any outside motion or unpredictable situation on the road.
I began to dread practice sessions, but I tried to maintain some semblance of enthusiasm. Not only had I been culturally conditioned to think that I "needed" to drive in order to be a respectable adult, I also figured I'd be a huge disappointment to my parents if I didn't drive, and I felt very guilty about being so poor at it. I got plenty of advice from various people on what my "problem" supposedly was: that I was "just nervous", that I still hadn't gotten enough practice, that I wasn't really trying, that I was "relying too much" on other modes of transportation, etc. None of those explanations really felt right, but I couldn't articulate what was actually going on, so I vacillated between feeling ashamed of myself for my "laziness" and trying to ignore and push the idea of driving out of my mind altogether.
I tried driving a few more times when I returned to university after summer break -- my very patient and supportive boyfriend Matt was plenty willing to lend me vehicular access for practice purposes. I drove around in the school parking lot a bit (though that was kind of unnerving, as there was a pen of goats at the edge of the lot!), and drove once or twice from Matt's apartment to mine. But then I got busy again with school, and driving fell off my mental map again until after graduation.
Third Time's The Charm?
Fast forward again, this time to 2004. I'd graduated college the previous year, and Matt and I had moved into a small apartment in Santa Clara following my getting hired on permanently at my job. I started having more contact with my family again, as they're local to the Bay Area, and once again, I started feeling ashamed and angry at myself for not having a license. I was 24ish and decided that I would get my license once and for all before turning 25 -- no more excuses, no more procrastinating.
Finally, I figured, I was really and truly ready. I had a patient and willing licensed driver to help me (Matt), a cute shiny new Ford Focus to zip around in, and plenty of wide streets and parking lots to practice in. I marched into the DMV and renewed my expired learner's permit, and prepared for my first parking-lot re-acquaintance with the driver's seat.
And...I did okay in parking lots, as usual. Not great, but okay. I then went out on the road with Matt, where I noted the same phenomena as I'd experienced in the beginning of my quest to become a real driver: being "fine" on straight stretches of road with no other cars, but randomly forgetting how to use the controls in the middle of navigating an intersection, and not reacting in safe or appropriate ways to unexpected events or moving objects in my visual field. And don't even get me started on those unprotected left turns -- without fail, it always looked to me like the cars going in the other direction were coming straight at my front bumper, which led to no end of dangerous overcompensation on my part.
But I felt better. Less like a failure. More like someone who was actually growing up, who was actually "trying".
The only problem (well, aside from the obvious safety issues that entered the picture every time I ventured out onto the road) was that after every session, I'd come home feeling utterly brain-dead. I would return to my apartment after less than an hour of driving practice end up doing nothing for the rest of the day beyond clicking random Internet links and wandering around the living room in circles.
It would have been one thing if I was actually becoming a better driver. But I just wasn't. And I wasn't doing much of anything else aside from work and household chores, either.
So eventually, after much internal deliberation, I decided that my energies would be spent better elsewhere than trying to get a drivers' license.
Realizations and Trade-Offs
It's worth noting how dysfunctional my overall self-image was at the time I was most concerned with trying to get a license.
For a while after deciding to cease my attempts at becoming a driver indefinitely, I second-guessed myself relentlessly:
Maybe I stopped practicing one session too early -- maybe another hour on the road and it all would have clicked!
Maybe I just need to find the right book or Web site or teacher -- maybe if I keep looking a little longer, I'll find something that will work for me.
Maybe I AM just too lazy. Maybe everyone who learns to drive goes through the same thing I've been through and worse, and I'm just weak-willed and making excuses to cover for it.
Those "maybes" (and plenty of others) danced in my head for months. Even though I knew I'd made the right decision (for the sake of my personal safety and productivity in my non-work life), I was still concerned that I was going to be a "burden" forever, and that people were always going to end up feeling "pressured" into driving me around. I thought of the well-intentioned people who'd been telling me since I was a teenager that I ought to be able to drive because I was supposedly "smart enough" to do so; I felt like I was almost assuredly letting them down.
