Push the Limits - Drive with Confidence

Overcoming driving fears

Summer Issue: November 2008

Asked which car I'd buy if I won Lotto, I don't hesitate. "Taxi vouchers." To me, driving is as much fun as sticking my lips on a hot exhaust pipe. Since passing my teenage driving test my confidence has dribbled away like brake fluid from a leaky seal. The thought of piloting a tonne of metal makes me break out in hives.

My excuses not to drive are lavish. By taking public transport or advantage of friends' good nature, I'm single-handedly rescuing the planet from climate change, saving wear and tear on our roads and getting lots of exercise running for the bus. But, that also means missing out on seeing friends or going to festivals, if there's no easy, non-driving way to get there.

To be truly mobile, I've got to get over it. Although I'd rather eat worms, I sign up for the  Defensive Driving for Experienced Drivers course.

Launched a year ago, the course (a half-day workshop and optional in-vehicle assessment) is part of a government incentive to dampen down a worrying spike in road deaths among 40- to 55-year-olds.

The  driving training manager Karen Dickson points out: "This age group has work, children and parent stresses. They probably haven't had a driving upgrade since they learned to drive at age 15-ish, but cars, roads and rules have all changed."

The good news is that it's never too late to learn, as repentant mayoral crasher Tim Shadbolt proves in the workshop video. All (that's 100%) of the course's participants, says Karen, admit to having a 'near-miss'. That doesn't inspire confidence in my fellow drivers, but it's a relief to know I'm not alone.

At the end of the workshop, I'm feeling better about how to identify driving hazards and - at least in theory - how to avoid other motorists by improving my own driving habits. It's time to hit the road to test my new awareness.

The day of my in-vehicle assessment is perfect for a little road trip: clear and sunny, not wet and dark. Still, at the thought of actually driving, with a passenger no less, I'm on the verge of begging off with a fake case of flu. Instead, I have a few steadying cups of tea.

"Driving should be enjoyable," says my instructor Armando Dimuro. I'll settle for not terrifying.

After a calm and unhurried chat about my driving history and worries, Armando - who admits to being such a bad teenage driver his parents sent him to Formula One driving school to sharpen up - assures me there's no reason I can't drive more confidently.

"We can all change our behaviour."

Armando shows me top tips, like how to line up the kerb with the middle of the windscreen for a perfect roadside park every time. I learn to drive with my eyes, not just steer with my hands, and stay back from other drivers to give myself a chance to react.

I do fairly well on the 'identify the hazards at the intersection' test, calling out the schoolkids crossing the road and car doing a U-turn, but miss the man and his unleashed dog.

So, I'm completely surprised - and thrilled - when Armando gives me an 85 to 90% rating at the end of the assessment.

Having an expert assure me there's not much wrong with my driving is a huge, confidence-boosting relief. While I'm still not keen to drive in the dark and wet, the next morning I drive to the shops. Without mishap.

If I won Lotto, I'd buy a Porsche.

Story by Karen Goa, Photo by Mike Stephens
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