Lots of people can’t drive, including Haimona Gray. He talks to a few famous people who are similarly impaired, and gets behind the wheel in the only way he knows how: video games.
My first memory of driving a car involves the 1994 Sega arcade classic, Daytona USA. As of writing, it remains the closest I have come to driving in real life.
My most recent memory of being in a car involves a 2001 BMW 530i driving me to buy KFC and then back to my house for sleep. As firmly #TeamMadeleine in my position on the fried chicken chain, and as a big fan of 1990s video game arcades like the one from Terminator 2, these are two really positive memories in a lifetime of having cars help me.
Yet this positive relationship with cars hasn’t made me a full licence-holding car-driving adult. The ‘becoming an adult’ part was easy, involving only mid-level determination, but driving involves going to places and sitting tests, which has been a barrier.
Like the old idiom about voting – “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain” – I can hardly blame anyone else for my predicament when I never sat my full licence exam. Or whatever the restricted test is called. Or even the learners test, the multi-choice one teenagers do.
There is no specific reason for this, or at least none I am consciously aware of. The idea of driving on a busy street fills me with dread, but not any more so than the things I’ve done in spite of fear: exams, job interviews, responding to Facebook messages from anyone about politics.
Shockingly, I’m not the only otherwise outwardly sensible person who hasn’t earned their full licence. I put out a call for other non-drivers on social media and while their reasons differed, I was surprised by the normality of most responders. Was it the rest of humanity who was wrong?
Wallace Chapman is the personable host of Radio NZ’s Sunday Morning programme, a published author, and a super busy person. He also doesn’t drive. I asked him why.
“There’s really no reason [I don’t drive],” he told me. “I’m not ideologically opposed to cars, and I’m not overly pro-public transport. I’m from a family of car lovers, including “drifting” hobbyists. Which I love! But, believe it or not, [public transport is] a far more efficient way of getting around.
“It takes me about 20 minutes there and back from home to work on the bus. That time is valuable time for reading, doing research, listening to the radio or the podcast. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Getting some valuable and, for some of us, scarce time to ourselves is definitely a benefit of the non-driving life. You can even use the time on your own for gaming!
Wallace’s story reflects the most common responses I got from other non-drivers. Most were city dwellers who found it easier to use public transport than to drive; quite a few were concerned about the financial downsides of driving; and the majority weren’t opposed to learning how to drive in the future.
Common amongst other responders, particularly those from smaller towns, was a negative association with the safety of New Zealand’s drivers and roads.
One respondent put it like this:
“I saw some truly stupid and reckless drivers as a teen in the wops. Lots of drunk driving on bad country roads. It’s been two decades and I still don’t trust other drivers enough to be one.”
Another, less common reason was medical. In New Zealand there are multiple ailments which could exclude someone from getting a driver’s licence.
Like Chapman, Chris Armstrong is a radio host, at Dunedin’s Radio One (I didn’t specifically put the call out to radio people, they just seem to respond to emails the best). Chris is a strapping lad in his 30s whose reason for not driving makes my ‘haven’t gotten around to it’ excuse look really pathetic.
“I did start to learn to drive [when I was young]. While I was learning I had a seizure caused by Multiple Sclerosis and wasn’t allowed to drive for a year, by which time the parent who was teaching me had died.”
That would be enough to put me off for life, but Chris went on to explain that his current reasons for not learning to drive are more mudane. Not having to drive for work and the usual financial reasons makes a car-free life a better choice right now.
Motivated by Chris’ story I decided it was time, finally, to try to learn to drive. The budget for this article didn’t stretch to driving lessons, and for some reason no one was willing to loan me their car so I could teach myself, even when I assured them it’d be an extremely funny bit. So instead I went online and found the most advanced simulator I could afford.
Set in Australia, Forza Horizon 3 is an open world racing video game, which thankfully happened to be on sale. The game’s visuals include many familiar sights for the average Kiwi driver: Holden utes, classic green and white road signs, and a lot of speeding.
Forza isn’t able to simulate many parts of driving; checking blind spots, indicating, and the underrated first step of putting keys in the ignition. So to improve my practical skills, I set up a series of blinking lights and mirrors around my couch.
To set a fixed route, I found a suburb outside of Surfers Paradise which contained a Hamilton-level of Mitsubishi Galants parked half-on, half-off the berms outside brick houses. As this was a simulation I was allowed to choose any car from the Forza collection but, aiming for realism, I went for a car appropriate for learner driving in suburban Surfers/Hamilton.
The 2015 McLaren 650S Coupe is a twin-turbocharged 3.8-liter V-8. Buying one on TradeMe will cost you roughly $300,000. For the colour I went with bright candy blue.
Fresh out the garage with a car and a dream, I began my test by hitting the acceleration button. Speed is a misunderstood force. It should be much more feared than it is for its destructive power, but it is also a lot of fun too, so that makes it hard to be afraid of. My car mounted the curb and hit a tree within 100 metres.
According to the NZTA website this is probably a fail, but I felt pretty confident I could talk my way into a second chance. A gimmie, if you will. This second chance went much better! I managed to make it around the block before drifting into another lane while trying to change the radio station and hitting a Toyota Corolla at 86kmph.
It was at this moment I realised that this wasn’t an ideal simulation because there were no stakes to failure, and no representation of the physical threat of injury. I needed something with the ability to visualise impact. I needed a Grand Theft Auto game.
After booting up in an fictional riff on Los Angeles, I jumped into a car which appeared to be more rust than vehicle and boosted for an empty neighbourhood loop. I checked my blind spots, represented on my couch set-up by a makeup mirror attached to a torch, and completed a successful loop of the road. Feeling confident, I decided to have a crack at parallel parking.
I found a spot – as befits Grand Theft Auto, it was outside a gun store – and started to line up my front wheels to reverse in. I made it, and got out of my car to celebrate when someone named ‘Bonglord F*** Tom Brady 98’ shot me from across the parking lot with a rocket launcher and sent me flying, in slo-mo black and white, back to a loading screen.
None of this was even slightly useful in teaching me how to drive, or motivating me to learn in real life, but my experiment with driving simulators taught me a lot about the psyche of the non-driver. Like Mindhunter, but replace murderers with people who use public transport.
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There are many sensible arguments for not driving. There are people who can’t drive for practical reasons. But my main takeaway from my short driving career, the one that will stick with me the longest, is that people are true monsters, on the road and online. I plan to avoid both like the plague.
Happy driving everyone.
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