According to legend, once you learn to ride a bike you never forget.
Personally, I’ve never gone more than about five years without getting in the saddle but people who’ve gone much longer say it is most definitely a skill you can forget.
But who cares about cycling? I’ve been learning to drive a car again. And it turns out that it’s a skill that you can forget almost completely.
I started learning to drive when I was seventeen and got my licence soon after turning eighteen. That was on my third attempt. I now know that my first instructor was bad and I had no chance of passing the first test. My second failure, on the other hand, was entirely down to me. I failed the test during the last few seconds as I returned to the testing centre.
Having obtained my licence I let a couple of years pass without driving. That certainly got me beyond the 12 month probationary period.
Prior to driving again I took some refresher lessons. And I did okay, and drove an automatic a few times, and would have called myself a cautious and competent driver. I wasn’t good enough to call myself average but I certainly never crashed nor caused damage to anyone.
And then I moved to London, and for more than 16½ years I didn’t drive at all. London is like that. Many people don’t acquire cars till they have children.
Having returned to Australia, I had a job offer that fell through on the basis of my lack of driving experience. I am actually fully licensed but nonetheless thought I should have some lessons. I might be rusty and besides, it would build up my confidence a bit.
It turned out I’d forgotten practically everything.
I’d decided to take lessons in a manual. I personally think automatics are the future since they are easier to drive and the superior fuel efficiency of manuals has been eroded by technology. Nonetheless, being able to drive a manual gives you a better skillset.
It turned out that I remembered the theory well enough. The accelerator, brake and clutch were exactly where I remembered. I could still adjust the mirrors, and could’ve talked you through the full mechanics of a three point turn. I still knew that mastery of the clutch was the key to mastering a manual transmission.
But boy, was I out of practice with actual driving. The ability to drive a car is a skill that nearly anyone can learn. Many have proven this and you see them on the streets every day. And many, or most, of these people have practised to the point where mastery has become automatic.
But like I said, it turns out that you can lose the skill completely.
Do you remember how difficult it once was to coordinate road awareness and steering and indicators, with managing the clutch, brake and accelerator? I had vague memories of all that. I remembered what it was like to learn to drive twenty years ago, and that it was tricky, and that I gradually got on top of it. And now…
In my first lesson, this time, I probably stalled the car at least a dozen times. I would’ve blown through a stop sign if the instructor hadn’t hit the brakes. And I had trouble changing down to second gear when approaching roundabouts or give way signs.
I was once a competent driver. The skill will come again, with training and practise, and I will become again like the millions of others for whom driving is a basic and barely thought-about skill. But to be clear, you can indeed forget how to actually drive a car.