Thursday, April 12, 2007

The myth about women drivers

Sat in the office this morning listening to Bob Newharts "The Driving Instructor" audio on Napster - yes we do do some work - in which he, as an imaginary driving instructor takes a woman learner driver on her second lesson, her first lesson having ended when her instructor leaped from the car at 70mph while she was reversing down her drive.

There is a myth which seems to transcend international borders that women drivers are rubbish - I offer no opinion on this matter, I am not so stupid as to do so, what with having two women drivers in the household and me relying on them occasionally to get me back from the pub.

Instead I will relate the tale of my mothers driving lesson...

Back in the 1960's not many women took to the road behind the wheel of a car, they had husbands and driving is what husbands did, but as the 60's drew to a close and women got the vote in this country there grew a desire amongst females to move across to the drivers seat, much to the hilarity of men in general as there was zero chance of husbands ever putting their wives on their car insurance policies, they'd rather insure a blind pig to drive their car than their wives, and some of them did just that.

My mother was not endowed with many brain cells, she was a lovely mother, no-one had a bad word for her, but to use a popular phrase of the time she was "dool-alley", daft, insulated in a world of woman-things she simply did not understand machinery of any kind, her Kenwood food mixer was a thing of confusion to her and she only ever learned how to use it on its slow setting and only then because someone set it for her and she operated it by pulling the plug out of the wall when she wanted it to stop.

My dad warned her, to his credit he did warn her, he told her "you'll never learn to drive" and you can't get much plainer than that, of all the women in the world who could possibly have mastered driving then you would not pick my mother as the prime example, a Bornean forest tribesman who still used twigs to start fires would have learned to drive quicker than my dear old mother.

But she wanted to drive and she had a part time cleaning job that my dad had let her take up, she had a bit of money in her purse and she enrolled with a driving school, to my dads absolute hilarity.

It wasn't a regular driving school, they didn't take their pupils out on the road in learner cars, not immediately anyway, they used a new technology which they called "driving simulators" to teach the women in their care how to operate a car and they charged them lots for the priviledge.

In order to understand what the new technology was then you do not have to try any harder than to picture an amusement arcade driving game, the ones where you sit down in front of a video screen and put your pound coin in a slot to find yourself racing a formula one car around silverstone - well the driving school "driving simulators" were exactly the same and no more complicated, in fact they were less complicated because in an effort to make the video of driving along a road more realistic they had filmed it in black and white.

For many months my mother went to the driving school and sat at an amusement arcade game pretending it was a foggy black and white day and tried to drive the pretend car all over the streets of the imaginary town on the telly in front of her - and for that they took all of her cleaning money off her every week.

The idea was that after a few weeks the man at the driving school would decide that the pupil had had enough pretend driving and they would promote them to an actual dual control learner car on the real full colour streets of Leeds, but the call never came for my mother - for months she sat behind the tv set driving hopelessly on the same foggy black and white day watching her fellow pupils get promoted to real cars with real seats in them instead of this hard wooden bench, it must have been demorilising and she must have been really rubbish at it but she was happy in her little world and she kept going.

She kept going for so long that we had all forgoten that she was taking lessons at all when one sunday afternoon, about a year later, we were all out in the car making our way back from the east coast where we'd been for the day on one of our rare days out, me and my brother Ned sat in the back of our green Vauxhall Viva , fighting.

An argument was also taking place in the front seats, an argument which was sparked by the realisation from our dad that our mum was still taking the video driving lessons and her insistence that she was actually getting better, the man at the driving school had said so and that in a few months time, maybe another year, she might be able to drive on the real roads.

The argument culminated in her insisting that if our dad pulled off the road and they swapped seats then she'd be able to drive the car for one mile, she dared him then she bet him that she could and to shut her up, and because we were on a very quiet country road, he agreed.

Me and Ned were horror-struck.

In those days of no seat belts in cars we found the only place of safety that we could think of and both curled up in a ball on the floor behind the front seats, quite honestly we would have walked from there if our dad had let us out of the car.

They swapped seats and after three stalls my mother managed to get the car going and at fifteen miles an hour she started fiddling around down the right hand side of her seat for something, our dad asked her what she was doing as he peeked from behind the fingers that were covering his face and she told him that she wanted to change gear, he pointed to the gearstick in the middle of the car to her left to which she replied that that was a stupid place to put a gearstick, our dad told her that all car gearsticks were in the middle of the car to your left to which she replied that they weren't in her video car - she was video learning to drive a pretend american car.

Our dad should have told her to stop right there and then but I think he was too terrifed.

The impromtu lesson of terror ended when we approached a crossroads.

I can still see the scene today, a crossroad in the middle of a forest, quiet country roads, nothing had approached us in the three minutes of our mothers drive but as she slowed to a stop at the junction a car approached from the opposite side and stopped, then signalled to my mother to proceed across said junction.

She asked our dad which way we were going and he told her to turn right, she turned the indicator to show right, the indicator light flashed right, we were turning right, the other driver waited for us to turn right.

My mother turned left.

As we turned left I can still recall the look of astonishment on the other drivers face and I can still see my father raising his hands in submission to him in an all-male signal of "what the fuck is she doing ?".

We drove only far enough the wrong way in order for my father to regain his voice after being rendered speechless by the manouvre upon which he berated my poor mother with language that had never before passed my eight year old ears, the car stopped, they swapped seats and did not talk to each other again for several weeks.

She cancelled her video driving lessons shortly afterwards and never again mentioned the words "me" and "driving" in the same sentence.

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