Driver’s Ed

I asked Canada for a driving licence, and they fell for it. (Yes, with no more than tourist status and two pieces of foreign ID, I can legally get a licence here. Heartening for me, terrifying, I imagine, for North American citizens on both sides of a porous border.)

Three blocks long, two lanes wide
Daddy had a Buick and Momma loved to ride…
–Robert Earl Kean

I asked Canada for a driving licence, and they fell for it. (Yes, with no more than tourist status and two pieces of foreign ID, I can legally get a licence here. Heartening for me, terrifying, I imagine, for North American citizens on both sides of a porous border.)

On my second-last trip to the big city, I speed-read the _Ontario Driver’s Handbook_ in the car, then lined up to take a written test with a clutch of surly teenagers and a few bewildered dodderers. I passed the vision test with a LASIKed squint and gave them one hundred Queen dollars, my passport, a credit card, and my sister’s address. They gave me an Ontario Driver’s Licence, Class G1. Now that I exist officially, I will use this little plastic card to jimmy the doors to Canadian success.

It was always humiliating to be asked for identification in the US, though I miss it now I’m a raddled spinster.
   “Driver’s licence,” the guy on the velvet rope at Chelsea Billiards would say.
   “I don’t have one. Sorry.”
   “I can’t let you in without proof of age. You don’t have a driver’s licence?”
   “I can’t drive.
This was a bizarre admission in the United States, even in New York. Like saying “Sorry, I never went through puberty” or “I never learned to wipe my ass.” Outside New York, it would have be easier to explain that I’d never bothered learning to walk; a less useful skill, surely.

Thing is, I did know how to drive. My Dad taught me when I was seventeen. Stick-shift, too: we don’t hold with wussy automatic transmissions. When my learner’s licence arrived, Ranger Tim volunteered to let me drive him to the big city in his Honda Accord, which rolled off the assembly line soon after my first driving lessons fourteen years ago.

Though I never passed (or sat) a test, it’s just like riding a two-ton, fume-belching bicycle. It took a few attempts to reverse down the dirt track and around the big red pine, and then–oops–I drove up the left side of the gravel road to the highway. But after these hiccups I was disappointingly competent. No comedy gear-screeches, no amusing dings and scrapes, no juddering down the highway in the wrong gear, wailing apologies. I pulled into and out of the petrol station without incident, and even avoided the two deer out for a stroll on Highway 17. I drove all the way to Sault Sainte Marie and through the first set of traffic lights before we swapped seats for in-town safety. My only eccentricity on the open road is playing a 40-kilometer speed band like a scale. In real life I’m a cautious scaredy-cat, but in a car it turns out I drift towards 120 kph.
   “Speed, Dervala, speed,” muttered Tim as he tapped the invisible passenger brake.

Driving is fun, sort of. It’s a game, except when I remember that I have charge of enough speeding metal to maim and kill far more people than I could otherwise. Other drivers aren’t quite human, they are fellow car operators in a private world with a private soundtrack. We don’t greet each other or check out each other’s clothes, and they look straight ahead when they overtake me. The countryside is no longer real either; it’s a backdrop that passes quickly on a screen. I scan it for obstacles, and deer appear in my peripheral vision like Space Invaders. Pow. My side of the road switches from one lane to two, and back to one, and I try to colour inside the lines with the tip of my car. I can’t imagine doing this for several hours a day just to get to and from work; how lonely.

My Dublin friend Joy had just sent me a rant about a miserable holiday on Cape Cod (made worse because she had ripped off a toenail in a fall from her bike the day before she left, and is too pregnant for painkillers):

What I realised about living outside cities in the US is their total reliance on cars. This resort on the Cape just sprawled. There didn’t seem to be any village centre, just large shopping malls that were maybe five miles away by car. No little villages where you can sit and have an icecream or coffee on a nice terrace overlooking a square. I had hoped our Cape experience would be more quaint but not so, well not our area anyway. Just like a city stretched out over 20 or 30 miles.

We foreigners seem to be slow to adapt to America’s autocracy. Justin, another Dub and a California transplant, writes:

Irvine has some of the best cycling infrastructure (and weather) I’ve ever seen — except nobody uses it, apart from the weekender recreational cyclists.

Can’t figure out why — I guess it’s just a cultural thing; everyone drives, and people cycling or walking near some cars seems to give the drivers heart attacks. (Seriously. The other night, a driver honked and slowed to a crawl after spotting myself and Catherine walking along — on the sidewalk, 10 feet from the roadway. And not making any sudden movements, either.)

That is our difficulty. Europe isn’t a paradise of villagers strolling from _boulangerie_ to _boucherie_, pausing to chat in the village green. Of course we drive everywhere–just look at our newly fat backsides. What we can’t understand is how people could accept that cars should shove everything else off the road: bicycles, walkers, runners, rollerskaters, Vespas, baby buggies. A cyclist in the US is six times more likely to get squashed than a European riding a bike, quotes the _Philadelphia Inquirer_ (via Justin), and as a former bicycle commuter, it feels true. It’s not malicious, but American drivers don’t expect to have to share the road. The absurdity of people driving to a gym to walk on a treadmill because they have no footpaths in their suburbs is depressing. It’s a degradation that would seem cooked up by the car companies and the anti-depressant makers if it weren’t apparent just how willingly we are seduced by the ease of the car.

