#964 The day when you first realize you can drive

A classic

When I was sixteen the local Driver’s Ed course was offered on a muggy, unbearably humid week in the dead of summer. The classroom was on the top floor of an old, downtown building, the kind housing a mixed bag of dentists, lawyers, and old travel agencies with faded posters in the windows, brown beaches and blue oceans now all a uniform dull gray, the dented and scratched selling point under the bold promise “You’ll never want to come home again!”

The classroom had no air conditioning — just a few windows propped open with books and rulers, pleading with ol’ Ma Nature for some heavenly breeze to keep us awake and help us get through the day. We panted and dripped and the room reeked like a pack of chalk crumbled like saltines into a big soup bowl of sweat.

It was a strange class, because nobody knew each other and we were all going separate ways after the week was up. The in-car lessons following the in-classroom ones were to be done one-on-one, with the instructor picking us up from our house and taking us to parking lots and quiet sideroads to master The Art of the Wheel.

Dad shows the way

I don’t know about you, but for me that week of Driver’s Ed classes was torture. Learning how to drive in a classroom is like learning to ride a bike in a swimming pool. It just makes no sense. Overheads were thrown up on screen and the instructor would spend half an hour drawing triangles to show us our blind spots. We would discuss the history and importance of seatbelts and watch lengthy videos of a camera pointed out the windshield of a moving car with the narrator saying things like “I see an intersection on my left. I notice there are no cars coming. I proceed through the intersection.”

It’s fair to say most of Driver’s Ed class is pretty foggy to me. My notes are long gone and there’s no way I could draw you a picture of my blind spot. But there is one thing that I do remember from those classes. One bit of one lecture on one afternoon that stuck in my head. It was when the instructor said that every driver goes through four steps on their way to learning how to drive. Tapping his chalk on the blackboard to get our attention he continued, “It’s just a matter of knowing what step you’re in.”

  • Step 1: You don’t know you don’t know. You’ve never tried to drive a car before so you have no idea that you suck at it. All you know is that there are cars everywhere and people driving them. So what’s so hard about that?
  • Step 2: You know you don’t know. Surprise! You can’t drive. You realize it the first time you make a painfully slow and wide turn into the wrong lane. It hits home when you tire-punch the curb and accidentally run a red light, but slow down for a green one you think should be changing. You can’t park, can’t parallel park, can’t park on a hill, and forget to signal. It’s depressing, but at least now you know you don’t know. You made it to Step 2, whether you wanted to or not.
  • Step 3: You know you know. After a while it finally comes — the blissful day when you realize for the first time you can drive! Step 3 usually arrives after scaring a few pedestrians, enduring a few frustrating coaching sessions with your parents, and listening to a few dozen “Uh-oh, you’re on the road?” jokes. But you finally made it. And now you’re higher than a kite, sitting pretty on Cloud 10. Congratulations!
  • Step 4: You don’t know you know. Eventually, it becomes old hat. You know you’re on Step 4 the first time you arrive at work instead of the grocery store on Saturday morning or land in your driveway with a sudden panic that you can’t remember the last fifteen minutes of your commute. “How did I get here,” you ask yourself, before eventually realizing that you must’ve just driven home in a waking dream, signaling subconsciously and turning effortlessly, your brain clicking over to autopilot without letting you know. When this happens you’re on Step 4. You don’t even know you know anymore.

But this isn’t about Step 4. It’s about Step 3. It’s about the great joy of realizing you’ve learned something new, something massively new, and can feel proud that your effort, practice, and determination have finally paid off. That first day you first realize you can drive is a wicked high.

And isn’t it a great sense of freedom when the road hockey rinks and street chalkboards of your childhood transform into highways to drive-ins and out-of-town parties? The world seems to suddenly shrink and open up. It’s cool thinking how many cities and places connect to the street you live on. That’s when you look up to the sky, smile and nod slowly, and recall the faded posters of the old travel agency downtown.

“You’ll never want to come home again!”


It's all yours

Photos from: here and here

51 thoughts on “#964 The day when you first realize you can drive

  1. So you didn’t have to watch the horrid videos of dismembered bodies warning ominously of The Dangers of Driving? I took driving classes five years ago so perhaps it’s a newer thing?

    The videos did do a good job of showing me graphic images of dead folk before I ever saw a Faces of Death video, though.

  2. My math teacher uses these kinds of steps. All the, you know you know stuff, but with math.

    I don’t drive yet, [I get my permit in October] and I’m scared. What if I kill someone!

  3. Oh man I finished my school today and it was brutal…needless to say I catched up on a lot of missed sleep.

  4. I’m still, at 22, caught somewhere in between two and three.

    Seriously. I am the culmination of my parents’ failures. Both of them got slaughtered on their first driver’s tests.

    I failed my first two. Now, I live in a city, so I don’t need a license.

    Too bad I’ll be massively fucked when I finish school. Oh well… more people to chauffeur me around. None of my friends in school ever let me drive them around anyways.

