Choosing Life in the Slower Lane

20th October 2017

Heather Harris meets the growing number of people opting not to drive…

They may be able to whip up a soufflé, talk to gorillas, top the charts, win a BAFTA and offend half the country respectively, but there’s one thing that Marco Pierre White, Sir David Attenborough, Noel Gallagher, Ricky Gervais and Russell Brand can’t do… and that’s drive. Together with five million other UK men, these celebrities are eligible to hold a driving licence but have decided to park that particular opportunity.

And it’s not only the older generation that are choosing life in the slower lane. For years, driving lessons were the eagerly anticipated present for every independence-starved 17-year-old; now a record number are not even putting L-plates on their wish list. In fact, the total number of youngsters taking to the roads per year has fallen by 100,000 in the last decade.

Edmund King, president of the AA, explains that it’s an affordability issue. “The sharp decline in teenagers learning to drive has happened just as tuition fees have gone through the roof – that’s no coincidence.”

It’s bad news for parents, he continues, as it means that adult children “are becoming increasingly dependent on mum and dad’s taxi service, as they now expect to use their cars as well as live in their homes.” You get the feeling Mr King speaks from bitter experience.

A typical learner spends £1,529 to get their licence. And that’s just the start. Before you even put fuel in the tank, there’s also the small matter of car insurance which also drives up the costs. Even with the help of those meerkats, comparing different companies still results in a hefty outlay. Average premiums increased by 8 per cent in the first quarter of this year alone. Daniel Powell, of the wonderfully named Honest John, tells me “young people are being priced out of learning to drive.”

But money is not the only issue putting the brakes on motoring. For some, it’s about co-ordination. As one father of a 25-year-old confessed to me in hushed tones on the football sideline, “John never learned to drive. He got a first class degree, but he just couldn’t get the hang of changing gear so he gave up. I really did try and teach him but it just never clicked.”

His embarrassment is interesting. The thing is that if a son can’t catch a ball, write a poem, add up a restaurant bill, wire a plug or even hold their drink, it is deemed acceptable… even something to be joked about. But not being able to drive is an admission that is still met with a raised eyebrow.

Journalist Andrew Woods goes one further. “It is only us non-drivers that are afforded special demarcation. I’m also a non-racist, a non-shark wrestler, a non-astronaut and a non-Morris dancer but nobody cares about all of that.”

He also firmly believes it is far easier for a woman to choose two wheels rather than four or to stand at a bus stop rather than a petrol pump and to publicly out herself: “my name’s Wendy and I can’t drive”.

The trouble is that in the 127 years since automobiles have been available to the public, popular culture has always put the macho hero in a car. Think of Bond without his Aston Martin, Bruce Springsteen without his ‘suicide machines’ and that ultimate of macho TV channels, DAVE, without its endless, endless repeats of Top Gear.

It’s not that women don’t drive on screen, but who can forget the significance when one of the daughters in 1920s drama Downton Abbey tightened her corset, pushed aside chauffeur and took to the wheel of Lord Grantham’s car, much to the horror of Maggie Smith?

The fact is that society sees driving as cool, sexy, exciting and macho – adjectives that are seldom applied to the Number 7 bus or the delayed commuter train to Clapham.

Jonathan Sparks, a 24-year-old currently studying for a PhD in Maths, admits he’s never sat behind the wheel, even with the engine turned off, and raises an interesting point: “Driving is a huge responsibility. I think that a lot of people take driving for granted, and hold the belief that it is something everyone is entitled to do. I disagree!”

Journalist Edward Dyson echoes this, and goes one step further. “I have saved countless lives in the last decade. I made an executive decision as an adolescent to not become a driver. I have no spatial awareness or sense of direction, not to mention an almost passionate disinterest in cars.”

It’s odd that, rather than being applauded for admitting it is safer if they stay off the roads, many non-drivers are made to feel guilty. Jonathan even feels that the path to true love has been stalled by his lack of licence. “It does make relationships unfair and unbalanced. I often feel guilty about not being able to offer lifts.”

It’s perfectly manageable, of course – as long as you live in a major city and, ideally, on a bus route. Interestingly, none of the carless people I tracked down were in the middle of sleepy hamlets 17 miles from the nearest pint of milk.

“Working in marketing and living in Manchester and then London, not driving has never been an issue. I finally gave up after failing my test for the fifth time and being physically sick with fear before every lesson,” 28-year-old Theresa Gale told me, adding that she still remembers her Dad storming off and leaving her to walk 40 minutes home after a particularly terrifying trip.

The environmental angle is where non-drivers come up trumps. Sir David, Marco, Liam and all their fellow walkers may not be able to hold up a pale pink card with their photo in the corner but they can wave a green one.

Approximately 29,000 deaths a year in the UK are attributable to fine particulate pollution from cars, and Jonathan is keen to point out that “alternatives to driving are much more environmentally friendly”. Indeed, many people cite ‘saving the planet’ as their main incentive not to mirror, signal and manoeuvre.

“I don’t drive as I think it’s an environmental responsibility when you live in a city with enough public transport to not drive,” freelance writer Larry Coren tells me.

The fact is that money, fear and green issues all play a part in the increasing decision never to sit in the right-hand seat of the car. And who knows? – The way technology is going, could society make a U-turn in its currently positive attitude towards licence holders?

I mean… why drive to the cinema when we all have 378 channels and cheaper popcorn at home? Why meet up with friends for an expensive non-alcoholic drink when you can Facetime them from your phone with a cool beer in hand? Why sit in commuter traffic when you can Skype in your pyjamas?

And if your teenagers do insist on leaving the house to pick up their date, rejoice in the fact that driverless cars will be with us more quickly than it takes to circumnavigate the M25 on a Friday afternoon.

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