Adventures in Stick Shift Driving

Andrea Toole

An ADHD Story

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Some history of me and driving

I got my drivers’ licence when I was 16, passing my test on the second try. I had taken driving lessons with a driving school (Young Drivers of Canada, offering in-class and on-road instruction) and learned on a with an automatic transmission.

Driving was a fun novelty for a while. Freedom! I drove to the store, I drove to friends’ houses, and, in my late teens/early 20s, I drove to my summer job.

In the years that I drove my parents’ car — between the ages of 16 and, say, 21 or 22, I realized that I lacked some essential driving skills, and I started to lose confidence.

Once, I drove too close to a parked car (a Jaguar) and tore the mirror off it. Another time I was pulling into a parking spot in a lot in front of a private office. I misjudged the amount of space. People watched through the window as I crunched the sides. Most of this happened before I turned 20.

The boyfriend I had when I was 19 and 20 told me that when I drove (automatic), I had issues with “lane discipline.” This indicated that I had spacial awareness and depth perception issues.

When I was in university, I occasionally drove my friend Dave’s Honda around to run errands for whatever play he was producing at the time and that I was production managing (or assistant production managing). I coped.

Must have a valid drivers’ license

When I took a job in a radio station promotions department, the job ad stated that having a driver’s license was required. I had a license, I just didn’t enjoy using it. When I applied, I figured that I’d cross that bridge when I came to it. When I got the job, I was relieved to find out that my full days of driving around were done with a partner. So, I chose not to drive. I let one male co-worker, then the next, do most of the driving. One of them tried to get me practicing. We had two vehicles. Some days we used one, some days we used the other. He told me that the minivan was mine when we were out together.

One time when I drove a company van — co-worker riding shotgun because he was too exhausted to drive — made me pull over off the highway and change places with him. On one of the few times that I drove one of the company vehicles solo, a minivan this time, I again drove too close to a parked car. One of the side mirrors were broken off. I don’t remember which one. I do remember panicking and continuing my drive back to the office. My boss later informed me that what I’d done was a hit and run. I had no idea. I thought “hit and run” only involved pedestrians.

At some point during all of these years, I became scared of driving. I had no confidence. I thought it was a horrible driver. I stopped driving. It didn’t feel safe. I didn’t want to put other lives in danger. I quit.

City living

I live in a city with adequate public transit, where I can walk many places. I’ve never lived more than a 15-minute walk from a grocery store. There’s always a small grocery store (like a bodega) nearby. There are restaurants. Most of the amenitie sare close by. Like the residents of any big city I walk, I take public transit, or I take Uber.

When I lived in a different city for university, it was a similar situation. My feet and public transit were my vehicles for transportation, with the occasional taxi.

Six years ago when I moved in with my boyfriend, his stick shift car was part of the deal. A few years ago he added me to his car insurance. Stick shift. I learned on an automatic. I didn’t like driving anymore.

He gave me a few lessons over the years, but each time I was a bundle of nerves. I continued avoiding it. Six years of avoiding driving. Many years of spending 45 minutes to an hour to go visit my parents, in the last five ensuring that I left before rush hour so that I could take my dog on the transit system. (Dogs aren’t allowed between 3:30 and 7.)

In the first six months, a friend of his told me about a local driving school that only teaches stick shift driving.

A couple of months ago I finally called that driving school, a one-man operation that answers a specific need. I called because it was time and because I decided that I need to spend money on lessons with someone who teaches stick driving full-time.

I called because I relented to my boyfriend’s pleas and because in the weeks before I called, I did try to drive the car on my own. I’ve heard stories of people teaching themselves to drive stick, but this incident confirmed that for me it was a bad idea. When I got to the end of my block, I stalled and discovered that I was on a slight incline and couldn’t keep going because I didn’t know how. I proceeded to flip out. Think childish tantrum but with lots of bad language. Thankfully, my boyfriend was behind me in our van.

Learning to drive (again)

Driving instructor. Dual pedals. An instructor who has been teaching for several years and has seen all sorts of students.

The instructor anticipated my anxieties and told me how to deal with them. His advice included, “No, you can’t just get in a stick shift car and ‘figure it out.’ If you do that, you’ll get stuck, panic, and never want to drive stick again.” (It happened, see above.)

He also said, “You need to build one skill on top of the other” and told me at the end of our sessions that before I attempted to drive on a busy street and before I take the car to run errands I should practice on residential streets for a while with my boyfriend in the car. The reason for this: I’ll get stuck, I’ll panic. Cars will honk, I’ll panic. It’s as if he knew me well. That’s the sign of someone who’s been teaching for a long time. I’m sure he’s seen drivers with worse anxiety than mine.

My life was changed.

The ADHD brain and driving

People with ADHD could have a higher risk of getting into an accident.

There are some things that I’ve realized during my adventures in learning to drive. I probably should have recognized these years ago, given that I didn’t know that I had ADHD until I was in my early 20s.

  1. My ADD contributed to my driving anxiety in many ways. My spacial awareness and executive function made driving a challenge.
  2. The ADHD brain tends to get stuck on stories. I make one driving mistake, I obsess over it rather than move on so that I can focus on the rest of the drive.
  3. The anxiety makes me forget things. I panic. When I first started my post-lesson practice, I forgot how to specific steps. Just as my instructor warned.

