7 tips for earning your license, and literally millions of opportunities to reference Rain Man along the way. Illustration by: Alyson Sutherland 

For the first eight years of our lives, we anticipate the day we get to ditch the booster seat for a different, more distinguished seat near the windshield. Eight years later, we find ourselves seated a few inches to the left in the next milestone chair, behind the coveted wheel. At this time you may ask yourself, “How did I get here?” and, “How am I, a weak stupid baby, possibly expected to handle the responsibility of operating a four thousand pound hunk of deadly machinery?” You’re not alone. 

Sitting behind that intimidating console of buttons and levers that you’ll supposedly memorize over time can be overwhelming. It takes great courage to venture onto the pavement beyond the parking lot (or in my case, a traumatizing relay down narrow suburban streets in my brother-in-law’s gargantuan pickup truck). Learning to drive is a huge step into young adulthood, and it’s hard to know where to begin; but, as an individual who earned her license exactly eleven weeks ago at the time of writing this, I’m here to provide my boundless wisdom for all you hopeless beginners. I’ve put together a list of steps and anecdotes from personal experience that you’ll, hopefully, learn from and use to work towards getting your license. 

Step #1—Take notes on your driver’s manual:

Like all skills worth learning you’ll, unfortunately, have to start with a little studying. You can read the Oregon driver’s manual online, or pick up a copy at any depressing federal buildings you were forced to visit on an eighth grade field trip. There are practice tests available online as well, that include questions from the Oregon knowledge test. To fully prepare yourself, I recommend a full year in which you’re forced to keep in near isolation so you literally have nothing better to do than take word for word notes from an eighty page state-issued instructional booklet. If this isn’t possible, you could probably skim and get the gist. 

Step #2—Knowledge test, schnowledge test:

Now that you’ve studied vigorously (or have come equipped with nothing but common sense and a Total Absence of Fear), you’re ready to schedule an appointment with the DMV and earn your permit. Yes, you will have to take a test, and no, it shouldn’t be difficult (unless you’re the middle-aged man that failed his seventh consecutive permit test adjacent to me, in which case please contact me as I’d love to interview you). It’s multiple choice, and you’re allowed seven wrong answers in order to pass. If you’re still worried about failing, I’ll remind you: every speeding, tail-gating goon out on the road right now took both driver’s tests and (whether first-off or eventually) passed. At a point in time, Ted Cruz took his respective state-test and got by—I’m confident that you can, too.    

Step #3— Get out there!

After you’ve received your permit, there’s no better way to learn than some hands-on experience. But don’t fret, because the car is actually more afraid of you than you are of it: If you end up in a head-on collision, the car will need just as much facial reconstruction surgery as you (likely more). Eventually you’ll work up to driving with traffic, but in the beginning it’s important to become comfortable behind the wheel in an environment where you aren’t likely to raise your parents’ insurance premiums. Large parking lots, rural roads and Phil Collins concerts are all great places to drive where you’ll encounter little traffic (got ‘em). During my virtual freshman year, I practiced driving most mornings in the Clackamas Town Center parking lot: The neon signage of the Barnes & Noble was my Northern Star, as I eased across the pavement at no higher than three miles per hour, my mom in the passenger seat providing advice I absorbed eagerly:

“Aly, the speed limit is fifteen in here, go faster—”


Having an experienced guide to provide support when you’re starting out is extremely helpful (and legally obligated). You need someone around to reassure you that the turn you just made was legal, someone to console you when another driver honks because you forgot what a four-way stop is, which brings me to:

Step #4—Curate your preferred learning environment:

Because my parents put more trust in me than is wise, I didn’t go to one of those expensive Drivers Ed courses. Instead, I was trusted with driving the family Acura, accompanied by the family mom, and the responsibility of not ending up in a ditch or with the vehicle scrunched up like an accordion (I’d recommend everyone learn to drive this way: the added risk really improves you and your guide’s engagement). When considering your preferred learning environment, comfort is ultimately the most important factor (safety is a distant 2nd, followed by a working radio). You should drive somewhere open with few pedestrians, in a reasonably sized vehicle with someone you’re comfortable making mistakes around (criteria that my initial test-drive out in the Real World couldn’t be associated with). 

One week, I’d promised my brother-in-law that I’d practice driving with him in his truck around their neighborhood (after vetoing his insistence that I practice on his lawn mower). At this point I’d only driven in empty parking lots and on a desolate stretch of highway during a trip to Montana, all with my compact little errand-running car. Now I was being forced with my consent to drive in a different, bigger car, with other different cars; cars operated by different people that might say mean things about me that I’ll never hear, but nevertheless I will feel. During that traumatizing series of events, I severed at least one side-view mirror and came close to running over a loose chihuahua. Keep in mind, the truck I was driving could barely fit on the generous streets of this neighborhood out near Salem—in Portland it would’ve been like a parakeet swallowing a Jawbreaker. And, him being the resident Guy-That-Knows-About-Cars, driving with my brother-in-law in the passenger seat didn’t settle my nerves any. My introduction to driving in traffic was, while slightly dangerous, successful in getting me comfortable out on the road and around other drivers. Although I’d still recommend finding a healthier method that doesn’t nearly end the life of a small dog. 

