Student driver finds going solo is no easy ride

The idea, the Emirates Driving Company instructors told me, was to build up enough confidence for me to drive on my own.

Kareem tackles the course alone as his instructor beams down instructions by radio.
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I was doing terribly, at least in my eyes. I couldn't always make it to my scheduled driving lessons because of the demands of work. The early morning commute from Dubai to Abu Dhabi was excruciating enough without having to make it to the driving school by 10am. Still, I tried, but more than ever I could feel sometimes that I was slipping, losing my connection to the manual car I was learning to drive in.

Never mind, making my way to the driving course was always refreshing, as was getting behind the wheel again. But this time was different. I had to climb into the car and drive the course on my own, like a child going off to college alone for the first time. The idea, the Emirates Driving Company instructors told me, was to build up enough confidence for me to drive on my own. They would beam down instructions by radio from control towers around the course, which have almost become trademarks of the school.

I didn't think I was ready. Nobody there to fix my mistakes, to brake if I got too close to the pavement, to tell me why I just stalled the car for the third time. I still needed a car nanny. In fact, as far as I was concerned, most drivers in the UAE would probably benefit from splitting responsibilities with a sane co-pilot. Still, maybe not having someone in the car with me noticing my terrible gear shifting skills and poor clutch control would take some of the pressure off.

I was, of course, wrong. The instructor later told me that they had indicator lights at the top of the tower that told them when I was pressing the clutch. My plan to camouflage my mediocrity was foiled again. But I put on my brave face, got in, and promptly messed up my initial attempt at the zigzag exercise, which had me manoeuvring through plastic cones to get to an elusive parking spot. I hit a couple of cones, and even managed to stall the car. I went back and did it again. Success this time. I was close to bumping a couple of cones but made it through without bruises.

I messed up the reverse attempt again, something about not turning the wheel fast enough, but I was slowly picking it up. The instructor told me I was actually doing pretty well for a beginner who was in the car alone for the first time. I don't know if he was just being nice, but I was anxious to take the compliment. I dreaded having to manoeuvre around all the cars I see illegally parked every morning. It might be less expensive ultimately not to drive. That minor confidence booster was shattered when I had to drive around the square course alone, an exercise that seemed simple but was complicated by the need to shift between gears one and two at the bends.

I was tense, which meant I was a little violent with the gear stick, and I couldn't seem to get my foot off the clutch quickly enough after negotiating the bends. The area was too small to switch fast enough, I complained. Pressing the accelerator was novel and fun though. Predictably, I didn't need to change gears as quickly as I was. An instructor who joined me in the car for the last few minutes walked me through the motions. Relax and you'll have greater control over the car, he told me. Look more often in the mirrors, he said, a task that I had been ignoring, the tell-tale sign of a complete novice. He showed me how to brake smoothly. It was invaluable. Next class is area three, where I will start learning how to park, arguably the most important driving skill in Abu Dhabi. But I was having my doubts. Would I ever be able to drive like a normal human being?