I didn’t learn to drive until I was 27. I grew up in cities, so there wasn’t a great need, and more importantly I was stone cold terrified: when I tried to drive my then-boyfriend’s car at age 18, I screamed bloody murder every time I braked and shut my eyes during turns. It made for an eventful trip to the recycling plant.
I moved to Chicago for college and easily made it through another decade as a non-driver. Then I took a work trip to Minnesota, where -20° Celsius winds howled at the windows of my Econolodge.
Not driving created a uniquely frosty circle of hell: a co-worker picked me up in the morning and dropped me off at night. I felt as anxious and restless as I had in high school; I had no control over my life, my time did not belong to me.
I signed up for driving lessons as soon as I got home. Ten minutes into my first lesson, my instructor, a hilarious grandmother named Dominga, told me I was in love with being afraid. She was right. But we muscled through eight lessons, and it worked: I can legally drive in the state of Illinois.
Your situation might be different, but many adult drivers share common struggles. I know because I’ve had all of them. I also talked to a few others, as well as Andrew Danek, owner of Illinois Driving School, and psychologist Fabrice Lubin, who specialises in treating anxiety. So hop in, late bloomer - we’re going driving.
Decide that you want to learn how to drive
Not everyone needs to know how to drive. I don’t drive often: I’ve always lived in a city with good public transportation, and plan to die in one. In 60 or 70 years. Sorry, that’s morbid.
Let me rephrase: I have no plans to move to the suburbs, a rural area, or a metropolis without a 24/7 subway and late night bus. For me, it’s important to never feel trapped, at least not by transportation: knowing how to drive means I can in theory get around most parts of the country and world. But for many others, the reasons go beyond a feeling.
“I moved to a big city with poor public transit,” said Kate Merena, who learned at 42 after leaving Chicago for San Diego. Even moving within a city can change your mindset: “I moved farther away from work and the area I live in made it sensible to buy a car,” said Patrick Davila, who learned at 35.
“Also, I deal with persistent health issues and owning a motor vehicle helps with that.” For some, like Sarah (who preferred to be identified by first name only), it’s wasn’t an issue of location so much as independence: she learned at 30 after getting divorced. Although she lives in Chicago (and therefore doesn’t “need” a car), she had previously counted on her ex to drive her parents when they visited them in rural Pennsylvania.
“I’m an only child and my parents don’t have many friends or other family in the area. I had always expected that if anything happened to my parents, that I could count on him to be the driver,” she explained, “Without him, I had to re-evaluate. I knew that the only real solution was to finally learn.”
Whether your desire to drive is practical, personal, or some combination of the two, driving is not only a useful skill, but an empowering one: it helps you help yourself (and others!), makes a new place less scary, and gets you where you need to go - whatever that means. And identifying your motivation can help take “I should learn how to drive” from a vague task hanging over your head to an active item on your to-do list.
Get your learner’s permit
As an adult, you won't need to complete the required hours set out by state law, but it's always important to check your state's learner limits and quirks.
That brings us to the next step: studying for your learner's test. Do it, it will make a difference. There should be a study guide, driver’s manual, or similar resource available on your local roads website.
The written permit test is meant to ensure that you have a basic understanding of traffic laws and safe driving techniques, and it’s not hard but it’s also not easy. I repeat: you do need to study for it, unless you are a savant that knows the shape of every traffic sign (you’re not) and what your blood alcohol should be when you’re driving across state lines with two non-drivers in the backseat.
I made that question up but it’s not far off - the questions are phrased in an odd and convoluted way that only someone who’s read the drivers manual would understand. I failed the permit test the first time around, went home, read The Rules of the Road, came back the next day, and passed.
It was pretty cool to see the same woman at the desk just 24 hours later, and not at all embarrassing. Once you get your permit, you can drive, as long as you’re accompanied by a licensed driver, and are eligible to take the road test and get your licence. However, there are many benefits to driving lessons.
Enroll in a licensed and state approved driving school
Almost every adult driver I talked to sang the praises of driving school. Layne Lebahn learned to drive at 28, and said that “paying a professional to teach me instead of relying on friends or family” made the experience immeasurably better. Mica Alaniz, who learned at 32, echoed this: “Your friendships and relationships are too valuable, especially as an adult, to subject them to something as stressful as this. Professional schools are going to be better and faster and they will focus on the things you need or want to learn.”
