I gleefully tore up my L-plates nearly 15 years ago, but when RED instructor Paul Danby pulled up outside to take me for a lesson last month, my hands were shaking and I was praying he wouldn’t make me drive.
I got my licence in Kent back in 2004 and it was an entirely unremarkable experience.
Aged 17, I took lessons for around six months, passed the test second time with a handful of minors and after that pootled around quite happily in a third-hand Ford Fiesta.
As a teenager living in a small village, getting my licence represented freedom: no more cadging lifts from mates, no more waiting for the reliably unreliable school bus, no more begging mum to play ‘glorified taxi driver’.
Not such a hardy driver: At her first refresher lesson, Emily (above) hoped she would not have to drive straight away
That lasted for about a year until I went to university in a city where everyone cycled everywhere.
I sold the Fiesta (which was stagnating on dad’s drive), spent the proceeds in a month at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and have rarely found myself behind the wheel since.
Up until last month, I had not driven for a decade and had barely given it a second thought. It wasn’t until my boyfriend and I hired a car earlier this year for a holiday in rural Yorkshire that it occurred to me there was even a problem.
To his horror (and despite us having paid extra to BOTH be insured on the hire car) I totally panicked and flat out refused to drive, suddenly and entirely doubting my ability to do so.
While he was fairly comfortable getting back on the road (he didn’t have much choice at this point) it turned out I was anything but.
How I felt at that moment will seem alien to you if you’ve driven most days since you tore up your own L-plates. But it’s not actually that unusual.
Like many, I’ve lived for the past 12 years in a big city with public transport aplenty.
I’ve never had the need to drive – nor a place to park even if I’d wanted to.
And I took for granted that I’d just be able to go back to it one day.
Clearly I still know the gear stick from the handbrake, and what pedal does what, but that’s not quite the same as navigating the M25 in rush hour
‘It’s like riding a bike! You can’t forget how to drive,’ everyone says, but that obviously wasn’t true for me.
Clearly I still know the gear stick from the handbrake, and what pedal does what, but that’s not quite the same as navigating the M25 in rush hour with people I love in the car, is it?
I knew then that, unless I did something about it (and soon), my driving jitters could become entrenched and I risked losing that independence my 17-year old self was so overjoyed to achieve.
What if one day I want to live somewhere that isn’t in walking distance of a train station?
Paul Danby (above) from Red Driving School has been a driving instructor for 10 years and even taught his wife and kids how to drive
Hence my new instructor Paul, who was assigned to help me tackle my confidence crisis with a refresher course in south west London.
It’s estimated there are 700,000 ‘parked’ UK drivers like me…
A recent survey of 3,002 UK licence holders by ComparetheMarket found that 2 per cent of drivers hadn’t been back behind the wheel since tearing up their L-plates. That equates to almost three quarters of a million motorists who’ve been ‘parked’ since passing the test.
In fact, one in ten of all drivers polled said they hadn’t driven for 12 months.
When asked why they’d not driven since passing their test, the price comparison website found that 37 per cent had refrained because the cost of of car ownership was too high.
A quarter also admitted that they lacked the confidence to get back out onto the road.
Although many people feel nervous about getting back into driving, refresher courses aren’t nearly as common as I thought.
In the past year, just 4 per cent of the learners that enrolled with RED – one of the country’s biggest driving schools – did so for refresher lessons.
It appears many rusty drivers opt to wing it instead, while others just never drive again.
These courses, which usually cost between £150-£200, are most common in big cities like London, Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Manchester.
According to RED, of the people who opt to take a refresher, 60 per cent are female.
Former bus driver Paul, who has been a driving instructor for 10 years, taught his wife and kids how to drive and even teaches prospective instructors, believes that everyone should take a refresher course of some kind.
As a man who has truly seen it all on the road, he knows better than most that even the most experienced of drivers pick up bad habits.
Still, it’s a difficult thing to motivate yourself to do, especially when you’re as nervous as I was.
Emily (aged 32) decided to take a refresher course in London to conquer her fear of getting back into driving once and for all
It took a lot of will power not to cancel my first scheduled lesson. It was dark and tipping it down with rain – not a good omen, I thought, for my long-awaited return to the road.
Once I got over the shock of starting the engine with a button it took just a few loops of residential roads to reassure me that I still knew the mechanics
Quickly picking up on my nerves, Paul drove us to an extremely quiet part of Wimbledon – hard to find during rush hour – and we started at square one.
Once I got over the shock of starting the engine with a button (and power steering) it took just a few loops of these residential roads to reassure me that I still knew the mechanics.