One reason I never took a driving test, I think, was a superstitious hope that my lack would protect me from living like that. I’m drawn to the lure of the car. It would have been a burden in my butcher-baker-and-candlestick-maker Brooklyn neighbourhood, but just about everywhere else it’s addictively handy, if not essential. I turn into a sloth as soon as I’m behind the wheel: I want that parking space at the door of the shopping centre, and I’ll prowl the car park to get it. Stepping out, my legs feel boringly slow, as if I’d taken off RollerBlades. (For much the same reason, I don’t own a television: I like it so much I turn into a glazed TiVO donut.)

Without a driving licence, I had to live in places with good public transport, good street life, plenty of small shops. They were densely-populated, so I had to live in small spaces. This was fine–without a car, you can only drag home as much stuff as you can carry, or fling into a taxi. Without a car, I couldn’t accumulate the mound of stuff and consequent responsibilities that I would have used as an excuse not to travel.

But Canada is just too damn big for even my patient legs, and the nearest grocery is an hour and a half from my log cabin. I even concede that some people in these parts, chugging up the unmaintained Frater Road in winter, say, might actually need those great big SUVs. And to all the people who have patiently chauffered me for the past 31 years, thank you. I’ll do my share of the driving next time. I know I can’t rely on freeloading charm and beef jerky bribes forever.

Further reading:
As Suburbs Grow, So Do Waistlines.“–New York Times
First comes the suburban sprawl, then the spread“–Philadelphia Inquirer

3 thoughts on “Driver’s Ed”

  1. Great discussion on that thorny topic! It seems to crop up pretty frequently, along with the other perennial culture-shock question — “what do you mean you *don’t* want to immigrate to the US?” 😉

    re: ‘cooked up by the car companies’ — actually, there’s a lot of evidence that this *did* happen to a degree — in California at least.

    Check out this URL regarding “Taken For a Ride”, a PBS documentary covering the activities of National City Lines, a holding company sponsored and funded by GM, Firestone, and Standard Oil of California, which “bought out more than 100 public transport systems in 45 cities (including New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Salt Lake City, Tulsa, and Los Angeles) to be dismantled and replaced with GM buses between 1936 and 1950. In 1949 GM and its partners were convicted in U.S.district court in Chicago of criminal conspiracy in this matter and fined $5,000.” crazy.

    http://www.uwsp.edu/geo/faculty/detwyler/geog100/TakenRide.html

    And some great archive photos of LA’s now-long-dead tram infrastructure here:

    http://www.trainweb.org/mts/ctc/ctc06.html

    cheers, –j.

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  2. I learned to drive in the States at the age of 32. Here in Seattle it’s extremely difficult to get around on public transport – especially if you work outside the city, as I do. The first year and a half I was here I had the same flabbergasted reaction to my lack of a licence – I think people must have assumed I had it taken away or something. I did get sick of carrying my passport around, though.

    Oh but dear lord, the most terrifying thing of all was driving in Ireland for the first time. I’ve done it several times now and each time I drive what I think of as the doomed rental car I end up returning it lacking a side view mirror. I don’t care. The cost of its replacement is a bargain when you consider the comfort of hugging the left wall as people whizz past you on twisty roads at 60 mph. Plus, you get used to freeways here. You get on the “motorway” from Dublin to Limerick and after two hours in a traffic jam suddenly find yourself going 70 through some village street. Possibly through Borrisonossery. Plus, I thought I was mad until I confirmed it on a follow-up trip: on Irish roads, distances are posted in KM and speeds in MPH. Oh yes they are.

    Are you bad on directions and navigation? I think people who didn’t learn to drive till later generally are; I never had to figure out a route – I just got in the passenger seat and was eventually delivered to my destination. Now I find it hard to orient myself anywhere.

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  3. My sister recently started to drive too, and we had several comedy excursions around Ottawa, where it took over an hour to get to, say, a restaurant six blocks away because she kept making random left turns. Left turns were hard to do, the thinking went, so they must be going in the right direction. On the bright side, she’s now excellent at U-turns. (Legal, Dad, legal.)

    I think I’d be exactly the same. I can’t process navigation decisions at that speed; I think in bike speed and get slightly panicked. (I’m also crap at video games–poor reflexes) If I could start out at 5 mph with a man walking in front of me waving a flag, I’d be fine.

    What worries me is that even though I have no experience and no natural talent for driving, I still daydream in the car. I know from my sister that there’s at least one other driver like that out there; we now have fearful phone conversations where we wonder what would happen if we ever met on the road.

    I don’t even want to think about bouncing down the Caher Road at Christmas. Irish country roads make Ecuador look like I-96.

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