Too Fast, Too Precarious

Whitney Carpenter is a bad driver. Consider this a warning.

I’m a firm believer in full disclosure. So when I tilt my driver’s seat forward to allow people into the barely existent backseat of my hatchback, I casually mention that I drive like an old lady.

First-time passengers are usually too preoccupied with wiggling past seat belts or disengaging themselves from the woolen arms of the cardigans stored on the floorboards to respond; either that, or they assume that I am referring to the “hits of the ’60s and ’70s” blaring from the radio. It isn’t until I start backing out of my parking spot, which takes me about five minutes, that they start to process my warning.

My performance deteriorates from there. I engage my blinker prematurely and merge hesitantly; I yield to cars plastered with confrontational bumper stickers, and allow myself to be bullied by tailgaters or anyone in a truck. I will always take a longer and more indirect route, provided that it allows to me avoid unprotected left turns and short onramps.

My claim of resembling an old lady behind the wheel is not based on the aforementioned characteristics, nor derived from sexist or ageist prejudices. My comparison is grounded solely on my own observations. When I slow down to 45 miles per hour on the freeway because it’s raining and I’m worried about hydroplaning, I invariably observe that the majority of the other hydro-phobes keeping pace with me are firmly in the females-over-fifty set.

For two brief years in my adolescence, I was a normal driver. Then, right before I left for college, a mail truck made an unprotected left turn and failed to yield to oncoming traffic — in this case, me. The resulting accident took away my beloved Chevy Blazer (color: faded black) and left me terrified of driving.

From that point on, I felt trapped inside of cars. When I left for college, my parents encouraged me to borrow their car for weekend trips, but I had little desire to drive. I had no intention of becoming a pedestrian, so I did what any red-blooded college freshman would have done. I bought a bicycle.

The hideous light blue beach cruiser I bought after my accident was the first in a long series of bikes. I was living in a town that prided itself on bicycle accessibility and, consequently, was home to a thriving bicycle theft and resale industry. In four years, I owned one new bike, four used or refurbished bikes, and one lender bike that I borrowed from my boyfriend for an entire year. By the time I graduated, all six bikes (including my boyfriend’s) had been stolen.

I biked as much as I could, and the benefit to my nerves far outweighed the embarrassment of showing up at work in the winter with wet hair and sopping sneakers. When I needed to travel outside of peddling range, I got into the shameful habit of bribing friends and family for rides with gas money and dinner.

My younger sister Meghan was my primary driver for several years. At the meager price of one Value Meal per venture, I considered the situation ideal. But after a few years, my nervous backseat driving began to wear on her.

“Don’t text while you drive,” I whined one afternoon when we were driving back from the 85th birthday party of an obscure relative. I was sitting in the passenger seat of her car with my feet firmly planted on the dash to ward off head-on collisions. She ignored me and started texting in earnest with both hands.

I managed half of a sentence about preliminary wheel etiquette (i.e., at least one hand should remain in contact with the wheel at all times) before she briskly informed me that I seemed to know a great deal about driving considering that I refused to drive myself.

As Meghan’s withering glance took in my dirty sneakers and jeans (torn in many a bicycle chain and then stapled discretely together), I questioned the logic of our arrangement. Though she might not be the most attentive driver, I had more faith in my sister’s skills than in my own. If I was driving I would be responsible for dealing with hundreds of inattentive drivers, and if this situation was any indicator, I couldn’t handle one. The two of us spent the remainder of the silent ride counting the months until our youngest sister turned 16.

In my biking and ride-slumming days, I was frequently told that the best way to master fear was to “get back on the horse.” I always gave those distributing this unwanted advice the same answer: if I had been in an accident on a horse, I would have gotten back on — if someone could guarantee that I wasn’t going to be sharing a trail with a bunch of other riders eating breakfast sandwiches and doing their makeup while galloping about at 60+ miles per hour.

But the time came when I could no longer avoid driving. I moved from a bicycle-centric town into a city where the faulty public transportation system and lack of job opportunities within peddling distance made it clear that I needed to surrender my bicycle bell and basket. I loved my bike, but I needed a job; short of moving to Portland, I didn’t see how I could combine the two.

I set about re-learning to drive in a borrowed Monte Carlo that let a piercing shriek every time I turned the wheel. My progress was slow, further hindered by the fact that I’d learned to drive in a rural area where parallel parking was more frequently a punch line than an expectation. I was 22 and learning to use a parking meter.

One afternoon, when I had exasperated my boyfriend with a series of spontaneous U-turns between intersections, he insisted on taking the wheel.

“This isn’t the country,” he said.

After a year, I’m beginning to see his point. I recently bought my first car, and I chose it with city driving in mind: decent gas mileage in traffic, small for parallel parking, and a hatchback to impress my fellow urban liberals. It’s the next best thing to a bicycle for someone with a 30-minute commute.

I feel like I’m moving backward through the life of a driver. I may not like driving and I may drive like an old lady, but I’m just getting started — or, more accurately, starting over. I hope someday to drive like a cautious but confident middle-aged driver, halting my regression before I reach the recklessness of teenagers. And if I can’t manage that, I suppose I will just have to continue as I have been, invest in a pair of driving bifocals and gloves, and wait for the world to become accessible by bicycle.

Whitney Carpenter is a would-be writer who spends her time starting great cubicle conversations with questions like, “Which soda do you think is the classiest?" She blogs the mundane at Little Nearer.