home Features The Scarlet ‘L’: How To Survive And Thrive As A Learner Driver

The Scarlet ‘L’: How To Survive And Thrive As A Learner Driver

Imagine, if you will, the following scenario: It’s 8:38 on a Monday morning, and having completed your final driving lesson on the previous Friday morning, you’re embarking (despite your mother’s best wishes) on your very first independently driven journey to college. With your driving test only a matter of weeks away, the days of extortionately priced train tickets and sweaty afternoons on the 205 bus are almost officially behind you. You’re a don. You’re a frontline warrior in the tribe of independent motorists. With your Jelly Belly air freshener hanging from the rear-view mirror like a medal of honour, and your seat adjusted to achieve the optimal height ratio of coolness to practicality, you’re finally ready to burn some rubber and terrorize the streets in your 1.2 litre Polo. However, you’ve suddenly found yourself at the front of a kilometre-long queue for the Kinsale Road Roundabout, and things are starting to become a lot less exciting, and infinitely more terrifying. You watch in horror as cars shoot on and off the roundabout with impossible and, quite frankly, unnecessary speed and aggression, radared to their individual exits as though embedded with some sort of precision-heightening microchip. The realisation that you are out of your depth suddenly washes over you, and the confident purr of your trusty Polo engine is beginning to sound more and more like a fearful tremble. A quick glance in your rear-view mirror reveals a giant Range Rover stalking just a few feet behind you, its headlights and honeycomb grill twisted into what appears to be some sort of deranged grimace. The driver is a red-faced older man in a suit who looks no more than twenty minutes from a heart attack, undoubtedly rushing intensely to some important conference or corporate meeting. The light remains red as you feel the first bead of sweat roll down your temple and hang from the side of your chin. You fumble blindly with the window handle, desperately trying to let in some air while making sure to keep your eyes fixated on the seemingly never-changing traffic lights. A second glance in the rear-view reveals the Range Rover has begun to edge forward in gleeful anticipation, its headlight eyes fixed judgingly on the gigantic scarlet ‘L’ defacing your rear window, stamped on to ensure your incompetency and vulnerability are publicly broadcast. It is as you sit there, awash in thoughts of anxiety and self-doubt, that you hear the first thunderous ‘HONK’ sound. The piercing roar of it jolts you back to reality, and sure enough, a panicked glance ahead reveals that the lights have turned green. Further merciless honking ensues as your sweaty palms struggle to release the handbrake. Just when you think you may take off quickly and leave this shameful ordeal behind you, your legs, heavy with nerves, fail to catch the bite of the pedals; and to your shame and mortification, you stall your car right there on the Kinsale Road Roundabout. Cars begin to cross lanes to overtake you. You see the angry, cursing faces of the drivers as they pass you by. Somehow, you are able to make out a fleeting cry of “F**kin’ learner drivers!” amidst the cacophony. Several hands are raised in display of either threatening fist or middle finger. Numerous horns ring out in a sort of dissonant symphony. Chaos descends upon the land.

I’m sure a lot of you reading this have already managed to get yourselves past the traumatic phase of driving as a learner, so I’m sorry if that anecdote triggered any personal roundabout-related emotional distress for you. And to those of you who are yet to begin the ordeal of becoming a fully licensed driver – I am equally sorry for creating any anticipatory anxiety. Becoming a fully licensed driver is probably one of the most daunting, arduous and stressful adversities faced by the general youth in Ireland today. First, you’ve got to source an actual car for yourself, which requires both a lot of money and the good fortune that Kieran from Sligo isn’t trying to scam you on DoneDeal. Next, you’ve got to arrange some decent driving lessons for yourself, which also requires a lot of money, and the good fortune that you’re paired with a competent driving instructor who knows their hill start from their three-point turn.  And, finally, you’ve got to get your actual driving test done – which requires (you’ve guessed it) a further hefty sum of money, and of course, the good fortune that you’re not assigned an examiner who you’re pretty sure is some sort of lab-grown Theresa May android. I suppose all I’m really saying, in a very roundabout way (if you’ll pardon the pun) is that the life of a learner driver is far from an easy one. Having been through it myself and having clawed my way out the other side (relatively unscathed and with shiny red ‘N’-plate in hand), I thought I’d share a few tips that I genuinely think can be put to good use by anyone who is currently bound by those wretched L-shaped shackles.

