On Navigating Life Without a Driver’s License
Like many 20-year-olds I know, I’m not exactly self-sufficient. A lot of days I don’t feel very ‘adult’ at all. It’s all a process, and I’m working to get there. I’ve checked off a lot of the things that theoretically mean you’re a capital-A-Adult: I’ve voted, bought lottery tickets (how very grown-up of me, and I even won my dollar back!), started college, gone abroad, had a job, paid for my own textbooks, made important decisions about my future, all that good stuff… but I haven’t yet learned to drive a car, something that I could have gotten licensed to do almost five years ago. Driving is actually something you’re allowed to do before you’re an adult, but somehow I just skipped over that first rite of passage while diving straight into the other ones, and I’ve been so caught up in the rest of it that I haven’t had time to notice how “far behind” I am on the list of supposed steps you have to complete before you’ve reached official adult status.
However, the fact remains that I will be able to drink legally before I can drive legally, which to a lot of people seems incredibly backward and strange. It messes up the linear order that we’re supposed to live within, and generally leads to a lot of questions and misconceptions. Me not driving is something I should be embarrassed about, some indication that I “messed up” by being too lazy or too dumb or too something. It invalidates my accomplishments and reverts me back to a dependent fifteen-year-old in the eyes of judgmental people. But the honest truth? Not driving doesn’t make me any less of a responsible adult than anyone else my age. Sure, my lifestyle might be different if I had a car, but that doesn’t mean it would be better. My lack of driver’s license isn’t a handicap.
When I was 16, I didn’t want to drive because I couldn’t reconcile it with wanting to help the environment. I felt guilty about riding in a car at all, and the idea of me directly adding to the pollution by driving was something I wouldn’t consider. When I was 17, I got a driver’s permit and reluctantly started practicing because I didn’t think I had a choice. No one actually forced me to learn, I had just accepted that it’s what everyone did so I should probably start learning given that I was already a year and a half late. It was hard. I got upset a lot. I spent an entire month driving in a high school parking lot before I ever drove on the street. I was frustrated because I hadn’t expected it to be so difficult for me, and I hadn’t not driven for so long because I was lazy or thought I couldn’t do it, but because of the environmental stance that my sixteen-year-old self was so adamantly proud of. I sort of assumed that as soon as I actually tried, it would be fine, and that I could just get it over with so people would stop bugging me about it. But it didn’t work out for me that way.
I got better at driving over time, but I never got more comfortable with it. Being behind the wheel never stopped feeling foreign, and I never felt particularly sure of myself or in control. Eventually my discomfort driving a car turned into fear, and the more I practiced the worse it got until I couldn’t drive at all without panicking. After a particularly awful freeway experience, I couldn’t bring myself to try any more. I felt bad about myself for a long time. I had spent two years trying to learn to drive, something everyone else around me had accomplished just fine, and had still managed to fail. I was relieved to finally have let myself off the hook but hated that my fear had won. I still didn’t want to drive anyway, but if I wasn’t going to drive I wanted it to be on my own terms, not fear’s.
But I let it go, and eventually I stopped worrying about it. And I started remembering all the things I genuinely like about not driving. I like having exercise as a part of my daily routine without having to think about it from all the walking I do. I like being able to enjoy a brisk morning as I walk to the bus for work and greeting the same driver every day. I like being able to sit quietly and read my book or listen to music without having to worry about anything for a moment, and I like having as small a carbon footprint as possible. I like the community you find when you’re walking or taking public transit that you never witness when you drive everywhere: smiling at people who pass you on the street, running into people you haven’t seen in a few years, and constantly making connections with people, even if it’s one that will only last until the next bus stop. These things make me feel like a part of my city more than anything else does, and I never feel isolated.
A couple months ago there was an article on Yahoo! News about young people and their views on driving that said that my generation, which the article lists as people aged 16-34, “includes an increasing number of people for whom driving is less an American rite of passage than an unnecessary chore.” Of course this isn’t true for all young people because not everyone has easily accessible public transit, and not everyone has parents who let their kids do things at their own pace like mine did. If I didn’t have a bus to get me to work and a free shuttle that takes me to my college, not driving would be a huge detriment to my life, and I feel incredibly lucky to have those things available to me. But even though it isn’t widespread in the United States, it is becoming more and more common so that people, especially young people, don’t feel they need to drive.
I’m not against cars, and at this point I’m not even against the notion of getting behind the wheel again myself. Over the years people have asked me what my deal is with my determination not to drive, but at this point I don’t have one. I just don’t drive, and that’s all. I’ve even given up the defensiveness that came from being constantly thought of as a less adjusted and responsible human simply because I chose not to drive. I know that’s not true, so it doesn’t bother me anymore. A driver’s license is not the sparkly key to the adulthood door I thought it was when I was seventeen and struggling to pull in and out of parking spots. It’s a card that says you can legally operate a vehicle, and you can decide how much value you want to place on that.
This past month I’ve driven a few times after not driving for over a year. I drove in circles around my old high school’s parking lot, and practiced parking with various degrees of success. A couple weeks later I drove on back roads when I was at the coast. It’s still hard, and I’m still afraid, but the difference between now and when I was 17 is that I’m not putting myself on a time line that dictates how long it should take me to learn. When I first tried learning, I felt like a failure before I even started because I was learning to drive so “late”, which didn’t exactly set me up for success. Now there is no ticking clock. I know how to live without a car, I am happy to live without a car, but have decided driving is a skill I’d like to acquire. I’m not learning “late” because I no longer let anyone but myself set standards for where I should be in my life. I’m just learning.
Did you learn to drive “late,” or still not have a driver’s license at all? Leave a comment and share how you learned to navigate your life without one.
Written by Cleo McClintock