Adult non-driver needs advice


I’m a middle aged guy who has never learned how to drive. I panic the moment I think about getting behind the wheel and have absolutely no skills at controlling a car. I’ve taken lessons from two teachers, but so far I haven’t been able to find an instructor here in Portland, Oregon with the patience to work with me.

Part of my problem with my instructors so far might be that outside of a car, I come across as a normal, competent adult. I get the feeling that they think I just need to be thrown into the deep end where I’ll quickly see that driving is easy. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. I have to think about which pedal is the gas and which one is the brake, and I steer like I’m wearing a blindfold. The teachers were both in a big hurry to get me out onto roads with traffic, even though I’m still not able to reliably pilot a car around an empty parking lot. One even refused to label the car with a “student driver” sign because I “wouldn’t have that when I’m on the road for real.”

If I’m ever going to do this, I’m going to have to find an instructor who has the patience to spend a long time with an absolutely terrified, utterly incompetent adult student. I’m in no hurry to get the license. I just want to learn how to drive safely, one step at a time. Any suggestions or anecdotes? Or if you know teachers in Portland, recommendations? With my skills, a dual control car is a must, so friends and family aren’t an option.


Maybe you have friends with a driver’s license. They could be a friend and take you to a parking lot where you can build confidence. After you’ve buit enough confidence to drive around the parking lot, you could try quiet neighborhood driving with your friends. Then you can contact a driving school, That’s how we teach our kids to drive.

And make it clear that you will pay for any damage to your friend’s cars when you ask for help.


Just to build confidence and gain a sense of fun, all essential to learning how to drive, I would visit my local go kart track and just do some rounds. Fear is a major impediment to learning so finding the fun is a good platform.


My mother learned to drive late in life and never did master it. She could not make the transition from being fearful about driving to asserting control of the car. That is something that you must decide for yourself, that is what you want to do or else you will remain incompetent. These sound like hard words but you have a challenge in front of you. It’s your choice of how you want it to be. A motor vehicle is just an extension of your mind and muscles.


Everybody has a hard time with something that the rest of the world can do easily. As a child, I had an extraordinarily difficult time learning to swim. It took several years of instruction to get me to the point where I could dog paddle 25 feet. I have never gone head first off a diving board. To this day, I regard swimming as a survival skill, not as recreation.

Most people’s performance deteriorates under stress. When it involves a strange new skill, it is not uncommon for them to freeze. This is what is happening to you. The last place you need to be right now is in traffic where you have little time to act and mistakes are painful and expensive.

Can you ride a bicycle? If you can, are you comfortable riding fast while maneuvering around obstacles? A bicycle isn’t a car, but the principle of using a non-intuitive mechanism to control speed and direction is the same.

I second the idea of spending time at a go kart track. The goal is to get used to using the controls to send the vehicle where you want.

Portland is not such a huge metropolitan area that you can’t get out into farm country fairly quickly. Find a driving instructor who is willing to ferry you out to a deserted country road where you can creep along as slowly as necessary. After that, it is just a matter of time and copious dollars in the instructor’s pocket while you internalize the mechanical skills of driving.

If, after you get your licence, you decide to buy a car, make it a small one with an automatic transmission. Small cars are far easier to drive than big ones. A couple of candidates are the Honda Fit and Mazda Miata. (The latter may seem an odd choice, but it meets the qualification for tiny.) The driver’s workload is less with an automatic than a manual transmission and you don’t need the distraction.


It sounds from your post you may need two things to get your driving lesson accomplished, a therapist and driving instructor. Thats are rare combonitaion. However maybe see a specialist on your fears and get a strategy on dealing with that before moving onto driving.


The reply that involves a therapist is an interesting one but may be a key to achieving your goal. I highly suspect that a good portion of your problem is mental not physical. So seeing a professional may help you with regards to your fears and confidence while you work on the actual physical skills.

There are a variety of things you can do to help get you some of the skills you need without actually getting behind the wheel of an actual car. For example, there is that relationship between your eyes and your hands that control the steering wheel. For most drivers, it’s an unconscious relationship or automatic. It takes time to get there. So how to get there without getting behind the wheel of a car? Maybe go to a local arcade and spend some quarters on a driving video game. Don’t worry about a big score or going fast, just focus on the relationship between steering and what your eyes see. Most also have a gas pedal. So there is some good practice for you. If this seems to be helping and you have a PC, you could go buy a steering wheel/gas pedal combo for your PC and practice that way. This may help build up some basic skill that you can then use on the road.

Another thing to look at is slower vehicles that require controls and skill like driving. By the time I was in driver’s ed, I had years of driving lawn tractors, go-karts, etc under my belt. If you have a friend or relative with a lawn tractor, maybe you want to go over there and set up some cones for practice. You can easily keep them at slow speeds to build up your confidence. Then, like others had said, go visit a local go-kart / fun-kart track where you are in controlled conditions. You may want to go during a slower period so there will be less people on the track with you.

