Driving lessons: It's worth the wait to get in the fast lane

People who postpone their driving lessons get cheaper insurance and are safer on the road. It doesn't make passing any easier though, says late learner Elisa Bray

Tuesday 21 June 2011 00:00 BST

I've just made a reservation at The Ivy and I'm feeling a little resentful. Some years ago, I made a bet with my younger sister that she wouldn't pass her driving test before me. The prize? Dinner at The Ivy.

My sister took her test at 17 and passed. But here I am, approaching 30 and nowhere near a practical test. What's more, I dread 2pm on a Friday – the time of my weekly lesson. My heart races and it takes at least five minutes to remember how to manoeuvre the car. To avoid oncoming cars, I'd be driving on the pavement if I could. As soon as I've mastered one thing, there's something else.

Now I have been assigned the AA's top-gun instructor and become one of the 100,000 pupils the organisation teaches each year. With an instructor who typically trains teachers rather than new drivers like me, if I can't learn with him I might as well give up. But plenty of people do learn to drive as an adult – 36 per cent of those who took their test last year were aged 25 and above. It just might take longer. For every year of your age, you need one-and-a-half hours of professional training, not including private practice. For a 30-year-old, that means 45 hours.

With every year, the pass rate decreases by a little over 1 per cent. According to statistics from the Driving Standards Agency, if I take my practical test next year I'll have a 14 per cent slimmer chance of passing than if I'd taken it at 17. The pass rate last year was 55.1 per cent for 17-year-olds, but in your 70s you're looking at half that.

Why the discrepancy? In our teens our sense of invincibility leads us to take more risks, but as we get older we are held back by our fears of consequences. Then there are the superior psychomotor skills (co-ordination) of a teenager and the ability to master new skills quickly.

Nothing has seemed as daunting as being charge of 1.3 tons of metal – manipulating both feet over three pedals, while grappling with a gear stick and steering wheel and watching out for parked cars, moving cars, road signs and pedestrians. I don't recall anyone at school discussing how difficult driving was, although a few years later it did take one of my best friends, despite an Oxford education, nine tests to pass. I've had a few stalled attempts at learning and, until last week, after 30 hours of lessons I'd never gone beyond 30mph and third gear.

Nothing is more frustrating than when I've checked my mirrors and am ready to go only to start fumbling around and have to start all over again. The AA's Head of Road Safety, Andrew Howard, says: "The ability to split your attention becomes harder as you get older. You're probably more mentally equipped to learn things when you're 17 or 18. You probably feel less immortal as you get older and are more worried. When we criticise young drivers, we tend to say they have the skills to drive but tend not to use them. When you [older drivers] eventually get to drive you're not going to have to impress your friends with your driving skills."

There is another benefit for older drivers. While younger drivers face insurance bills of thousands no matter how cheap their car is (the AA's quote is £5,232.56 for a 17-year-old male and £2,911.01 for a female), if I pass now, the insurance will cost a much less than that.

My main issue was confidence. Last lesson, I was so nervous I spent 15 minutes persuading my instructor that I wasn't ready to take on dual carriageways. Now I've just made it to fifth gear and 50mph on the A41. And my instructor even had to tell me to slow down.

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