But: the fact of the matter was that even after several years of on-and-off practice, I still couldn't get behind the wheel and consistently keep track of what was going on. There were moments -- brief moments -- wherein I felt like I was truly in control of the vehicle, but it only ever took one too many moving objects outside, or someone honking the horn, or a bird flying by, etc., to throw my brain completely off-track.
And by "completely off-track", I mean "totally unable to process any incoming information in a manner meaningful to driving".
My hearing is very sensitive. I'm sure this helps me appreciate music; I wouldn't trade it for less acute hearing if I could, any more than I'd poke my eye with a stick to reduce the painful glare of the sun. But it also means that car horns (and worse, car alarms) fill my entire skull with a hot, opaque red-blackness that effectively blocks out everything else in the universe.
My visual information-processing system works atypically. I didn't know until just a few years ago that not everyone saw things the way I did. I had no idea that it wasn't "normal" to see the world as raw shapes, colors, and patterns as opposed to readily-recognizable "macro-objects". I didn't have a clue that most people could look out their car windows and instantaneously parse out what shapes were attached to other cars, which were attached to trees, etc. -- for me, this process has always been at least semi-conscious and also energy-intensive to maintain.
And...cognitively speaking, there's something about my overall brain functioning that makes safe driving totally unsustainable for me. I don't know exactly how to describe it, but as near as I can tell, my brain does a lot of "buffering". That is, I take in a lot of information all the time, and rather than immediately making automatic assumptions about its significance, I sift through it slowly and painstakingly.
This sifting process is part conscious, part unconscious, and while it definitely contributes to my ability to absorb certain kinds of knowledge like a sponge (and to learn certain skills very very thoroughly), it also means I have periods wherein my motor, speech, and other "basic" skills aren't 100% reliable.
For example, I've written before about how walking into an unfamiliar place feels rather like walking into a kaleidescope to me -- sometimes I literally freeze in place when hit by a barrage of visual input, whereas other times I sort of dart off (not necessarily voluntarily) into a corner or other location-shape that feels instinctually "safe" to me.
Mind you, this isn't a terrible thing as far as I'm concerned.
I think there's definitely a place in the world for people who process information the way I do (just as there is for people who process information in other ways), and overall, the universe (at least the parts of it that are accessible to me) looks stunningly beautiful most of the time from behind my eyes.
But it's not the greatest thing in the world when it comes to being able to drive safely. I can deal with it while walking, or even biking -- but in a car, everything is going way too fast for any of my compensation mechanisms to kick in.
One can't get away from trade-offs, at least not in this reality.
And given that fact, most (if not all) people are going to run up against situations in their lives where they have to choose between accepting some aspect of how they are configured and making the best of it, or continuing to fight to "overcome" that aspect.
But How Do You Get Around?
Believe it or not, there are ways to get around even when one lacks a drivers' license.
Right now it works out that my place of employment is on the way to Matt's, making it quite convenient for us to car-pool every morning and afternoon. He's assured me that he doesn't mind driving me, and since he's not a passive-aggressive liar by nature, I'm compelled to believe him. And if he couldn't drive me for some reason, I could ride my bike, take the bus, or possibly even rollerblade. I'm not "dependent" on him for rides to work; it's just convenient given our circumstances right now, and if I had to, I could certainly find some way to effectively commute.
I also presently live within easy walking distance from the bank and several basic stores where I can purchase water, food, and even underwear should the need arise. I can take the bus to any doctors' appointments I might have if need be, as the routes run by the local Kaiser facilities. I can even take the train to San Francisco if there's something worth seeing there. And I don't even live in a particularly urban area -- I'm smack in the middle of the South Bay suburbs.
This is not to say that transit is perfect around here -- there are some locations between which no convenient transit lines seem to run. I occasionally have to visit a lab in Fremont, CA for EMC testing, and if I were to take transit between here and there, the trip would surpass two and a half hours (whereas it's only about 20 minutes or so by car).
This makes me "dependent" on getting rides from co-workers when I have lab work to do, and at first I was embarrassed about this -- but then I realized that nobody even thought to question the fact that I also needed help with lifting and moving heavy equipment. If it's okay to need help in one area, why not in other areas as well? It would make just about as much sense for me to feel guilty about needing rides to the lab as it would for needing help carrying a 70-pound power supply -- which is to say, no sense at all. Plus, the reason my company sends me to the lab in the first place is because of my engineering knowledge -- knowledge that is not in any way affected by whether or not I can drive.