I could physically drive a car – and somehow even remembered to do my ‘observations.’
The boss of RED on refresher lessons
Ian McIntosh, boss of RED Driving School says refresher courses ‘should be the norm’…
‘Refresher courses can be hugely beneficial for all types of drivers. Be it a confidence-builder for someone who’s been involved in a traffic incident, or a skills brush-up for someone who’s been out of the driving seat for an extended period of time, refresher courses only serve to improve road safety and attitudes towards driving.
‘At RED, we believe refresher courses should be the norm, not the exception, among road users. Road safety is not a static issue; it’s constantly evolving as conditions change and motorists should feel completely comfortable behind the wheel.
‘We want all drivers to feel empowered and confident on the roads and we encourage anyone looking to develop their driving skills to take a refresher course.’
However, as we progressed to busier roads, and started to tackle roundabouts and the high street, I found myself struggling to call or judge certain situations that would have once come naturally to me.
Is that gap wide enough for both of us to get through, should I go now, do I have time to overtake the bike, am I too close to the car in front?
But Paul had many a mantra – ‘would you have time to walk across the road?’, ‘can you still see the car’s back tyres?’, ‘remember the three S’s (not to make other drivers swerve, swear, or slow down unnecessary)’, ‘look at the space, not the cars’ – which helped do away with my hesitations and equip me for most likely situations.
By the end of the first lesson, I’d driven all over Wimbledon and had to amid I wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought I’d be.
Oh god, had I even enjoyed it?!
Lesson two was less of a refresher and more of a ‘let’s start from scratch’ scenario. Yes… we spent the best part of two hours PARKING.
This time it wasn’t just pouring with rain, there was a full on thunderstorm, which seemed fitting for a session on the dreaded parallel park.
When I confessed to Paul that I couldn’t remember the method I’d been taught 15 years ago he said he was glad I’d forgotten and taught me his own much simpler approach.
Emily’s second driving lesson was focused on parking – in particular the dreaded parallel park
Next we spent some time reversing into spaces at a Waitrose car park. I’m sure you can think of better ways to spend a Tuesday evening, but I for one couldn’t have been more excited to (eventually) nail it.
I started to get my mojo back. Paul went from saying ‘pick up the pace here’ to ‘watch your speed’
On the next couple of lessons, I started to get my mojo back. Paul went from saying ‘pick up the pace here’ to ‘watch your speed’.
We ventured out onto the motorway, which is something I’ve never done with a driving instructor as it wasn’t permitted back when I was learning.
Indeed, most of us won’t ever have had a formal lesson on a 70mph road, so getting to grips with lane discipline, when to overtake (and not to overtake) and how to stay safe at high speeds was hugely valuable, if a little hair raising at first.
Getting there: Emily felt like she started to get her mojo back after a few hours with instructor Paul
Even though it was dark and tipping it down with rain (AGAIN), I felt afterwards like I’d conquered a nemesis – quite the progress from being too scared to start the engine two weeks earlier.
There’s still a lot I need to work on in my own time of course.
In my final lesson, for example, I mistakenly straight lined a small-ish roundabout rather than following the curve of the road.
I would have been failed for that if it had been a driving test.
I also have a tendency to float my hand above the gear stick when there’s no need to change gear, and I definitely need to get used to these modern, sensitive brakes that cars have these days.
But I’m not scared anymore.
I can’t wait to drive to Homebase next weekend to buy compost (lucky me) and to stock up on booze for Christmas at Lidl
In fact, I can’t wait to drive to Homebase next weekend to buy compost (lucky me) and to stock up on booze for Christmas at Lidl.
And next time we head up to Yorkshire, I may even do my fair share of the driving.
Emily was given the refresher course by RED Driving School. Average price: £28-33 per lesson, depending on location.
Where can you book a refresher course?
Red Driving School offers refresher courses as above. The cost varies depending on location, but a six hour course in West London typically costs around £200.
Refresher courses are also available through BSM Driving School and again the cost varies from place to place – call for an accurate quote.
The same applies for the AA Driving School, which offers specific motorway driving courses along with a ‘Drive Confident’ course. Book as many hours as you like – with a minimum of two hours.
There are a huge number of independent driving schools too, which may also offer lessons for ‘parked’ drivers. Most will give you a quote over the phone.
NB: You must already have a full, valid, UK driving licence to take a refresher
SAVE MONEY ON MOTORING
Some links in this article may be affiliate links. If you click on them we may earn a small commission. That helps us fund This Is Money, and keep it free to use. We do not write articles to promote products. We do not allow any commercial relationship to affect our editorial independence.