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Author | Illustration Mariel Kelly

Adult Learning: How To Get Your Licence When You Are Not Sixteen

Oshawa, the city where I grew up, has gone through a lot of slogans. It is currently “Prepare To Be Amazed,” which replaced “The City in Motion.” But when I lived there, it was “The City That Moto-vates Canada.”

This puntastic slogan was inspired by the fact that Oshawa was a car town. The park I’d take my dog to was called “The GM Hill.” Bumper stickers instructed the unemployed to “eat their imports.” And I for sure was not the only one to have an ill-advised wedding at the former estate of automobile baron Robert McLaughlin.

To not drive in Oshawa was sort of unpatriotic to the point where, for a while, the city ran the buses all clockwise. This meant it may have taken fifteen minutes to get from Point A to Point B, but it would take an hour and a half to get back to Point A again. If you wanted better, you should have been driving a GM car.

I didn’t drive though. Not a GM car or any other car. All of my friends were older and willing to drive me around, which was good because everything about learning felt impossible to me. I eventually left Oshawa for Windsor, another car town, but I didn’t drive there either. There were cabs if I needed them and I liked the people I met on the bus.

Then I took a job as an ASL interpreter in a town of five hundred people in rural Nova Scotia; suddenly, not being able to drive was a completely different situation. Unless I learned how to drive, my world was about to become really small. Lucky for me, the student I was interpreting for wanted to get his licence ASAP. Since I had to learn all the materials in order to interpret it, I took the written test afterwards and passed.

But I was terrified to actually get behind the wheel and connected with a driving instructor who specialized in helping nervous people, particularly women. I was also lucky I was living in a place so small that my driving test involved turning around in the legion parking lot and “parallel parking” between two cars that I was told to imagine were there. I didn’t hit either one of them; I got my licence. I was only twenty-one when all of this happened, but I really felt like the last person I knew to learn to drive.

While reaching out to friends about writing this piece, I heard so many vulnerable stories. One friend scrambled to secretly get a licence the day before a road trip with a partner who already thought they could drive. Another had lost a friend in a car accident as a teenager. Another still had controlling parents who wouldn’t let them do anything that would increase their independence. Then there were the more common barriers of cost and access to a car. Many of the stories shared a common thread of shame about not already knowing how to drive and fear of the inarguable dangers of driving.

It’s a lot to overcome, really. But it can be worth it. A few summers ago, for example, Chevrolet gave me a convertible for the weekend because I have a lot of followers on Twitter. Probably the person whose idea that was has long since been fired, but there will be others like them! So here are some tips to get you driving, just in case.

  1. Know it’s not just you: This is really important and would have made a big difference for me when I was first learning to drive. If you ask around, I bet you’d be surprised at how many friends, or friends-of-friends, are in a similar boat.
  2. Get a buddy: Once you find a fellow aspiring driver, see if they want to go through the process of getting a licence together. It makes things so much easier, even if you’re not in the same city, to have a friend to help figure out how to navigate the process, as well as process both the tough parts and the fun parts!
  3. Get a good instructor: This is crucial and one of the hardest parts. Everyone I spoke with agreed it was better to learn from a pro than from a family member, but finding the right fit is really important. Call around to different schools and ask as many questions as you like. Driving lessons are expensive, and the right teacher will understand if you want to get a sense of them before handing over that much money.
  4. Get started ASAP: Even if you don’t live somewhere with “Graduated Licensing,” it can still take a while to complete the whole process. While I completely understand not wanting to start something that could take years to finish, there is really no other way to get there.
  5. Let yourself be bad at something (at first): Thanks to The Effort Effect, a lot of us think if something is hard we must just not have the capacity to learn to do it. If it takes you a while to get the hang of things, that is not a referendum on your value as a human. We can’t all be good at everything, not even you! (But of course, please get good at driving before you are actually doing it – you could be dangerous to others!)
  6. Get cheerleaders: Whether you do or don’t find a licence buddy, it’s still great to be getting as much praise as possible! Celebrate every step of the way! Let people be proud of you!
  7. Treat it like a legit phobia: If you are someone who is scared or anxious about getting behind the wheel, don’t be exasperated with yourself. For one thing, it is a really serious undertaking. For another, we can’t help what makes us feel that way. Consider getting the support of a therapist if you need to. There is nothing to be ashamed of.
  8. Practice in places that feel safe and familiar: Creeping slowly around a long driveway or abandoned parking lot is a perfectly respectable way to get used to driving. Do this as long as you need to. Be gentle with yourself.
  9. Stick to a schedule: If you don’t have your licence yet, you’re probably never going to suddenly feel like doing the steps to get there. Set a schedule for yourself for starting the process, for finishing it, and for practicing along the way. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with it taking longer than expected, but at least waking up on a day with “get Learner’s Permit” in your Google calendar will keep it on your radar.
  10. Make a plan for when you are done: While you probably don’t want to wait around for Chevy to deliver you a convertible, think about other things you’ll be able to do once you are a driver, and make a plan for when you’ll be able to do them. Maybe it’s a road trip with friends, maybe it’s being able to borrow your roommate’s car to quickly grab kitty litter. Whatever it is, keep it in mind as you make your way there.
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