Even Kings of the Road Were Beginners, Once

This man was showing us his ancient photo album. "That's my first car," he said, as if he were modestly pointing out his family castle. He was not far from wrong: The splendid, endless machine, too large for the camera, sported running boards like magnificent fins, giant headlights, leather upholstery. It had an air of private swank.

"In those days," he said, "you just drove down the center of the road. If a car came in the opposite direction, then you moved over to the left."

I loved that "if."

"Of course," he went on, "I never learned to drive."

What he meant, I think, is that he was never taught to drive. There were not a few generations of drivers in Britain before compulsory driving tests were introduced (and when they were, these pioneers were exempt). In the early days, tests were presumably felt unnecessary - and the privileged owners of automobiles would hardly think to submit to tuition or examination by their inferiors.

Kenneth Grahame, in his book "The Wind in the Willows" (1908), made marvelous fun of such pioneers of the car, epitomized by the boastful Mr. Toad. As Rat gravely tells Mole: "Another smash-up only last week.... You see, he will insist on driving himself, and he's hopelessly incapable.... But ... he's convinced he's a heaven-born driver, and nobody can teach him anything...."

Recently in Britain, the now long-existent driving tests have been made even more rigorous, including a written exam. In my day, after you had driven the examiner around for a while (on the left), made proper hand signals, performed a three-point-turn, started on a hill without stalling, reversed around a corner without hitting the curb, and successfully executed an emergency stop, you were submitted to two or three verbal queries to try your hastily acquired familiarity with the highway code. Then you were passed (or failed) accordingly.

I was failed. This was devastating because both my (ex-Army) instructor (who had "never had a failure") and I were certain I was an excellent driver. The examiner offered no explanation of his nightmarish decision. I simply could not understand it.

At the second attempt I did pass. This latter examiner memorably remarked that he was going to pass me, but if I continued to drive "like that," I would be arrested within a week.

I wasn't, so perhaps his warning was effective. On the other hand, I did undergo an occurrence a little while later when I borrowed my father's car to visit my old school. My purpose was shameless: to show off to the boys still there, who had not yet passed the test, that I was now a driver.

All went well until I arrived at the large main gates. I cut the corner too sharply, and the car lodged against one of the gateposts in such a way that I could drive neither forward nor backward without scraping the paintwork along its entire length. I have not easily forgotten that notable grinding sound as brickwork breaks through immaculate enamel and reaches naked metal.

Apparently the test I had passed was not sufficiently stringent to have saved me from this embarrassment. Still, my confidence in being, like Toad, a "heaven-born driver" was not irredeemably dented. Today it seems to me that it is everyone else on the road who hasn't a clue. It is simply amazing what other drivers do!

A few of them, though, may yet be driving (Sunday mornings are a favored time) without ever having taken a test at all. Once you have your license in this fine country you have it, with one or two possible exceptions, for keeps.

I have known several pre-driving-test drivers. Some were proficient. But others had, for instance, a very hazy concept of the purpose and order of the gears (automatics remain comparatively rare in Britain), or of the need to synchronize the foot-operated clutch pedal with the manual gear change. Maneuvering backward into a parallel-parking space (actually not quite mastered by many who have passed tests) remains as enigmatic to these pre-testers as the movements of the knight on a chessboard are to someone who has never played chess.

INOW live in an area that is a kind of mecca for the city's driving-school instructors (comparatively quiet straight streets). I find myself frequently delayed by three or four of their vehicles gathered into a small fraternity of immobility as a traffic light changes from red to green to red to green without anybody actually taking advantage of the green. Nevertheless, I do feel a certain sympathy for learners. I recall my own first stint.

The car shot forward down the drive. "Fine," I thought, as it went faster, "it moves. This is easy." And then an awful awareness suddenly dawned: If I did not turn the steering wheel, the car would not follow the bends in the road. Until that instant I had hardly (as a long-time passenger) taken into account that cars are not on rails like trains. Responsibility can be a bit of a shock.

An American I know made her debut as a 15-year-old even more shockingly. Her mother allowed her to back the family car out of the garage for the first time. She did it so well that Mama suggested she try going forward.

She tells me that what happened next bore some relationship to the fact that "those pedals down by my feet were so small."

Fortunately, when - a split second later - they were sitting there with the wobbling garage door perched hingeless on the car's roof, her mother found it so funny that she couldn't stop laughing.

Perhaps this initial driving experience was salutary. There may be worse ways of starting something new than with a big bang.

So far as I know, this learner - who was thereafter hastily submitted to a course of professional instruction - has gone on to be an excellent driver. (Though admittedly I have only her word for it.)

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