Learning from a neutral third-party can make a big difference. Here’s why:
Being taught by a friend or family member can be stressful, and you run the risk of inheriting bad driving habits, like your cousin’s patented three-lane U-turn.
A driving instructor is more likely to be calm and patient, and can teach you to drive safely and well.
On some level, the instructor will teach to the road test, but they can customise your lessons for specific areas of interest or need, like parallel parking or highway driving.
Committing to lessons you’ve paid for increases the chance that you’ll follow through.
Driving instructors have seen everything. You are not the worst driver they’ve taught.
Driving school is different than the behind-the-wheel classes you might have taken in high school. Google [name of your state] + “adult driving school”, and check for schools with a section called “Adult Programs” or “Adult Classes” - or call and ask if they have classes that cater specifically to the over-18 demographic.
It’s maybe the least sexy use of the term “Adult”, but it does mean that you won’t be lumped into the same category as someone shotgunning sour Skittles and worrying about their high school dance.
Adult classes usually mean private, individual lessons from a teacher who can work with your grown-up schedule and needs. Lessons usually take place over 4-8 weeks — many schools recommend or require a minimum of six hours of lessons, and cost between $200 and $600.
It should be said that not everyone interviewed learned through a driving school. Cinnamon Cooper, who learned at age 21, noted that “having someone patient to teach me and keep me calm” made a huge difference. Others who went the non-school route echoed similar sentiments: work with someone patient, calm, and encouraging.
Pay attention to your surroundings
For Davila, one of the toughest parts of learning was the environment. “Driving in Queens is quite difficult: many streets are narrow with parked cars on both sides, many of the residential streets are not one-way, and taxi and rideshare drivers are very aggressive.” Jessica Palmer recalled that, “My first time driving was in Boston, and my instructor made me drive through Harvard Square. I still can’t believe that was my first lesson.”
She was quick to point out that no one died, but vividly remembers her trial by fire at age 24.
Even if you’re in a more calm suburb or small town, being aware of what’s going around you is key. According to driving instructor Andrew Danek, one of the most common problems adult students face is paying attention, either because they’re scared (I’ve never driven before!) or overconfident (I’ve got this.).
“There are very few things you do in life that require the sort of attention that driving a car does,” he told me, and this focus is key. You want to be aware of what he calls the eight variables:
Whenever you stop, you look behind you
Pay attention to anything moving on the left or right side
Look for signs
Pay attention to any kind of brake lights or signal lights
Look for police lights, cars, ambulances, and fire trucks
Watch the ground for lines, lanes, potholes, and speed bumps
Learn to anticipate blind spots: going over a hill or under a bridge, around a curve, or past a truck
Building this kind of awareness starts with looking around, but doesn’t end with that:
“It’s very important that the eyes are always moving while you’re driving a car, looking for things,” Danek said, “A lot of people just sit there, wait for things to happen, and then they don’t have enough reaction time. That’s what causes accidents. If your eyes are doing what they’re supposed to do... that’s your basic insurance.”
Actively concentrating means focusing on what’s going on around you, which means no texting or talking, eating or drinking, or messing with the radio or GPS. If you need to do any of that, pull over.
Practice, practice, practice
It’s an adage for a reason: the more you drive, the better and more comfortable you will be. Danek says that driving is not the hardest part: “The actual physical control of the car - stopping, turning, changing lanes, and parking - most of that can be learned.”
The hard part is actively paying attention, thinking quickly, and having good reflexes and getting to the point where it all becomes instinctive. To help get to that point, he urges new drivers to find a car they can use regularly, and drive as often possible. Your state may or may not require behind the wheel hours, but learning a new skill as an adult takes time - especially when it’s mental, physical, and has real stakes.
One thing that helped me was driving short, familiar distances. I knew I could make it five blocks without getting lost, and the parking lot added a 10th circle of hell bonus challenge. The short drive was a good way to practice the basics: turning, merging, navigating city streets with a low to medium amount of traffic. It was a warm-up.
When I got to my local store, I had to park, which meant a high degree of paying attention, because no one else was. Something about that Trader Joe’s makes people leave their brains behind the reasonably priced bouquets. There are people wandering, lost on the grassy patch between the store and their vehicle. There are spandex-wrapped dudes on bikes, whizzing around with no regard for other vehicles or humans. There are random shopping carts.
