I’ve always believed that the fear of driving should have a more professional name. If arachnophobia and acrophobia can be named, there should be some Greek-originated nomenclature like odigóphobia, that identifies us cautious individuals who cannot separate the danger of driving from the necessity of getting around. We are a community. Gooba Gabba, One of Us!
Like many members of that community of odigóphobes (I’m putting it out there), the insecurities I have about driving makes me uncomfortable when anyone has to pick me up or drop me off in their car. Luckily, living in an urban environment has allowed me to mask these anxieties by using public transportation and rideshare applications. However, farther away from metropolitan areas, driving becomes an expected skill that seemingly everyone has mastered. It’s a form of independence that you’re supposed to desire and aspire to reach. Even among city dwellers, it can feel excruciating whenever it comes into conversation.
Such as on a recent road-trip to Texas, during which the driving was split between my uncle and sister. Halfway into the journey, my aunt leaned over and whispered, “You should be the one driving this car.” By this she meant that as a man, it ought to be me and not my sister sharing the driving responsibilities. I felt so small that she could have picked me up and put me into her purse. I am still one of the few men I know that don’t drive. I try not to make it a big deal and to take it in stride. Still, whenever I have to sit in someone else’s car, I feel naked and vulnerable.
This isn’t for a lack of trying to drive. My very first driving lesson was in a Sears parking lot. I drove around the mostly empty lot alternating between gas and brake. It seemed so easy, and I felt so in control. The second lesson was in the parking lot of a park. This time there were rows of cars on either side. I had graduated. At the time, I was 16 and life was ahead of me. There was all this hope that I was going to figure it out in time like everyone else.
My next real driving lesson was about 8 years later. I am not going to include the times I was ‘taught’ in the passenger seat by looking at my cousin tap the gas and brake pedals of his Benz (Thanks cuzzo!). This time it was at a professional driving school with a professional name. I took the driving manual class and then a 20 lesson driving package. After only a few lessons, I started getting into the habit of driving. The instructor would always let me know that my driving was proficient. And then the highway lesson occurred.
The instructor and I were talking while listening to the radio during the lesson on a local highway, when a black suburban entered the lane on the right. Rather than speed up or slow down, the driver came into the same lane alongside the car as I was crossing into the lane. I had to swerve back into my lane to avoid the cars crashing into each other. The instructor immediately switched off the radio and began scolding me, “That’s why you need to listen, student.” He emphasized the word student as if I did not know my place beneath him. Was I undermining his authority as king of the car? Where did the guy who kept me at ease go? I told him I could no longer continue the lesson. He tried to persuade me to continue but it was too late. My hands were icy on the wheel.
I have driven on many occasions through such anxiety. It seems so simple and yet I can feel the power of a 4000 pound machine speeding past flesh and bone. A simple mistake, or oversight can end my life. Or worst, send me to jail (Oz is primarily responsible for that fear). Do I trust myself enough to pay attention to everything that can go wrong? The driving instructor said that if I focus on what can go wrong, then it will. He sounded insightful. If only he could understand the thin line between logic and feelings that accompany anxiety
Since then, I have taken driving lessons at 3 different driving schools in different parts of this city. With the instructor in the car, I would always feel at ease and perform well. However, whenever I had to get into the car by myself and drive, I would get a rush of anxiety that would stay with me for most of the drive. I had instructors that provided techniques and tips and others that probably did more damage than they realized. I failed at getting any friend or family to put in the time to help me get comfortable driving. It was something I would have to do alone. And fail alone. The cost of which, I was afraid, could be high. I have revved into the bumpers of other cars, driven with the parking brakes on, reversed instead of driving forward, almost zinged cars, ran lights and missed entire car lanes. Maybe it’s all a normal part of driving or maybe I remember each event worse than it occurred. I am still petrified of using my right-side mirrors to switch lanes. I am still scared of being stuck in traffic and having to maneuver between cars. I am still terrified of the police.
The few times, I was required to drive, I would be up all night spiraling at the thought of getting behind the wheel. Even when I was a teacher in the suburbs for a year, I chose to take the unreliable and inefficient buses to work rather than get behind the wheel on a daily basis. I was the only professional on the bus. I could feel the weight of everyone noticing the well dressed black men and his tie on the public bus.
Now, I have a wife and perhaps children in the future. I currently do whatever I can to avoid driving. Yet, in my family and among the men I know, driving is a necessary rite of passage. People still ask me why I don’t have a car, and I can’t help but feel self-conscious about not meeting yet another expectation. What kind of father will I be if I cannot drive my own children? I truly wish everything didn’t allude back to my manhood and masculinity. At times, It feels like I’m struggling to keep my sense of well-being intact. And then at other times, I don’t care.