The fear of driving

I came off the excitement of Governor’s School to begin my junior year with braces. The wires, rubber bands and brackets on my teeth were cumbersome. Using wax didn’t help much to protect my gums from stray wires that poked out. Braces were challenging to clean, and wearing headgear at night was just a pain. I wasn’t a very cooperative patient, but eventually the braces did their thing and helped to correct an overbite. Mine stayed with me through at least the first year of college.

Junior year meant officially being considered an upperclassman. Many, well most, of my classmates were now driving to school. I was 17 at the start of the year and still hadn’t shown much interest in driving. I knew how much responsibility I would be taking on by driving, and I was scared.

Among the valid reasons to be scared:
– You have to know your vehicle, what all the buttons and icons mean
– Know your route
– Be aware of traffic around you, including blind spots
– Use rear view and side mirrors while still paying attention to the road
– Demonstrate defensive driving as others weave in and out or merge unexpectedly
– Comprehend the meaning of tons of signs at just a glimpse
– React in time to slowing traffic
– Not be distracted by radio or other sounds
– Be aware of your speed while still focused on the road
– Share the road with big trucks without being intimidated by their size
– Develop the muscle memory for how to manipulate the vehicle for parallel parking (or to answer the driving exam question for how to turn the wheels when parking up or down hill)
– Bonus: For me, it meant commuting across state lines to school

That’s a lot of sensory data to process at once and to process effectively. Of course for me, not realizing these were real concerns, all of this registered as being hesitant and scared.

My parents didn’t pressue me to learn to drive, even though it was a hassle for them to pick me up after practice. I’m sure they figured I’d show interest when I was ready.

However peer pressure did get to me as more classmates and friends who were younger than me got licenses before I did.

I remember one guy in my class invited me to join a rowing club. I’m sure I gave him a confused look because I certainly had never thought of doing anything like that. He essentially said my height would be an asset for strength. There may have been some part of me that was curious about trying this out, but I turned down the idea mostly because it would mean joining something else after basketball season and needing a ride from my parents.

I didn’t pass the test on the first try. I was using my parents’ van and the steering wasn’t cooperative enough to make a 3-point turn in less than 5 moves.

I did earn it on the second try. I believe, to celebrate, Mom let me drive on the interstate for the first time immediately after the test. Which was much more excitement and anxiety than I needed.

But for the final month of the junior year I drove myself, which was pretty cool.

Driving the highway toward school, I do remember feeling like the speed gauge in the van was broken since I was going the posted speed limit and so many cars were blowing past me. It didn’t occur to me until much later that they were purposefully speeding. I had that mindset, though, of the posted speed limit means something and everyone must be following the rules. I mean, afterall, that’s the expectation when you take the test.

I don’t recall having trouble with driving after hours of practice on back roads and empty parking lots. I think things were smooth enough after getting the license. What stands out though is being very aware of slowing down at a red light. It was always a jolt to me for someone to slam on the brakes, usually resulting in a burst of internal anger. I quickly got in the habit of coming to a smooth stop while driving, easing off the gas pedal and making a smoother transition to stopping.


What really threw me through a loop, though, was Dad trying to introduce me to driving a stick shift. I was perfectly fine with automatic transmission, why would I want to change that? But it’s part of the learning experience and a good idea to at least be aware of other options.

He took me to an empty parking lot in his truck. When I got behind the wheel I got my first shock: there’s a third pedal on the floor! Why is there a third pedal? Gas and brake are tricky enough, there doesn’t need to be a third added in. I got preoccupied with the pedals. How am I supposed to use both feet while driving? Why is that necessary?

I eased the truck forward past empty parking spaces. Then Dad mentions about listening to something to help gauge when to change gears. I wanted to know an exact speed, but it didn’t seem like that was part of the deal. The rest is a blur of him telling me I’m doing a good job, me trying to convince myself I’m doing a good job, and crumbling into a crying mess because I never could get past the stupid pedals.

I don’t know how long we tried, but once the full-on crying started up Dad wisely recognized it wasn’t going to happen. “It’s ok, you don’t have to do this.” And we went home. I’ve never tried it again.

It was another example of getting stuck on one specific detail and internally shutting down. Just like I experienced when I was younger with being overwhelmed with homework, reaching a breaking point where nothing computes. Just like when trying to learn cursive and getting frustrated with the process.

But now I can see that I did, in fact, face my fears with driving (manual transmission aside). I could have refused to learn at all. I could have insisted that I wasn’t interested in learning. I was about a year later than classmates, but I didn’t postpone it until my 20s.


6 thoughts on “The fear of driving”

  1. Gah, my husband tried to teach me to drive a stick shift. Nope. I don’t like so many moving parts when I’m trying to figure something out, so that didn’t happen.


  2. My sensory gal had an awesome driver ed teacher last summer who had the patience of a saint. She’s not been overly receptive to getting out to practice, but she’ll get there as you did. You kiddos just need to remember that you have family to support you, friends who stand by you even if they don’t share your anxieties, and understanding of sensory issues is growing.


    1. Thanks for reading! So glad she has a good instructor 🙂

      The experience I shared is from about 15 years ago. I didn’t realize I had sensory problems. That’s what this blog is: my journey in reflecting on having sensory issues without realizing it for myself. But you’re right, lots of support out there if you open yourself up for that.


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