She’d learned to drive during the second world war, and was an official driver for the RAF at the time that she met my father. I grew up with stories about her picking up aircrews from returning flights, and in particular with one story about her taking the wrong turn in a dimly lit airfield and heading straight down the runway into the path of a plane taking off. She’d have handled that with her characteristic sang-froid, as she did most of the ‘incidents’ that plagued her latter driving years. My mother was nothing if not invincible.
For my mother, parking on a supermarket car-park meant scooting quickly around the rows of parked cars until she found herself more or less surrounded by a parking space, at which point she would slam the brakes on. No amount of tutting or complaining on my part would persuade her to revisit her final badly-parked position, and she never bothered to read the myriad of notes tucked behind the windscreen wipers on her return to her car.
On the rare occasions that I was a passenger with her, I marvelled at her ability to shrug off the raised fists and deleted expletives of fellow motorists. I spent many awkward moments attempting to defend the indefensible when these encounters became up-close and personal, and learned the knack of holding up one side of an argument by switching it to an attack on the rude behaviour of the other protagonist, regardless of how justifiable the provocation had been. It would have certainly been futile to attempt to defend the facts.
When she put a motorcyclist in hospital after turning right across his path at traffic lights, her reaction was deep indignation that she ended up in court. “He was speeding,” she complained. It was only a persuasive dialogue with her solicitor that convinced her not to mount a serious defence in court, though she took the subsequent endorsement on her licence with brooding resentment.
Her own car was quite significantly damaged by this encounter, and on the day it was ready for collection from the garage I gave her a lift to pick it up.
“Will you be alright?” I asked, “or shall I follow you back?” Inconceivable that she might lose her nerve for the first time in her life, but I felt I should make the offer.
“Whatever for?” she said, laughing. “In any case, I’ve shopping to do.”
When I went to visit her the next morning I noticed that the chrome flashing that ran down the entire side of the car was missing, leaving only a series of studs to indicate where it had been.
“I thought they were supposed to have fixed it,” I said.
“They did.” She looked a little defiant. “But I went too close to a line of parked cars along the road outside the supermarket and it got dragged off.”
“OMG, was there much damage to the other cars?” I gasped.
“I don’t know, I didn’t stop.” She glared at me, daring me to react. I did.
“You can’t do that, it’s against the law,” I protested.
“Well I didn’t know it was so bad at the time,” she said, preparing to change the subject, “it didn’t feel like anything much.”
I’ll never know what it was that finally persuaded her to give up driving, but I’m fairly sure it would be something that she never told either my brother or me about. And I’m not sure either of us would have wanted to hear either.
I’m a long way from giving up driving but, unlike my mother, I do seem to detect a downward trend in my driving skills. Ten years ago I was unfazed at driving to previously unvisited places. Indeed it was a good job I was, because one of the many unsavoury aspects of growing older is that if you’re still working you gradually get shunted into all the duties that others don’t want. Thus for the last three years, before I opted for early retirement, I found myself driving through Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex and Northamptonshire to far-flung outposts of the company, in an attempt to stuff the basic concepts of employment law down the throats of unwilling and belligerent managers. Without the aid of sat nav, and without getting unduly stressed, I managed to get myself unscathed and on time through scores of previously unknown cities and motorway networks.
Ten years later I can only marvel at my previous level of skill and resilience. These days my driving expeditions tend to take me only to the supermarket, the medical centre, the city centre, and the library. Any destination outwith this scope and I can feel the tension and the old blood pressure ratcheting up a degree.
I seldom drive at night since I developed this uncanny inability to correctly identify objects in the dark. On one occasion I swerved violently before realising that the white dog that had darted in front of me was in fact a plastic carrier bag, and I’ve frequently ‘seen’ people in the middle of the road when it was only the shadows of the central barrier cast by oncoming headlights.
Earlier this year I incurred the first damage to my car in thirty five years of driving when I managed to get the car stuck against a supporting pillar in the multi-storey car park whilst trying to squeeze into a space. The bill, around £700, reflected rather less the amount of the damage (which was just a scrape) than the awkward location of it, but the experience has been enough to persuade me, more often than not these days, to drive up the open-air top floor of the multi-storey, where there’s more daylight, and no supporting pillars.
I’ve spoken to several female friends around my age, and all report the same diminishing level of confidence. None of them are still driving in the dark, and most of them consistently defer the driving duties to their husbands. Do women lose their night vision earlier than men, or do they just think/realise they do?
So what’s the problem here? Is it simply a lack of confidence? Or is there a real deterioration in the level of our skills. Perhaps an inability to concentrate, or is our judgement really impaired by the advancing years? Is it that we lose our skills and confidence because we don’t maintain or keep pushing back the boundaries like we used to, maybe because now most of us have retired we don’t need to?
The idea that my horizons are diminishing is uncomfortable, yet I don’t seem inclined to put myself through unnecessary stress in order to prove that they’re not.
Whatever, it’s clear that I haven’t inherited my mother’s ability to drive blithely on through the years. Which is probably just as well, though I can’t help feeling that a bit of sang-froid might be very welcome at this time in my life.
Not to mention the ability to remember where I left my car keys…