Bottom line: everyone has areas in which they need help, and areas in which they can help others, and there's no reason for anyone to be ashamed because their skill set isn't typical of their culture. And if people truly want to their cultures to become more inclusive, more flexible, and more capable of fulfilling the basic function of civilization at large (enabling all citizens to access food, shelter, and opportunities for self-determination and creative contribution), services like transit are major areas to pay attention to.
Acceptance Is Acknowledging What's In Your Toolbox, Not "Admitting Defeat"!
Faced with a trying situation, it is reflexive for people to ask themselves, "What could I have done to prevent this? What caused it? And how might I prevent similar situations in the future?"
There's nothing wrong with asking these questions, just as there's nothing wrong with acknowledging a difficulty or admitting that something is bothering you. And of course, each of us has our own ambition(s) and goals and projects, which necessarily entail the honing of existing skills or the acquisition of new skills.
But: the idea of sitting there being mad at what "could" have been prior to my birth no longer makes any sense to me. I used to go around feeling several sharp and conflicting flavors of angst about all the "what-ifs" and "might-have-beens" that I saw as having affected my life, but nowadays I'm seeing how counterproductive that sort of thing can be. I mean, it's one thing to look at the circumstances of your life and try to figure out the various ways in which you could improve certain aspects of your existence, but it's quite another to obsess over every little thing that could have conceivably contributed to any difficulty you presently experience.
What's strange to me, I guess, is how often I observe people coming to the conclusion that "working with the available materials" (where the "materials" in question are the various factors that have gone toward shaping you as a person, in conjunction with your past and present life circumstances) is tantamount to "admitting defeat".
I find it difficult to even write this, because of how often this kind of statement gets interpreted as meaning, "Nobody should ever bother doing anything to improve themselves or their circumstances", and how often notions like "acceptance" are seen as expressions of untoward "relativism" and calls for effective stagnation. I don't mean anything like that, though, so hopefully this explanation is clear enough on that front.
What I do mean is that it ought to be possible to be a psychologically and emotionally healthy person with dreams, goals, and ambitions -- while at the same time being someone who doesn't view themselves or the rest of the universe as a pathology waiting to be cured, or a broken machine waiting to be fixed. Explored, tinkered with, and played with, perhaps -- but not pitied for what it is not.
So, no, I'm not interested in practicing driving again right now. I'm not interested in advice or well-meaning "encouragement", or suggestions as to the deep, underlying psychological factors that might be "limiting" my driving prowess. I've received enough of that to last a lifetime already, thanks, and I've got plenty of other things I'd rather be doing with my time.
And frankly, I'm plenty willing at this point to start extolling the benefits of cutting down on car use in general.
I don't expect that autonomous personal vehicles are ever really going to go away completely (as even a well-designed transit system would have difficulty accommodating people who needed to pick up a pallet of planks or cinderblocks at the hardware store, or a new sofa). But you'd have to be pretty clueless to think that present-day automobiles (and the roads they drive on, and the traffic situations they create) aren't dangerous even for good drivers.
I'm actually regularly shocked both at the sheer number of accidents (and accident residue) I see on the roads around where I live, and at peoples' callous disregard for their own lives and the lives of others. I literally saw a guy a while back driving an SUV while talking on a cell phone with one hand, smoking a cigarette with the other, and reading a map with his eyes. (I don't even want to know what he was using to steer with...).
And then there's the whole environmental-impact thing to consider: I used to worry about being a "burden" due to not having my own car, but now I'm figuring I'm probably saving some carbon via my carpooling/walking/biking/bus-riding lifestyle. I try not to be judgmental, but seriously, Hummers? In the suburbs? Please.
All in all, I'm really hoping to see the day when more folks wake up and realize this and promptly build cool, safe, robot cars hooked into GPS units for route planning, and powered by solar panels and biodiesel.
And that monorail is long overdue.
(Hey, a non-driving girl can dream, right?)