  5. We run in to problems when people think they’re on step 3 but they’re actually on step 1 or 2…

    1. Wow… That was a pretty ignorant comment. Rest assured, it isn’t that you’re special. You’re just still in that stage where you think car crashes are cool. In a few years, you’ll be grown up and will understand that you are not invincible. You will realize that car crashes are very real, and very permanent. They can happen to anyone, including your teacher, your mother, your best friend, or you. Hopefully it will just be something that clicks in your head one day, and not something that is proven to you.

      I apologize on your behalf to anyone who has lost someone in a car accident and who reads your comment.

  6. I never learnt about the four steps…in our class we mostly watched horrid videos about the dangers of driving, that’s all we learnt those whole, i think it was 4 days of class. but i do agree that it was awsome, and that now i dont even have to think about driving anymore. Great!

  7. I love this post, mostly because it’s a moment in life that I’m finally starting to work my way towards. I took the simple permit test and dreadfully boring video course when I was 16, long before driving even hinted to affect my life. For 3 years I haven’t had the need to work my magic on a steering wheel, “mostly” content with being chauffeured around like some kind of monkey in a side car. I’ve been so pleased and accustomed to Step 1 that this journey of the wheels has become incredibly frustrating! I hope someday I can relate to this post like the many others on 1000 Awesome Things!

  8. I’m one of those guys that thought they would never master driving and was about to give up completely. Needless to say, I’m now on step 4. :D

  9. Nope, they still use graphic videos to teach us the dangers of driving, and waste time not teaching us the actual process of driving. Yet again, that might just be my wonderful *sarcasm* home state of North Carolina.

  10. I think I’m starting to reach step 4, but I’m worried I missed step 3 since I can’t remember it :0
    Either way, step 4’s pretty AWESOME too, since you’re finally a ‘pro’ driver ;p

    I can’t imagine learning to drive in a classroom though? In a week?! In the UK you get shoved in a car right from the start. Nervewracking much, lol?

  11. That feeling of driving down the highway for the first time by yourself, must be the best feeling in the world, you’re not sure what you’re doing there but then it occurs to you that you are actually driving a car in 60 mph all by yourself and you’re doing great, and then when you get yo your destination you’re hyper because you didn’t crash.

  12. You learn how to drive in a class room in a week?! In Australia you need to do a computer test to get your L’s (aka learners) and you have to wear yellow signs on your car telling every other driver on the road this fact then you have to complete 100 hours of day driving and 20 hours of night driving with a supervising driver on there full license. Then do a driving test to proceed to your red P’s ( provisional 1) 2

    1. That’s done two. It’s two parts we just don’t have the sign on the car. We also have to drive with an instructor as well as a part when not in class. But depends on the school how thorough it is.

  13. This is so great, I’m at number 3, I got my license really late and am still suprised when I drive somewhere without those number two incidents, sure one day I’d love to parrallel park and maybe be able to change the station on the radio, but I’m happy at number 3 for now.

    It’s awesome!

  14. Wow, I actually just turned 16 TODAY! Although I do not have my license, or permit for that matter, I am so excited to learn to drive. I just know it will be truly AWESOME!

  15. I remember being scared to drive highway speeds in Drivers Ed. But what a feeling of accomplishment when I first drove alone after getting my licence! Even today I love driving alone -the sense of freedom to go where I want- AWESOME!

  16. AWESOME! I’m 28 and just recently got my driver’s license. I’m so happy!! I feel so free! =o)

  17. i did all those steps but i picked up driving pretty quickly. i never sucked at it because my insructor was awesome and had little ways of reminding me when i was about to do the wrong thing. and i asked too many questions.

    im now worryingly in stage 4. on auto pilot. i want to go to the shop but am half way to college before i realise. ive only passed 3 months ago and my mum does auto pilot. im worried for my sanity.

  18. O my god,

    I do a lot of nodding and laughing to myself when I read your posts, it’s just all so recognizable!

    But what you said about step 4: I get that a lot. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one! Because whenever I tell this to people they all look at me weird and muttering: “I don’t know what you’re talking about”.

    And it really frightens me sometimes, getting somewhere and not knowing how you even got there! The thing is not to think about it too much or you’ll start worrying.

    Did I hit someone without not noticing? Did I cross a red light? Did I have a narrow escape without even realising it?

    And at the same time, it’s also comforting. Because if I made it in one piece, it must mean that at the time of driving, my mind was totally blank. Free of all loads and worries. Utter peace in the head.

    And a bit ironic isn’t it, total peace in the middle of traffic?

  19. When I took driver’s ed, just a few years ago, the teacher told us an incredibly graphic story about his friend who hit some kid who ending up dying and how his friend was so traumatized he never drove again. Then I had a drive that same day. God, did I hate life then! I’m in between stages 3-4, but I have recently become considered about how much driver’s ed doesn’t teach you…like HOW TO UTILIZE BLINKERS. And why don’t they tell you about that nifty little tab on your rearview mirror that stops headlights from blinding you at night??? I only just found out about it–it would have been useful to know three years ago!

  20. The first time I took driver’s ed, I was 25. I waited a long time because it was more convenient at the time to take the bus to and fro activities. I would still get stuck, but it wasn’t no problem.

