Fear of driving

by Jan Wheatcroft

Arriving in Nigeria in the early 1960s, I stayed with a woman from New York City who was the head of all women’s prisons in Nigeria. She had a large flat in the then-fancy area of Ikoiye, where the English had established themselves. 

She had a houseboy/driver who lived in the back.  Once, on his day off, she was called into her office and needed someone to drive her, as she had never learned to drive. Her VW Bug was parked in the garage and she asked me to take her into town. The people in Nigeria drive like the English, reverse to our rules of the road. I said, “No.” But she begged and pleaded until I finally said I agreed, adding that I was unfamiliar with the roads, with driving on the “wrong” side and with the backwards set up inside the car.

“Never mind,” she said. “Just get me to the office.” And so we set out. My right foot wanted to press down to go forward but that was now my breaks. I had to shift with my left hand and speed up with my left foot. Awkward. And then cars and buses came at me from all over. I did a fine job until we came to a narrow road with a big “Mammy Wagon,” a colorfully painted bus bulging with people hanging out the windows. It seemed to be on top of me and I scraped the side of her sweet VW Bug. She was mad—and I cowered—but I had told her from the beginning that I was not comfortable driving. She never asked again. That began my antipathy for driving in foreign countries. 

My next experience in driving abroad was when my sister, her two teenaged children and I spent a few weeks in England together.

The plan was to rent a car and share the driving between my sister and I, with the kids sharing the back seats. However, as soon as my sister saw the interior car set up—and the roads stretched out before us—she changed her mind and refused to share the load, leaving me to do the driving. My heart sank knowing what that might mean but she was unmovable and the car had been rented and signed for. So, we hopped in and drove off. It was not all smooth going and I am attaching the following article that my niece wrote for her class in junior high school about her summer experiences.



by Anna Mazo

“Jan said that she would drive. We would all ride. This idea is not at all scary in America. Jan, my aunt, was a very capable driver, but as we crossed the Atlantic her capability seemed to decrease. By the time we landed in England it had disappeared completely.

‘Think left,’ was said the most that month we spent in England. My mom would sit in the front clutching the sides of the seat with white knuckles, whispering, ‘left, think left!’ She only interrupted her chant to mutter an occasional, ‘Oh my God!’ which was more than suitable regarding the many near-death experiences we, Jan, Mama, Obie and I, participated in.

The first eye-opening event occurred shortly after we picked up the rental car, a white Proton, the Malaysian equivalent of a fancy Ford. It was one of those space age cars with no bumper.

Jan did well driving for the first ten minutes in the car, but then we came to a round-about. Mama tells a good one about the time her mother drove in England. They got on a round-about and couldn’t get off. I can’t say that we got through the round-about, I mean, we did, but Mama had given Jan the wrong directions. We ended up in a wide driveway.  We all took this opportunity to take a deep breath, not having noticed the ‘DO NOT ENTER’ signs staring at us from both sides of the drive. Their purpose became apparent when we looked up and saw a fire engine bearing down on us with sirens on and lights flashing. Mama hid her head; Obie sank down into his seat. I screamed after having realized that my dreams about being in the way of a fire engine had come true. Somehow, after stalling many times, Jan got the car into reverse.

One time, she backed into a car in a car park and left a dent and an even bigger dent in ours and didn’t even notice. She then, on returning the car, tried to convince the agency that it was the other car’s fault. There also was the time she backed into a huge wine barrel filled with flowers when we went to her friend’s house to eat dinner. Maddie, her friend, hid her anger well but not well enough; the potatoes were burnt. Another classic time was on a foggy, rainy day. While Jan was talking, she forgot to think  left and turned right into an oncoming truck.

I have lots of memories from England, but the most prominent were the ones that took place with Jan at the wheel.” 


I must admit, I remember that experience well—and all my fears. It kept me from driving in England for years. However, one summer I spent a week in France at an art workshop. My friend Frances and I rented a car for a week and drove happily around with her at the wheel. She left after the first week and, when my friend Helga arrived, we had planned to drive for another week in France both sharing the driving. Again, upon seeing the van I had rented, she said, “I am not driving that van at all!” Once again, the driving was left up to me. Luckily, we were in France and the driving was a lot like at home, so I managed without an incident.

Now when I travel, either someone else drives or I do not rent a car at all. Luckily, these past years when traveling with Frances either in England or further afield, she is happy to drive and I am happy to map-read. We get about just fine.

I often flash back to when I was learning to drive. I failed the final driving tests each time. My mother and my father both refused to drive with me and give me a chance to practice, so I could only drive up and down our deadend street, back and forth, giving me no challenging experiences. My aunt, who willingly drove with me and even took me to take my driving test, was the one who enabled me to learn and finally get my license. I have become a willing and happy passenger when traveling abroad. I am sure entire countries are breathing sighs of relief.


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