Learning to Drive in Your 30s is Some Bullshit


This post also appears at School for Scandal blog.

If you learned to drive as a teenager, you are lucky. It’s probably not a big deal to you, it’s just another thing you do. Learning to drive at age 32, on the other hand, is a lesson in abject humiliation, as an otherwise competent and accomplished grown-assed person.

I identify with this Arcade Fire song a lot, because it’s all about not wanting to drive. Especially the part where she sings “I’ve been learning to drive my whole life.” No kidding, the first time I got behind the wheel was my Grandma’s stick shift when I was 14 years old, and I’m 32 now. Since then I’ve had five learners permits, one destroyed fence, some 30-odd hours of driving practice supervised by my parents and a 60 year old white rastafarian driving instructor, and two failed road tests. That makes almost two decades of “learning to drive.”

No song better captures my driving phobia than Radiohead’s “Killer Cars,” however:

Too hard on the brakes again
What if these brakes just give in?
What if they don’t get out of the way?
What if there’s someone overtaking?
I’m going out for a little drive
And it could be the last time you see me alive
There could be an idiot on the road
The only kick in life is pumping his steel

Thom Yorke’s elegantly expressed neurosis perfectly captures the phobia that has kept me from driving for many years. What if I KILL somebody? I mean, what else do I do on a daily basis that has A VERY REAL POTENTIAL FOR ACCIDENTAL MURDER? I admit that I have been secretly hoping that we’d run out of fossil fuels by 2012 so I could put this ordeal off forever. But alas, tis not to be. Driving may be a disgusting, long-term unsustainable habit, but cars rule the rule for the foreseeable future.

I was raised by a single mom who did not have the time, money or resources to teach me as a teenager. I spent my twenties living in Tokyo and Chicago, big cities where driving was impractical, and the only feasible way to learn to drive would be to hire an instructor, which ain’t cheap. I eventually went the driving school route last summer, which set me back about $500, but I was lucky enough to work with an amazing old rasta guy that made me listen to his Jah Metal band’s CDs in the car, forcing me to drive up and down the Wilmette Ravines and  Devon St. (Little Bombay) to sharpen my defensive driving skills. I loved my teacher, and was stoked to take the test. Unfortunately I was paired with a mean, condescending examiner, panicked, and was failed for driving less than 5 miles below the speed limit, even though I did everything else right. My instructor charged $120 to go to the driving test with me, and there was no way I could afford to take my chances a second time at that rate.  I cried inconsolably in the car ride home,  and my instructor felt so bad that he bought me chinese food for lunch, while insisting that my driving looked perfect and the examiner was just having a bad day. The ego stroking alone was probably worth the $120 I paid.

I decided to try again in California, and I’ve spent the better part of my winter break practicing with my parents. I took the test again Wednesday with a jovial elderly Black man who kept saying stuff like “Why are you so nervous? We’re just going for a little drive!” He tried to be encouraging, but I was failed instantly because my wheel touched the curb while backing up.

I am not a great driver, but I am a competent driver, and given the idiots I’ve encountered on the road, I am not looking forward to possibly failing again in a week. It’s exhausting. I am actually jealous of teenage drivers and their mandatory 50 hours of practice.  I wish I had that leisurely pace. It’s not a big deal when you suck at driving as a teenager, because you’re a teenager. Instead I feel like I’m rushing to pull it together, and being made to feel not good enough, over and over again.

It’s embarrassing that I’m not better at this. I speak fluent Japanese. I’m a grad student. I’m a generally successful and highly intelligent human being. Unfortunately driving is not one of those things I can effortlessly master in a week. Truly, impressively stupid people have drivers licenses (Snooki?) and I don’t, and that’s hard on my ego. I don’t even really care about driving or owning a car, I just want the fucking license to prove that I am a fully functional “adult.” The longer I wait, the more humiliating my deficiency becomes.

The thing about learning to drive in your thirties is it really makes you wonder why the fuck driving is considered a normative part of society in the first place. It’s expensive, dangerous, and faintly barbaric. It’s a huge waste of resources, especially when you consider the lengths the auto industry have gone to to shut down public transit initiatives. It’s hard for me to imagine driving being fun when all I can envision is sudden death, dismemberment and losing control in horrible, bloody ways. But it’s normal! They let teenagers do it!!!

My saving grace right now is that my best friend from high school is also learning to drive at age 32, and sends me lots of encouraging, sympathetic text messages that make me feel less alone in what is honestly a kind of incredibly isolating and shameful experience for me. I know I shouldn’t feel this way, but I do. I know that someday driving will seem effortless, and maybe even pleasurable, but for now, I still feel like the 32 year old (driving) virgin.

So, for now I’ll practice more, and take the test again next Thursday. I’ll leave you with a clip that actually sort of makes me feel excited about driving.

Read more from Bianca James here. 



  1. “It’s hard for me to imagine driving being fun when all I can envision is sudden death, dismemberment and losing control in horrible, bloody ways. ”

    This is precisely why I’ve never learned. If I don’t think I’m going to be good at something and a potential consequence of being bad at it is death, I feel absolutely NO shame about not doing it. I don’t care what anyone else thinks.

  2. I point blank refuse to live anywhere where driving is needed ever again. I’ve only had one permit and failed one test, but I was so grateful to have failed. I was going crazy at the time (I do not in anyway mean that as a figure of speech) and people were encouraging me to get behind the wheel of a death machine. I mean, I was hallucinating on an almost constant basis, suffering from massive twitches, and afraid that the tv could hear my thoughts, and people still thought it was a terrific idea. Still blows my mind. Yeah, trains, buses and feet for me, all the way.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Real talk.