I’ve read a bunch about ADHD and driving, mostly articles for which the parents of teenagers are the target audience.

A lot of the advice makes sense. Some of the usual advice:

Limit distraction.

  • Don’t listen to music or the radio
  • Don’t phone calls, even hands-free
  • No texting (it could be against the law where you live anyway)
  • Hands off the GPS.

Limit the number of passengers in the car.

  • One person can be a helpful co-pilot, but more can be a distraction

Enroll in a defensive driving course.

  • I’ve now done this twice (age 16 and recently) and honestly, I think that everyone should take one every decade or so as a refresher.

Use cruise control

  • Use cruise control when driving above a certain speed. I think it makes the most sense on long stretches of highway.

I want to add this piece of advice:

Make sure you’re adequately rested before you drive. If you have an early day, go to bed early. Being tired is a risk to all drivers whether they’re neurodivergent or neurotypical. There’s a reason that rest stops for truckers exist. Tiredness increases the likelihood of losing focus and making mistakes — for anyone.

Before I got behind the wheel for my recent driving education and before I decided to take the lessons I listened to an ADDitude magazine podcast about teaching teenagers to drive. It was an interview with a psychologist. He advised that people with ADHD shouldn’t drive cars with manual transmission and should only buy cars that are automatic. Although I’d been resisting driving my boyfriend’s car, this statement felt like poor advice. I read this expert’s advice two more times in two different articles. It never felt right.

I’ve known a small number of people who drive stick. A few of those have ADHD and love driving stick. I can see why, and I can see how driving stick is better for the driver with ADHD after lots of practice. Several articles that I read after I started driving again (all anecdotal) supported this. Here are my own observations:

The ADHD brain and driving stick

You need to pay attention. Some might refer to this as a reason to not drive manual. I think it’s a reason to.

It’s too easy to tune out and go on “autopilot” when you’re driving a car with an automatic transmission. It’s too easy to allow distraction. Stick shift cars require focus at every moment and every action. It’s not just that you need to watch out for pedestrians and vehicles. You need to learn to drive with two feet. You need to shift up and down, finding the right gears without looking. You stop on hills (even gentle slopes) and maintain the stop by finding the right friction point on the clutch while also lightly pressing the gas. It’s a lot to remember.

Not listening to the radio is an attention issue — as in, don’t let your attention drift to where it doesn’t need to be. Silence in the car also makes it easier to hear the engine. With a manual transmission, the engine “talks” to you and helps you drive. It tells you when you need to change gears, when you’re in the correct gear, and when you need to press on or lift the clutch.

I listen to the gear shift: Without looking, I can hear when I’ve clicked into Reverse rather than 4th gear or 1st, depending on where Reverse is located. (In my Honda Fit it’s bottom right, in my instructor’s Mazda it was bottom left.)

In a small study conducted in 2006, participants in a simulation study reported that they were more attentive while driving in manual transmission mode but real studies are hard to find.

About a month after completing five lessons (two per week) and then practicing a small handful of times with my boyfriend in the passenger seat, I still tend to turn the wheel to the right a little when I shift as if I’m trying to change gears with the steering wheel. It’s a lot to remember. I’m retraining my brain. In doing so, I’m giving my brain exercise it needs.

I’ve read in many books that learning a new skill creates new neuro-pathways. Here’s a quote from an article in Fast Company. It refers to Tara Swart, a senior lecturer at MIT, and her book Neuroscience for Leadership:

If you want to keep your brain agile, you’re going to have to hone in on parts of the brain that you use less frequently, says Swart. And this new task has to be so challenging that you’ll feel mentally and physically exhausted after practicing the task because you’re forcing your brain to work in ways it’s unaccustomed to. This is the only way you’ll actually grow new neurons strong enough to connect with existing neurons, forming new pathways.

Mentally exhausted? Yep. Working in a way that my brain is unaccustomed to? Yep.

I’ve experienced these while learning to drive and practicing. After each initial lesson, those in years past, I was done and drained. It’s one of the reasons that I wasn’t keen on more lessons.

I’ve been writing Facebook status updates called “Adventures in Stick Shift Driving”. I share them below.

June 28:

After 6 years of living with a stick shift car with no desire to drive it, several years on the car insurance and a few sporadic lessons from Jason during which I panicked and was confused (last summer’s lesson was KIND OF enjoyable), I just completed my 2nd of 5 lessons with a qualified professional. Driving intimidates me, I prefer to be a passenger & I don’t like spending money, so taking lessons is an achievement in itself. I have had my drivers license since the mid-90s.

During the first lesson, I only drove for a few minutes, once around the block. The instructor began the session by demonstrating, with a model, how the gear shift works. This was followed by a lot of practice while parked. I practiced shifting gears without looking at the stick and getting my feet accustomed to multitasking. Clutch down, break, gas to rev, clutch up to the friction point, lather, rinse, repeat. I also started and got into 1st a bunch of times. I only stalled once.