Eventually, you will get to the point of being ready to go behind a real car. Once you have some driving under your belt, you may eventually want to look into a performance driving school (after a year or more). I know this sounds odd, but the driving school will push you way beyond your comfort level and skill level. So when you relax afterwards, you go back to a level that is above where you were. Your goal isn’t to be a race driver, but give you valuable car control skills that will help you be a safer driver.

Good luck! Remember, just because you are afraid doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pursue it. Just do so safely.


I’m also of the belief that you need something MORE then just a driver instructor. You need psychological help to deal with your fear of driving. I knew a guy that was deathly afraid of driving in snow…which is tough living in Pulaski NY. He wouldn’t drive from November thru April. He hitched rides or took a cab (which is also hard to do in Pulaski NY). When his kids started to get involved in afterschool sports he was FORCED to deal with this problem and thought out professional help.


I just thought I’d throw in my two cents worth here, because all these earlier suggestions pretty much cover it.

I didn’t learn to drive until I was 39. I started trying, though, beginning in 1967, when I was 19. My stepdad was a truck driver, but he never taught me to drive, although he taught all the other kids. (But, then, they were his “real” kids, and I wasn’t. I’m not kidding, that’s the way it really was in my house. No joke. It was very sickening.)

My mom never learned to drive at all.

I tried several different driving schools. At least two of them were in Pittsburgh, where I grew up. The insructors were just plain mean and completely lacking in understanding. It was like your experience, where they just didn’t respect my process, or understand anything about what level I was on.

They were even abusive and disrespectful. One time, in 1983, I was pregnant, and a single mom. I even saved up $$ from my welfare check to pay this driving school. All the guy did was yell at me.

Then, I moved here to Madison, Wisconsin. I had pretty much given up hope for the whole project, but, figured, well, why not just give it one more try.

So, a very nice, very patient man instructed me well, with sensitivity. He had me driving in no time, and I even got my license. I just couldn’t believe it. He didn’t yell, ever.

So, I think the key is, like you said, just keep trying until you get the instructor or school that works with you and for you the way you want. The idea of a therapist can probably never hurt, if it’s a good therapist, but it 's difficult to get the right person there, too. That takes a lot of time and effort in itself.

I think, though, that, for me, my history with my family was a part of the psych problem, and the best therapy for that was learning how to drive with a nice teacher.

Now, I’m 59, and have been driving for 20 years without a single accident.

Well, maybe not quite, because I did knock over a parked motorcycle in my apartment parking lot last summer. Ouch!!

God bless, and keep trying.


Thanks everyone for the great advice! I don’t feel like a seperate therapist will do much for me. I know what my issues with driving are and where they come from, but that knowledge isn’t going to keep me from freezing or getting panicky when I get into the driver’s seat.

Also, I’m confident that my physical reflexes are good enough: I can take the high score on just about any pinball machine out there. My problem has just been that I’m way, way too aware of the consequences of screwing up behind the wheel, and I haven’t been able to get past that long enough to get any skills. I love the idea of go-karting or lawn-mowering (!) and will make calls about that this weekend.

Going out with friends isn’t an option. My friends are all business associates and it just wouldn’t be a smart thing to let them see me in a white-knuckled panic.

I’ve called a couple of driving instructors and I’m hoping to make it clear to them that I’m probably going to need to work with them for 50 or 60 hours. That’s a lot more than most students, but with any luck, they won’t object to a customer who wants to pay for 10 times as many lessons as usual.

Kendahl’s assessment feels right on target. I’ll try to book an instructor for longer sessions so we can go out where the roads are really quiet. As I noted, my previous teachers have gotten bored with going around small parking lots and have hurried me out into traffic with uniformly bad results. Or maybe they just thought they would speed things up and save me some money. I dunno. Either way, now that I know to watch out for this sort of impatience, I’ll try to negotiate the arrangement beforehand.

Huntgoddess: Thanks for the story- that’s really encouraging. And I’m an ex-Pittsburgher, too.


I think that your looking too far into the situation. It’s scary to start learning, but just start out in an empty parking lot and drive around a little bit with someone. I guarantee that nothing bad will happen if you keep calm! Build up some practice and then hit some smaller, less congested streets. In no time you’ll be drivin’ like a pro!! Best of luck!!!


There are driver education courses for adults somewhere. Call a few high schools and ask them about it. They may still have one of those trailers with all the steering wheels and brake pedals and neat toys. It’s the easiest thing you’ll ever do. You do have to build up a love for driving first. It’s like an all-consuming urge to roll on the road that you have been paying for all these years. If there are video games and pocket change, you can get really familiar with gas and brake. If you do buy the computer game with the pedals and steering wheel, you won’t be able to avoid getting that license after a week or two.