On (Not) Learning to Drive, Gender, and Failure

big ben london

Driving was seen as a huge deal when I was growing up in the UK. For my sister, who got her licence at seventeen, driving was a crucial part of her fledging independence from the family home. My brother picked his licence up later in life, at the age of 25, once he realised it scored him more brownie points with girls. But I never felt the need to begin driving. While I’ve consistently expressed not-driving as a positive personal choice, it’s becoming increasingly evident to me that there are outdated cultural and societal pressures that reinforce the ability to drive as a crucial component for modern living.

I moved from the metropolitan giant that is London to Australia four years ago. I lived first in Perth, WA, and have spent the past year in Hobart, Tasmania. I came up against the ‘driving question’ in Perth a few times and while many found it unusual that I didn’t drive, it never felt like a ‘big deal’. In Tasmania, however, it’s been an interesting experience to learn how to handle reactions to not driving. The complex positioning of the ‘city’ against a predominantly rural landscape, with a heavy reliance on driving for mobility, sees non-drivers marginalised in many ways.

In London, driving is a ‘non-essential’ requirement. The city is doing everything it can to reduce traffic through its streets. The public transport system is exceptionally robust and often you could walk, tube, or bus to a location far quicker than you could ever drive. As a non-driver, London was the giant veil I hid behind. I didn’t need to explain my decisions for not driving, because being able to drive wasn’t an expectation. Everyone across the breadth of the socio-economic food chain would ride on public transport, without stigma or judgement. I’ve been successfully navigating my way all over Tasmania using the rather competent Redline Coach services, walking, cycling and the buses. Yes, it’s slower, but of all the places I’ve lived, Tasmania is the epitome of embracing a slow pace in life.

My daily journeys on the bus home from work showcase to me exactly who public transport is ‘for’ in my community. On my way to meet a friend for coffee, I told her I was on the bus and would be with her soon. Her mocking reply made me laugh but highlights the divide between drivers and non-drivers: ‘The bus? Are you a peasant?’

Culturally, we’ve gone from driving being a male-only activity, to the ‘normality’ of a two-car family. Yet, there are still many ways that the activity of driving hasn’t caught up. Professional driving is very much a male-dominated industry that puts women at risk in nuanced ways. Crash test dummies are still based on ‘average’ male measurements, lacking to account for female drivers. Toxic masculinity prevails –  a 29 year-old man was arrested in Texas in 2018 after he shot five female drivers because, as he told police, he thought ‘only men should drive’ and female drivers ‘are incompetent’.

The incompetence of female driving has been a staple of sitcoms, comedic stand-up, and general pub-chat for decades. Even the most feminist leaning of my male peers will still happily make a comment or jab at a female driver for not being a ‘good’ driver. I’ve often felt relieved that I can’t be lumped into this stereotype but I’m conscious that not driving doesn’t exactly solve it.

Environmental degradation is yet another reason to have us reconsider the need to drive.  Transport is Australia’s third-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, with cars responsible for half of that. At an international level, Australia is second worst in the world for transport energy efficiency.

Yet, it’s in Australia I’ve received the most backlash around my choice to be a non-driver. I’ve been turned down for several jobs across my four years of living here, simply because I didn’t have a licence. Not one employer was willing to mediate, discuss or work flexibly with me to explore and understand alternatives to driving. These were roles in the same industry I’ve worked in successfully, without driving, for nine years – supporting young unemployed people to get back into work. It was the resolute refusal to discuss options with me that stung more than anything, and it’s a conversation that we need to start having.

In Tasmania, I’ve read reports of young people missing out on early career and apprenticeship opportunities because driving was a ‘requirement’ and they couldn’t afford lessons. In some cases, young people were having to wait over three months to book a test, thereby missing out on promising work. Driving can make the difference between a young person becoming entrenched in unemployment or getting onto a positive pathway.

In 2015 Australia began to note, for the first time, that obtaining a driving licence among under-25’s has fallen rather than risen. And this has only continued to decline. Reasons for this have been linked to a steady string of higher restrictions around driving, but also several cultural and social changes in the way young people are living their lives. Research is beginning to highlight that the car may no longer be king – and it’s not just within Australia. A review of youth licencing across thirteen countries found similar declines in driving for young people, including the USA, the UK, China and most of Europe.

Public transportation is a key mode of travel for me, and in Tasmania work is needed to make the system here more robust – and inclusive. In a community where one of the key industries is around Disability Employment and Assistance, there is a huge gap between expectations around driving and the capacity of many of those in the community to drive for a myriad of reasons. Not one employer has asked me why I don’t drive, immediately terminating applications and interviews on learning I don’t. There’s an issue here around discrimination that I feel there is a greater awareness for in cities where public transport isn’t seen as an issue, like London and Perth.

In rural places more broadly across Australia, implementing a substantive public transport system is complex, not to mention economically difficult and there are strong arguments against putting these in place. The preservation of our natural habitats is also important, especially in a place like Tasmania. But what I’m more interested in, is an open conversation that encourages people to challenge their preconceived ideas of non-drivers – we are not failures, and we are not incapable.

Until recently, I’ve been successful in shaping my life to be one where driving has little consequence on being able to live the life I want – both professionally and personally. While I’ve steadily accrued several accolades that might otherwise deem me as a success in my professional field, driving has become the only measure for which I am currently considered worthy of job opportunities in my community.

Driving might still seem important to some, but in my opinion, it is being given too much credit as an obtainable and essential milestone in our current society. It’s something we can – and should – actively work to improve. 

Photo by David Dibert from Pexels

Elaine Mead is an educator, writer and reviewer currently residing in Hobart, Tasmania. Her work has been published with The Suburban Review, F*EMS Zine, *82 Review, Human/Kind Journal and others. She is the in-house book reviewer for Aniko Press and regularly reviews titles for The Book Slut also. Find Elaine on Instagram @wordswithelaine