From pedestrian to driver

Reporter recounts travails of driving for first time at age 25

Chase Olivarius-McAllister listens to instructor Tim Cunninhgam apprehensively as she prepares to set out on her first drive. Enlarge photo

DAVID BERGELAND/Durango Herald

Chase Olivarius-McAllister listens to instructor Tim Cunninhgam apprehensively as she prepares to set out on her first drive.

When I tell people from Colorado that I don’t know how to drive, reactions range from incomprehension to outright suspicion.

Sometimes, I think I see them assemble a silent, internal and suitably exotic narrative to rationalize the existence of a 25-year-old pedestrian, where I suffer from a rare but grave form of early-onset Alzheimer’s, or in which I killed someone in a road accident as a wayward, cocaine-addled youth – tragically necessitating my license’s revocation.

I don’t drive because I grew up in London, where there was no need to drive. Public transport is ample, cheap, easy to master and – unlike in rural America – the basis of teenagers’ emancipation.

Driving in London, conversely, is hellish: endless congestion, exorbitant costs – it’s spiritually taxing. (“God, if you are listening, please just tell me where to park.”) Besides, driving is culturally repulsive to Londoners, as one must be sober while operating a vehicle.

The written test

When my editor recently demanded – with exquisite, if sadistic, wit – that I write a story about learning how to drive as “an elderly person,” I called Tim Cunningham of Four Corners Safety Association to ask whether he could teach me.

After careful deliberation, Tim decided that even at the advanced age of 25, my learning to drive was not hypothetically impossible – an enlightened view of human potential shared by few of my colleagues.

But then Tim asked me if I had a “learner’s permit.” I said no. He urged me to obtain a permit as it was illegal for him to teach me how to drive without one.

This seemed reasonable.

To obtain a learner’s permit, Tim told me, I had to pass a “written test,” which would involve memorizing the Colorado Driver’s Handbook, a booklet I spent the next seven hours studying.

I took the test at Durango’s Division of Motor Vehicles the next day. Out of 25 questions, to pass, I needed to get 20 right. I got 22.

The major things I took away from the written test were that there is such a thing as a “right of way,” that I should not kill children, and that I should never turn left. Everything seemed to get more complicated once you turned left.

Yet I didn’t feel prepared for my first actual driving lesson. On Wednesday morning, I got into Tim’s car, which was silver and large-seeming, and fearfully buckled myself into the driver’s seat, hands sweating, though we would remain parked for another half hour.

After inspecting my temporary learner’s permit, Tim asked whether I’d ever driven a car before. I said I hadn’t, but that I had driven golf carts before, and assured him that it had gone very well.

Tim did not seem cheered by the success of my previous automotive experience.

On the road

After going over some car basics – for instance, which pedal was the brake and which was the accelerator – Tim let me loose in the Durango High School parking lot.

Though I knew that turning left was a fool’s game – theoretically, one can get anywhere by turning right enough times – Tim disagreed, and, despite my disbelief, insisted that my first vehicular maneuver would, in fact, be making a left turn.

I decided against urinating in Tim’s car and steeled myself. By turning the steering wheel to the left and applying my foot to the accelerator, I found that cars can indeed make left turns.

I practiced left turns for the next 10 minutes.

Then Tim decided I should also learn how to turn right. So we tried that too.

Thirty minutes later – when I had more or less gotten the hang of turning both right and left in an empty parking lot while traveling at 4 mph, only sometimes forgetting to signal – Tim decided I was ready for residential roads.

Getting streetwise

Residential roads are complicated because there are typically two lanes, so it becomes very important that you remember which side of the road you are supposed to be driving on.

On the several occasions where I forgot that I was supposed to be driving on the right side of the road, Tim would gently remind me that we were “not in England,” and brace while I – panicking – veered wildly to the right.

Stop signs, too, can be tricky. When approaching stop signs, I often found that I was so intent on stopping at the appropriate moment that I would forget to do other important things, such as slowing down, signaling, and staying on the right side of the road.

But the hardest thing about driving – by far – is bicyclists. To the debutante motorist, everything about bicyclists bespeaks a dangerous predator: They move quickly and unpredictably, their thoughts and intentions are sheathed in impenetrable mystery.

Other cars are scary, but they are of your tribe. Driving on a road with a bicyclist is like driving beside an endangered tiger. You can’t mow the tiger down – it’s beautiful and endangered and part of the glorious wonder that is animal life – but some primal part of you really wants to, because coexisting with another species is threatening, existentially stressful and inherently competitive.

Some other primal part of you is terrified of the tiger and wants to run from it.

This instinct dominated my interactions with bikes. Each time I saw a cyclist, I fought the desire to come to a complete stop and close my eyes, praying the bicyclist would leave me alone.

Tim did not approve of the “play dead” strategy. I was bigger than them, he reminded me.

“But there are more of them,” I darkly reflected.

I have my next lesson on Monday. I hope to focus on learning how to operate a car radio and maybe, if I’m feeling bold, to adjust the air-conditioning – skills I could not develop while golf-carting.

I’m planning to take the actual road test in a month. Wish me luck, and in the meantime, avoid bicycles.

cmcallister@durangoherald.com

While posing for her learner’s permit photo, Chase Olivarius-McAllister is tricked into smiling by Division of Motor Vehicles examiner Susan Eckard. Enlarge photo

DAVID BERGELAND/Durango Herald

While posing for her learner’s permit photo, Chase Olivarius-McAllister is tricked into smiling by Division of Motor Vehicles examiner Susan Eckard.

Chase Olivarius-McAllister drives on the open road with instructor Tim Cunningham. Enlarge photo

DAVID BERGELAND/Durango Herald

Chase Olivarius-McAllister drives on the open road with instructor Tim Cunningham.

At her first driving lesson, Chase Olivarius-McAllister learns about the proper steering method from driving instructor Tim Cunningham. Enlarge photo

DAVID BERGELAND/Durango Herald

At her first driving lesson, Chase Olivarius-McAllister learns about the proper steering method from driving instructor Tim Cunningham.

Chase Olivarius-McAllister walks intently into the Durango Division of Motor Vehicles, wearing her lucky shoes, to take the written test in order to get her learner’s permit. Enlarge photo

DAVID BERGELAND/Durango Herald

Chase Olivarius-McAllister walks intently into the Durango Division of Motor Vehicles, wearing her lucky shoes, to take the written test in order to get her learner’s permit.