Driving is treated as a rite of passage into adulthood in many countries.
It is a skill that makes mobility easier, but in Kenya, owning a car, or “driving”, as we call it, is prestigious, assigning you a level of social standing that sets you apart from the plebeians and their unfortunate predisposition to our public transport system.
Rainy days and matatu strikes and the banning of boda bodas in the city centre will no longer be your problem as long as you can muster the courage to drive on our roads, that is, especially in the centre of Nairobi.
Like many young Kenyans, I attended driving school right after high school to while away the time it takes between writing your last exam paper and joining college.
I “passed” the test and got a driver’s licence, but it has been gathering dust in my drawer since, a document that has become the punchline of the many arguments I have had with my family and friends, who cannot understand why I sacrificed my ticket into comfort and usefulness.
It is the headstone at the grave of all the errands I could have helped with, the trips we could have taken and all the nights I could have been the designated driver.
About 70 per cent of driving as a skill is hinged on confidence. As a first-time driver, five years ago, I quickly realised that a lot about how people drive, especially in Nairobi, is particularly discouraging.
Fresh out of driving school, I noticed that the rules I had learnt, which were supposed to make my driving experience easy, and dare I say, enjoyable, were not followed by a majority of drivers.
Most, for instance, would make abrupt turns without prior indication, which I feared could turn deadly.
Strictly keeping to the right lane at a roundabout, a rule I mastered because the assessor at my driving test yelled at me until I had no option but to do so, is another common rule that many Kenyan drivers break.
However, especially if transport is only a matter of getting from point A to B at least five times a week, is slotting in a few hours of my day to deal with such drivers really worth my time? Must I constantly remind myself that I am the better driver?
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Now, while I attended the requisite hours of training both in class and in a vehicle, I do believe that a lot of the ‘expertise’ I got was not to my advantage.
I got to cruise on Thika Road as a learner, yet after I got my driver’s licence, the mere thought of driving out of the gate and around the neighbourhood was stressing, to say the least.
I noticed during my time as a learner that my instructor controlled the car most of the time as we drove around town. My first time operating a car on my own after getting my licence was brief, but powerful enough to keep me away from the wheel for as long as it has been. My mother let me drive home from the supermarket, a distance of about three kilometres. It sounded like quite the obstacle; standing between my home and me was a roundabout, an exit onto a hill and a four-way junction, where motorbikes and cars often collided. I accepted the challenge, got the car out of the parking and mapped the trip in my head.
I was doing well until she started squealing, fearing that I would hit the gate as we exited the mall. I had driven for about 100 metres at a speed of 20 kilometres per hour. She told me to stop the car and let her drive us home, promising that she would help me find another way to practise my control and gain the confidence I would need to drive. We spoke of it often, then weeks of waiting for the solution turned into months, which turned into years. At this point, we are comfortable taking an Uber when we need to.
A few of my friends share similar sentiments about driving. While I gave up after my first failure, they went ahead and drove for a while before eventually quitting, for various reasons. One of them claims she is a “daydreamer”. “I’ll be driving and find myself not having really paid attention,” she says. “Sometimes I don’t even do it on purpose. I just disappear into my head. I’m worried I will do that when I’m driving and then hit someone,” she adds. Anxious of this outcome, she stopped driving after a close shave where she briefly lost control of the vehicle. Though she handled this quite well, the fact that her worst fear could have materialised on that day has kept her out of the driver’s seat for almost a year.
Our experiences are not isolated. While there are no statistics on the prevalence of driving anxiety among adults in Kenya, a survey conducted by Nissan in the United Kingdom found that 23 per cent of the 2,000 drivers polled were “uncomfortable” and lacked the confidence to drive on multi-lane roads.
Though the fear of losing control can be eliminated with a few exercises to develop familiarity with the car and even road network, people like me would rather settle into not driving at all or carpool when we need to get around, for the stigma around driving phobia discourages anyone from speaking out and getting the help they require.
I hope that I will eventually resolve my fear of being behind the wheel. There are a few success stories that come to mind.
People have approached me to share how they took almost two years after getting their licence to handle Nairobi roads free of this anxiety.
It is a convenient way to get around for the most part. As for now, however, I am doing just fine with the modes of transport available to me. Until it is absolutely necessary, this is one skill that will remain with an asterisk on the list of things that make me a “fully functional adult”.