    -best friend from high school

  4. With having so much content and articles do you ever
    run into any problems of plagiarism or copyright violation?
    My site has a lot of exclusive content I’ve either authored myself or outsourced but it appears a lot of it is popping it up all over the web without my permission. Do you know any methods to help protect against content from being stolen? I’d certainly appreciate it.

  5. This may be the best article I have ever read.
    I didn’t learn to drive until I was 27. Living in Seattle, the transportation system is sub-par, so I spent many hours on buses and many dollars on taxis. During the teenage years where most others were living carefree lives that included normal social activity and driving lessons, I was residing in a hyper-religious foster home where any desire towards mobility and independence was seem as sinful and “of the Devil”. (Yes, really). In my early twenties, my non-driving status was tolerated, but after 25 I was seen as an odd, loser-y type, even by my own family. After a couple failed driver’s tests (one where I backed the car I was driving into a bramble-filled ravine and had to be physically carried out of the car because my hysterical crying rendered me immobile), I finally obtained the coveted Washington Start driver’s license, bought an old Oldsmobile 88, and thankfully left the bottom-dwelling realms of the un-driven. But. I never really wanted to drive. I don’t very much enjoy being behind the wheel. Long, open stretches of road I liked, being free and cranking up the radio and feeling like I could go on forever — that I did like. But those moments, for most drivers, are rare. The daily creep and crawl through city traffic, the horn-honking and the angry faces and the “defensive driving” — all of that had me sweating in menopause-like sheets before my ass even hit the driver’s seat. So I stopped. (I also got a DUI, which is a different story). Moving to Chicago was liberating; I didn’t need to drive, and no one looked at me as though I had failed in life because I didn’t own – or know how to successfully operate – a motor vehicle. The feelings have been resurfacing again, though. The “everyone else is doing it and it’s normal so maybe I should be too” feeling. I think I’ll ponder the issue during my bourbon-induced taxi ride home.

    Sorry for the endless comment.

  6. I wonder, did you ever get your driver’s licence? I’m a 30 year old woman and I’ll be taking driving lessons next week. I’m SO looking forward to it. There’s 2 things in life that I regret not learning… To drive and to swim, so I’ve decided to learn how to drive since swimming terrifies me (I don’t even like the ocean and I’m grossed out by pool’s germs). I’m not nervous at all to be honest, I have no idea if this will be the case once I’m presented with the steering wheel 😛 I hope I can keep it together. Hope my endless hours playing Mafia II and GTA pay off haha. Anyway, it was a really nice article, thanks.

    • Hi Lena,
      It took 4 tries, but I passed the driver’s test in California last December. I still need to practice more, but Im proud that I did it at long last, it wasnt easy!

  7. I can totally relate to your story. I took my first crack at driving when I was 18 years old, lessons and everything. I remember during my last lesson, I almost hit another car in a parking lot. The driver cussed me and my instructor out. I was in tears, and vowed never to drive again. Now, I’m 33, and I’m learning to drive once more.

    It’s very frustrating being in your 30s and learning to do something that most teenagers seem to get on the first try. Learning to drive is definitely hurting my ego at my age, but at the same time, it’s a humbling experience. I’m scared to take the road test, but I know eventually I’ll have to pass it in order to get a licence.

    I enjoyed your article. I hope I pass the road test.

  8. Glad I found this site I’m 36 and my mother has been more and more expressing that I need to learn how to drive, even though we live in NYC. I keep telling her that I have no business behind the wheel of a car (wish more people got the hint that they don’t either), what does she say plenty of people behind the wheel don’t but are. You got to love my mother anyways ever since I was a kid all my dreams involving cars ended badly, those dreams are trying to tell me something so no way I’m testing fate. All my driving friends and family blather on about how easy it is and I’m like just shut up and pay for your high priced gas and be quiet.

  9. I just came across this article and need to say – Thank You! and YES!

    I also spent many years living in Japan and I never once was made to feel bad, or juvenile, for not having a license. I am a strong, educated, capable woman who has manged to travel the world – without a license. It wasn’t until I recently returned to the states that I suddenly was made to feel like a child. I am so disappointed by the lack of decent public transportation here! I arrived back to my hometown to see so much MONEY being poured into street expansion/repairs to accommodate cars….meanwhile the city bus routes had been cut nearly in half. Why everyone is so eager to jump into the responsibility of operating something that KILLS and ruins lives, not to mention contributes to an unhealthy lifestyle, is so confusing to me!

    I’m 33 and attempting to learn to drive because I want to be able to look for work outside of city centers, rent a car if ever needed, drive someone to the hospital in an emergency, and to FINALLY just be able to say I have the damn thing! On a good day, I feel like I’m making progress. Most days, I just resent America for sucking so badly at mass transit and wish I was back near the yamanote line >_<

    Thanks again for wording all my feelings so perfectly and congratulations on getting your license!

  10. I just found this article and I totally agree. I have a driver’s license that I received at the age of 17 (still have no idea how I passed the test) but have never enjoyed driving and basically have avoided it as much as possible in the 20 years that have passed since I took the test — by living in major cities where a car isn’t totally necessary. Now that I’m a parent I feel like driving is something I should really learn how to do properly just in case — but it’s even scarier to think about driving with a child in the car.

    I hate cars:(

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