Skip to main content
road sage

Most of us take the driving experience for granted. We get our licences, get on the road and never take another lesson. Driving becomes an unremarkable daily experience, an almost spiritually calcifying one for those with long, unpredictable commutes. Yet, there is a way for a veteran motorist to get a fresh perspective – sit next to someone who's learning it for the first time.

I've had that opportunity this summer. My oldest is finally trying to get her licence and that's meant driver's education followed up by time behind the wheel of the old minivan with me in the passenger seat. I've seen how exciting and daunting learning to drive can be. I've had my licence for more than 34 years and have to admit I've lost a little of the adrenalin rush you get when you're just getting comfortable behind the wheel.

Riding shotgun with a new driver has brought back memories from my distant days as an eager student driver. It was easier then than it is now. Today, the process in Ontario is so arduous (by North American standards) that it's common for young people to put off getting their licences or to not bother getting them at all. Of course, getting your licence should be tough. What other activity do we do that comes loaded with such lethal potential? But I'm not sure if 16-year-old me would be able to survive what new drivers go through now.

When I got my licence, there wasn't as much angst about driving. There were no graduated licences. You got your learner's permit and got down to business. Though it wasn't as easy as the 1920s, when you could get your licence in Carleton Place, Ont., by giving the adjudicator a bottle of rye (as my grandfather did).

I got my "365" the day I turned 16 and had my licence three months later; in the 1980s, a young driver didn't have to sell a kidney or amass a small fortune in order to afford automobile insurance.

While it wasn't compulsory, I took Drivers Ed, which was offered in the evening at my high school. I sat in a class of around 20 and listened attentively to the lectures. They showed us car-crash videos and also anti-drug and drunk-driving public-service announcements. I can still recall vividly watching footage of a "stoned rat" trying in vain to navigate a maze. Unlike the classes I attended during the day, I actually paid attention. I wanted to ace it.

Normally, I was not a model student, I was the kind of kid teachers refer to in the staff room as an "expletive-ing expletive." In Grade 12, for instance, I tried to enroll in girls' gym. When summoned to the principal's office to justify myself I explained that, "I like girls and I like gym. I thought I'd combine the two." In other words, the kind of student whose head a (male) gym teacher would later grab by the ear and smash into the wall (like I said, it was a different era).

My in-car instructor was a veteran named Will who wore a baseball hat and smoked Player's cigarettes. He had great road stories and a way of putting an anxious young driver at ease. Will stepped in when needed and offered a running stream of tips, many of which I still remember. I learned on my family's 1973 navy blue, four-door Volvo. It was a stick shift, and had no radio and no air conditioning. I failed my first test for driving too slow when merging. Will was not amused and referred to my adjudicator as "crappy," which showed how truly angry he was because when he was in a good mood he used much more profanity.

I got my licence on my second try and was given the opportunity to pick up the Volvo from the garage. On the way back, I rear-ended a guy at a red light, leaving a slight dent in his bumper. He tried to take me for $1,000, but we settled for a more reasonable amount. It was a good lesson. That innocuous dent taught me how quickly things could go wrong in an automobile and that, while it was fun, a car was a big responsibility. It's a lesson I carry to this day.

We've redesigned the Drive section – take a look