Braking point: I’m an excellent driver, but I fear I may be steering my whole family round the bend

Are you a nervous driver? Try to remove your fingernails from the arm of the driver and listen to some handy hints from Rebecca Levingston

Sep 13, 2023, updated Sep 13, 2023
Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise in a 1949 Buick Roadmaster, in 1988's 'Rain Man.' UNITED ARTISTS/ COURTESY: EVERETT COLLECTION

Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise in a 1949 Buick Roadmaster, in 1988's 'Rain Man.' UNITED ARTISTS/ COURTESY: EVERETT COLLECTION

When did I become such a bad passenger?

For 20 years, I’ve mostly been in the passenger seat next to my husband. Sexist? Maybe. But I think it was my choice.

I never really cared who drove. For the record, like Raymond Babbitt, I’m an excellent driver. But in recent years, I’ve become a terrible passenger.

I’m anxious. I’m tense. I’m annoying. I watch red brake lights and cannot stop pointing out the car in front is slowing down. I like to indicate this by suddenly calling out “BRAKING!”. I annoy myself, but I cannot stop.

It may only be nanoseconds ahead of the person driving the car, but I truly believe my very mild superpower is anticipating the speed of traffic before everyone else in the car. This can also be indicated by a sharp intake of breath, clutching of seatbelt, a tiny squeal or hand on dashboard to prevent imminent crash.

Apparently, I also see lights turn green first. I like to indicate this by simply stating the colour “Green” when the light changes. I saw it, he saw it. No need to call it. Yet here we are.

When did this happen? I don’t exactly know. And why? Is it some kind of strange preparation for my children learning to drive? Will I soon be banished to the back seat? No. Because I’d be even worse from there.

When it rains, I am the first to know when the windscreen wipers should go on and off. If you need to know when you’re driving too close to the white line on the side of the road, there’s no need to have those noise generating bumps. Just wait for me to point it out. “Bit close” is what I’ll utter softly.

Not to be mistaken for my observations regarding tail gaiting. I’m very eager to point out when the obligatory 3 car lengths is not being met. And just to round out the trip, I’m willing to make the call on the correct parking spot to enter. I drive myself crazy. I’m sorry. I just need to confess my passenger sins.

I do remember learning to drive at 16 with sweaty palms that I’d cool on the air conditioning vents when I was stopped at the traffic lights. I can’t believe my mum let me take my hands off the wheel even momentarily.

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It was probably because she was too busy scanning the bike lanes for cyclists so she could suddenly yell out “BIKE!” in exactly the same tone I’ve now discovered I possess. Bike fright is a condition I had to get over as a solo driver after months of “defensive” driving assistance. Thanks mum.

I remember the first time I drove a car on my own. It was 1993 and I was 17. I eased out of the driveway in my parent’s white station wagon. Cautious and definitely not cool. I can still feel that combination of freaked out freedom and exhilaration when I was finally the only one in the car. It reminded me of the first time my husband and I drove home from hospital with our newborn baby. “Is this legal… is somebody going to stop us?”

I had another flashback recently to the first time I drove alone in America in a convertible car that my new boss had lent me. I don’t think he realised that giving the keys to someone from Australia meant testing out my ability to drive on the opposite side of the road.

I figured it out with a little help from Christina Aguilera. Her CD was stuck in the car and so every time I hear “Genie in a Bottle” if takes me back to driving in the “wrong” lane.

If you, like me, suffer from annoying passenger assistance syndrome. Or if you have to put up with a passenger who won’t just stick to choosing the songs, I’m sorry.

We’re only trying to help. We see red lights. We see bikes. We see what you see, we just feel the need to say it out loud. Through gritted teeth in a slightly stressed tone. We mean well.

You know what, maybe we should just drive? And you can have a turn at being an excellent passenger.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Rebecca Levingston does not host the Drive program on ABC Brisbane. Thank goodness.

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