Tip #1: Follow the damn rules. The Road Safety Authority requires that learner drivers are accompanied by a fully licensed driver (who has held a full license for a continuous period of at least two years) at all times while driving. Getting caught driving unaccompanied can land you with up to four penalty points, as well as an €80 fine. So, driving unaccompanied to pick up the lads for a spin to Douglas for a King Creole might sound tempting, but the last thing you want is to have penalty points piling up on your license before you even pass your test. Just bring your Mam for a Creole instead, she’s sound and deserves it. The RSA also states that learner drivers are required to display ‘L’ plates on the front and rear of their vehicle. This may seem like a small thing, and a lot of people neglect it. However, simply not displaying ‘L’ plates on your car can get you a €60 fine and up to four penalty points, which is a ridiculous price to pay for something that can literally be picked up for a few euro at most garages across Ireland. A few other things to avoid, which are prohibited for learner drivers, are: driving on motorways; drawing a trailer; and carrying passengers for payment “or other reward” (if you’re into that sort of thing). Just by following these few simple rules, you can spare yourself a lot of unnecessary hassle on your journey to passing your test (not to mention the money you’ll be saving).

Tip #2: Ignore the stigma of driving with ‘L’-plates and just do your thing. After slapping on those glaring red and white symbols of inadequacy, you’ll notice pretty quickly that other road users do not particularly like you. Don’t be alarmed, this is normal. Just about everyone is going to view you as some sort of obstacle to get around rather than a fellow motorist, and that’s just the way it is. Like a blasphemous drunkard in Puritanical New England, you have been branded with a scarlet letter, and every other driver knows all about your dirty little sin of, you know, not being adept in the skill of driving a car. It’s going to be awful, but you’re going to have to learn to manage and overcome it. Always take your time and go at your own pace. Undoubtedly, people will beep at you and overtake you with needless hostility, but it is extremely important that you learn early-on how to keep a cool head and not let anyone intimidate you on the road. Remember, you have just as much of a right to be on the road as anyone else, and if Angry Middle Aged White Man In Large Sports Car™ really is in that much of a rush that he has to exhaust the noise-making capabilities of his horn because you’re doing 45KMPH in a 50 zone, then maybe he should have left a little bit earlier.

Tip #3: Practice, and be economical in your approach to preparing for the test. Like any skill, driving takes a lot of practice. It’s pretty much inevitable that your first time on the road is going to be Dustin-the-Turkey-on-Eurovision levels of tragedy and embarrassment, so just accept that now. For your first couple of journeys, make sure your fully-licensed passenger is someone you trust, and preferably someone who has an extremely vast and varied experience of driving. The more experienced your passenger, the easier they will find it to stay calm in whatever stressful situation you inevitably find yourself in. Your passenger’s attitude will rub off on you, so it’s important to find someone who is going to keep you on your toes without causing you to have a nervous breakdown. It’s equally important that you are prudent in your approach to learning how to drive and eventually passing your test. Make sure that your driving lessons are scheduled at the same time each week, when you’re sure they won’t clash with any other commitments you may have. Try and get them done weekly without missing too many sessions, as this will prevent your skills from getting rusty. Driving tests are generally notorious for having ridiculously long waiting lists, so make sure to book well in advance to avoid completing your lessons only to discover that you’ve been dealt a three-month waiting period, during which you’re certain that all your skills and knowledge will gradually decay. Try to arrange a few practice tests with your instructor in the days leading up to your actual exam. This will massively boost your confidence, as you’ll be secure in the fact that every little detail you need to remember is fresh in your mind.

So, there you have it – three tips to help you survive and thrive as a learner driver, as well as breeze through your test! (disclaimer: the universe is a raging storm of chance and anarchy; therefore I can make no promises that the aforementioned advice will ensure that you pass your driving test. For all I know, the day of your driving test may just so happen to also be the envisaged day of the Rapture. In which case none of this matters at all). If you decide to take these tips on board, honestly, there’s not a whole lot that can go wrong. Yes, being a learner driver is torturous; and no, I do not envy you; but it’s just an awkward part of life that everyone (everyone interested in driving their own vehicle, that is) has to go through. So, in short: slap on a few ‘L’ plates, always drive with Mammy, ignore the grumpy men who beep at you, take your precious time, and practice until your shoulder joints become permanently locked in the steering position. You’ll be grand.