Today I stalled around 3 times. I learned how to not roll on hills (an essential skill) and learned how to shift into 2nd and back into 1st. I did a lot of driving around the block, a lot of practicing rolling and a lot of practice launching back into start from a stop. The instructor only had to use his second set of pedals once. Some of the foot movements feel counter-intuitive after driving automatic.

I like that I’m learning in small increments. Because his business is about teaching drivers to drive manual, he anticipates all the anxieties, fears and inner gremlins.

I still don’t know how I feel about this.

I was terrified that first time. And the second time. The third time, I started to relax. I was driving around the block in the same neighbourhood.

On July 11, the day before my final lesson, my boyfriend left this on my Facebook wall:

Well done.

Millennials don’t learn stick, get it? Neither do people who live in cities, usually.

July 16:

Adventures in stick shift driving: I drove us to Service Ontario. I was terrified to drive on an expressway and highway but needed to practice this route because it’s so close to my parents’ house and driving there is one of my goals. My current streetcar-subway route takes twice as long.
Nothing bad happened and I learned to drive stick in stop & go highway traffic.

I’m not ready for a solo drive, but that day will come. I also drove us to the restaurant, which is a 6-minute drive, and did fine. I’m almost ready to drive that route solo.

P.S. My driving instructor advised me NOT to do this. He told me to practice on residential streets for a while with another stick driver in the car because if I get into a situation that makes me panic I might never want to drive stick again and when I panic I tend to forget things. He knew this before he met me. It’s common.

We had to change information on our drivers’ licenses and had to do it at a government office. I didn’t want to do that drive but knew that I needed to so I sucked it up, and I did it. I didn’t drive home because I was still feeling anxious from the drive there.

August 10, 11 days ago.

Adventures in stick shift driving: I thought that I was ready for a solo drive because I felt good during my (non-solo) drive between Kingston and Picton last week. Despite not being 100% comfortable, I decided to suck it up today and try.
Turns out that I’m still having trouble on hills. I decided to opt out of a 12.5 km drive today (family dinner) after getting stuck at the stop sign up the street from my house where I needed to turn.*

I eventually got moving thanks to the cheat sheet I had with me but decided instead to go back home. With lots of one-way streets, it was good local practice. Also, I almost successfully backed into the driveway. Thankfully, the bumper is already scuffed up, so it wasn’t a big deal that I scratched it on the outside wall of my house. (It was intentional that I learn while we still have the beat up car instead of waiting until there’s a new car.)

*That stop sign is the same one that I panicked and lost my shit at before I took the lessons. I was mostly calm today but questioned the safety of the dog and me. I’ll do some local solo drives, including practicing at that corner.

Weeks ago I’d still be freaking out now. Today I feel like I tried and that I made the right decision to turn back.

I started out around 98% confident. I’ve written parts of this post in my head so many times in the last 2 months or so, and if I’d written it after my drive between cities, I’d have said that I felt great about driving. My confidence is up and down. I’m learning, but I hate that I’m not perfect yet. I feel like it’s a huge accomplishment that I no longer lose my shit. The time I threw the tantrum was my baseline. It’s where I started. Now if I have feelings of anxiety, they quickly pass, and I move on. I keep a cheat sheet (how to drive stick) in the glove compartment.

Finding my sea legs. Or my land legs. Or wheels.

On August 19 (Sunday) I had to drive 14 kilometres (almost 9 miles) on my own to a place I’d been once before and only had a vague idea how to get to. This day was my deadline. I mapped my route on Google Maps and also on Waze rather than rely on the car’s GPS. I knew my route before I left but was also open to route changes. I made sure the volume on my phone was just loud enough for me to hear the voiced instructions coming from Waze, but not so loud that I couldn’t hear the car. Maps and GPS said that it would take me 26 minutes to get there, so I planned for almost an hour. (This is generally proper ADHD scheduling anyway.)

I drove to four different places that day. At my first destination — a destination 5 minutes from home and a route that I’d been practicing — I got out of the car and exclaimed, “That drive was my bitch!”

I drove 14 kilometres (almost 9 miles) to my next destination. I drove home from my parents’ house. My only mistakes: In the last 10 minutes of my 30-minute drive home I kept forgetting to downshift before stop signs.

Tomorrow is my next drive, this time mid-week, right after rush hour. On a highway. The next challenges.

I’ve got this. I’m a driver now.

August 22 epilogue

Two new first experiences:

  1. I listened to the GPS rather than my previous experience as a passenger and took a street that I forgot had a big hill and red lights. That was a challenge. I could have avoided it easily.
  2. I got out of the car not knowing that I’d accidentally switched on the headlights. I parked but stayed within visual distance. Usually, the car makes a sound to tell me that my lights are on after I turn off the engine. Today it didn’t. Someone pointed it out one hour later. My first: A dead battery. CAA (Canadian arm of AAA) called. Car boosted. In between calling CAA and the truck’s arrival I was told about the trick to getting manual transmission cars going. I won’t remember, but now I know I can google it.

Andrea Toole

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Certified Transformational Nutrition Coach, #ADHD mentor. Social Media Manager. Contact me for info. Subscribe:👉🏻

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