Somewhere, a woman is idly reversing while rifling through a bag for the Scandinavian Swimmers, not watching for anyone. Finding a parking space requires patience, eagle eyes, and speed, none of which I possessed in abundance. But unlike those gummi fish, sometimes you have to jump into the deep end and swim. Or scream into the steering wheel, give up, and park on the street. Either way, it made for a good training ground.
I also got a lot out of practicing in a cemetery: it was quiet, calm, and forced me to drive slowly. And as my friend taking me out to practice pointed out, “Everyone’s already dead.” True!
Fun bonus: You might run into a group of people attending an actual funeral. Don’t frantically reverse, hit something that sounds a lot like a gravestone, and frantically reverse again. It wasn’t a gravestone. It was a path marker. But still - stay calm, even if you’re trying not to ruin a sacred ceremony.
Talk to a therapist
I started seeing a therapist well before I learned to drive; me and anxiety, we go way back. It played a big role in why I hadn’t learned, and made driving very difficult. Working with a therapist can help you to overcome mental hurdles associated with driving, and even apply that thinking to situations beyond the wheel.
Psychologist Fabrice Lubin recommends looking for a therapist or mental health programs that specialize in Acceptance Commitment Therapy; DBT (dialectical behavioural therapy); emotional regulation; specific phobias (to determine whether or not your feelings are generalised anxiety or related simply to driving); or any cognitive behavioural therapy.
He advises asking the following questions to help see if they’re the right fit:
- Can you provide me a sense of your experience working with anxiety or specific phobias?
- Can you give me a description of the course/flow of treatment? How often do we meet?
- How would or should I determine if this treatment is working for my needs? i.e.: How will I know this is working?
- What or how can you provide additional support? Would you be willing to drive with me and observe? Should I join a group or participate in a program that specifically targets this anxiety or fear?
Within his own practice, he works to help clients embrace their feelings holistically, and see them for what they are.
“Anxiety isn’t binary — when it is not present that doesn’t mean ‘All clear! Everything is safe and nothing bad will ever happen again ever,” he says. “The presence of anxiety doesn’t mean, ‘Everything is bad and will definitely go wrong.’ Our feelings are like street signs: they can inform us about the direction we are heading, but are not the destination itself.”
In terms of exercises and resources, he recommends meditation and mindfulness apps, box breathing techniques, openly discussing your anxiety with driving instructor; the book “Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life, visualising yourself driving even when you’re not and noting, charting, and documenting your feeling states prior to driving, as you drove, and post-driving to allow you to observe or notice when your anxiety spikes or drops based on cues from the environment.
Although exact coping mechanisms may vary by individual, in general Lubin urges people to avoid thinking in terms of removing, reducing, or eliminating anxiety, noting that, “One emotional response cannot be directly targeted and eliminated. My role is to assist in making space for experiences—good or bad—and finding novel ways to engage with imagination, curiosity, and values at the same time as feelings like anxiety.”
Get your licence
To legally drive by yourself, you will need to fulfil the testing and/or behind wheel requirements in your state (if applicable), go to the local roads authority in your state, and pass a road test. It takes about 30 minutes, and it is not uncommon to fail your first time around. Good news: you can take the test as many times as it takes to pass. If you fail, you might need to wait before you take it again. Don’t overthink it.
I passed, but I also cried in front of the test proctor, who looked startled and told me to go get my picture taken for my new licence. What I’m trying to tell you is, it’s going to be ok.
Exactly what you’re tested on will vary by state and slightly by test examiner - if you’ve been working with a local driving instructor, they should be able to give you a sense of what to expect in your area. But again - practice is worth more than research.
Keep it moving
Although you never truly forget how to drive (I promise), regular practice is a great way to keep your skills sharp. Some fun ways to do that:
Take a cross-country road trip, complete with epic playlists
Purchase and transport large pieces of furniture
Pull off on a secluded country road and make out with your partner like a teenager
Buy many cases of beer or carbonated water
Revel in the freedom, keep your eyes on the road, and don’t forget to renew your licence. And never forget that you did it and can do it again, or in the words of Merena, “Children do this. Literal 15-year-old children. You’ve got this!”