    I’d been driving with my dad before in a few unsucessful events and this day came to me when I was still in Driving school. I’d been doing pretty bad because these guys knew the road. But that day, I was the one who knew the road and I knew that I could drive a car. And I was pretty steady compared to the girl whom we’d driven to work. That was also the day I discovered the geese in the road. (I honked at them, they honked back. I wish I had my video camera with me.)

  21. i had this feeling, the world is my oyster, truly truly awesome, i got my license this tuesday and i can’t wait to drive everywhere. i feel so freeee

  22. Surprisingly, this is the first post I can’t relate to. I started out smooth, alert, and overall a great driver; now I’m slowly degrading after less than a year.

  23. I was a car wreck waiting to happen; actually, I wasn’t the driver but before I was old enough to be eligable, I was the passenger in far too many, resulting in way off skills in “the left wing!” It took me 5 years to earn a legitimate license and even at that, I think it was much to do with the circumstances: the car, a 1965 California special edition orange Mustang convertable…bought for only $200, caught a gleen in the examiner’s eyes!
    It was common to rain 30 days in a row where I lived, now it was sunny and I was the last “test” on a friday! I know I had more demerrits than allowed, but window rolled down, face in the sun, weekend planning ahead…he just laughed- said, “I know you can drive,” and kindly handed me my papers:)
    I was a wreckless driver really…but lucky, really lucky for everyone!
    I’ve been off the road for awhile now, but do hope I’ll drive again one day soon…though the Mustang is long gone, long lives the freedom of the open road, and I long for the ability, or at least to be close to city transit again.

  24. I remember my first drive

    I crashed the car into the guide rail going over a bridge smashing the driver side mirror.(luckily the bridge had been upgraded to include guard rails)

    I then continued driving and brought doubled sided tape and a new DS(with super mario ds)

    other highlights include:
    going down a corner turn lane as a bus was coming through on the main one
    getting side-swiped on a roundabout. (I went in and did not give way)

    Anyway they are my three crashes.

  25. This is definitely one of the best feelings ever. Such a relief after many awkward first drives where I just stared straight ahead and hoped for the best. Forget about changing lanes, I was happy if I could stay inside the lane I was already in.

    Realizing you know how to drive is truly an awesome feeling.

  26. I can still remember the feeling of Awesome when I drove a car on empty streets in the middle of the night!!! felt lik Wow!!! =)

  27. I started drivers ed in august and it seems to take forever. Living in Germany we need at least 14 “hours” (90 minutes each, as if I didn’t know that weed & traffic aren#t making a great combination or cared about the way the licence plate of an agricultural vehicle look) until we’re allowed to take the theory test and a lot more until we can do the one that actually requires driving.
    I wasn’t surprized to find out I suck when I drove a car the first time. But I was surprized that one seems to be able to get better and worse at doing something at the same time. It’s so weird to notice that improvement is indeed happening but that, as soon as one task gets aceptably mastered, a thousand new, even more problematic ones arrive. :D
    Nonetheless I think I understand point #3, even though I have been on the roads for barely eight hours total. You drive somewhere and something happens and you know what you are to do (& how to do it) before you are told what it is.

  28. I’m just reaching this point myself. Sort of. I took driving lessons and was doing well, but put off taking my test due to exams and such. Three years later, I stepped back into a car. I didn’t expect to know anything, I thought I’d be starting from scratch. It was the weirdest feeling, starting out a lesson honestly thinking you know nothing, finishing it off feeling just as good, no, better, so much better than you were before you stopped last time. It’s weird how in the intervening time all the niggling problems from 3 years ago…disappeared. It’s like I skipped some of those awkward first drives as a new driver. Given that I drive in London, with its tiny cramped streets, too much traffic, and insane road users, the feeling of not being intimidated by it all… is absolutely freeing. I can’t wait for my test!

  29. I remember the exact moment that I learned to drive. I was 23, (I know, a little older than most, but better late than never, and I had had no positive experiences with driving up to then). Anyway, my future husband and I were driving the back roads of Arkansas when he decided it was time for a lesson. A lesson on driving a stick shift on an old cranky farm truck. Ok… We’re out here in the wilderness. Not a soul around except the birds and little critters. Like I totally pictured the book, Bambi. I figured I might as well give it a go. I have always had beginners luck so I was doing ok. We came around a curve, a hill in front of me and I saw a man and his son fixing the fencing along a pasture, and I stalled the truck. NO, no, no! It was a choice between wimping out or going for it. I went for it, and totally nailed it. I took my foot off the clutch, gunned it and went up that hill AND raised a couple of fingers (in that country kind of a nod that says I see you and I would tip my hat if I had one). That was almost 40 years ago and it’s still an awesome memory.

  30. Hey everyone,

    As I have said in previous comments, I have been blnd since birth so can’t drive, but driving has always fascinated me. It must be so cool, yet so annoying at the same time! Like, one of my best friends has a problem wit her gear shift, which makes the car go backward and forward and, if it doesn’t work correctly, you can’t get out of park! Please explain more about driving…


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