Step #5—Don’t stop driving:

According to Oregon law, you must have at least 100 hours of supervised driving experience before you qualify for your license. In all honesty, I wasn’t told to give any proof that I had done this aside from my word (which the woman behind the counter accepted with the look of someone who’d heard the same lies too many times to feel the sting anymore). 100 hours is a lot of time to spend in a car; I could go find my little calculator and figure out how many days that is to put it into perspective, but I figure you’re all trusting readers who don’t want or need me to do that. Anyways, it’s going to take a lot of trips to the grocery store and around the neighborhood to meet that goal. 

This step really depends on your personal situation; I got my hours in by picking up and dropping off my nephew everyday, a few lengthy road trips and by offering to drive literally everywhere—to Trader Joe’s, mailing a package, mowing the lawn, etc. Try to work out a schedule that allows you to drive at least every few days; or, you could always cram for the test and take a road trip to Vermont.  

Step #6—The Actual, Like, Test-Test™:

Now that you’ve studied, have maybe driven close to 100 hours and have yet to run over any small animals, you’re ready to get into a car with an absolute stranger and prove you’re worthy of sharing the road with the rest of our fine society. This is it: Every driver’s test episode of every sitcom revolving around a dysfunctional family has prepared you for this moment, and from your worldview based entirely on scripted television, you’re understandably a wreck. What if you offend someone on the way to taking the test, and they turn out to be your driving examiner? Or maybe after the test you’ll turn to your guide and ask “Hey, what’s the worst test score you’ve ever given?” and they’ll turn to you with a look of terror and yell, “You!” and limp off screen to recover from the trauma of your terrible driving. Obviously, everyone’s experience is unique, whether you do terrific or have an ordeal worthy of the B-story for an episode of Full House. Because I can’t guarantee what your experience will be like, I’ll relate mine in the form of a short story:

The automatic doors slid open, unveiling the grim cave of the DMV waiting room. Painted in bureaucratic neutrals, the walls lined with color-coded plastic chairs on determined-purpose carpets. Fluorescent lights shone atop the balding heads of souls in purgatory, waiting for someone packaged behind a plexi-glass encasement to beckon their names. Who knows what that chilling call would bring about; alas, it’s their last shred of hope for salvation from this desolate hellscape. 

I stepped onto the red floor mat, clutching the manila folder my mom packed for me to give to the nice man at the Dee-Em-Vee, containing proof that I do, in fact, legally exist in the Yew-Ess-Aye. An employee waved me over from behind a plastic shield:

“Insurance, please.”

I handed him the novella-thick stack of insurance cards held together by a strained paperclip. 

“You really only needed one,” he said.

“Oh, yeah, I guess,” I laughed, hating him. I didn’t pack it, my mother did, you sicko. 

“Go take a seat in one of the blue chairs.”

Following his orders, I scanned the room for an empty seat among the rows of lost souls. An older gentleman in a heavy yellow windbreaker noticed me searching and moved a stack of pamphlets from the chair beside him. 

“I’m sorry, this seat is open,” he smiled.

I thanked him. What a nice guy! I sat down next to him, waiting for my name to be called. A few moments later, I noticed him scrolling through Fox News on his phone. What an asshole! 

Seated in the hard plastic chair, Proof-Of-Existence in hand, I observed the waiting room’s rich culture: a sturdy woman wearing a T-shirt picturing a pair of festive kittens complained to her flip phone; a mother with chunky blonde highlights ranted about her daughter’s performance at school (“I just wish she could be more like Avery!”); a hunched-over man screamed, “LET GO OF ME,” when his cane got caught on a chair leg; QAnon-man-in-sheep’s-clothing read a trashy article on Jessica Simpson’s vaccination status. Over the sound system, the metallic whisper of Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” hung over the atmosphere like a smog of despair: 

I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh lord 

I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life

“Alyson!” An employee from across the room called me over to the counter. I wished my comrades good fortune in their transportation-related troubles as I walked over to station #3.

The hurt doesn’t show 

But the pain still grows

“Permit,” she ordered. I handed her the plastic card, smizing (remember, this is mid-pandemic) so as to show I’m nothing like the depressed-looking person on my permit photo. She then proceeded to give me a convoluted string of words that I suppose, in retrospect, were instructions:

“Does that make sense?”  

“Yep!” I replied instantly. It did not make sense. 

The only order from the employee I remembered was to wait in the back parking lot for my driving examiner. Sitting in my car, I prayed that my instructor would be a sweet, elderly woman (with a name like “Bebe,” but I was flexible on that part). Instead, my examiner was a middle-aged man who looked very much like a Todd or Gary, although I can’t recall his actual name.

“I get that you’re probably nervous—”

“YEah, kiNDA haha.” Never had I been more self-assured. 

“I’m just here to tell you where to go and observe, so relax and do your best,” Todd/Gary said. I nodded, and proceeded to put the car into reverse on accident. 

“Yikes.” This was a phrase I would mumble several times over the course of the test, which Todd/Gary would receive sympathetically; this includes the time I turned right instead of left, forgot to use my turn signal, and my failure to remember how a four-way stop works:

I slowed the car to a stop as we approached an empty intersection within a small neighborhood; no stop signs in any direction, and no traffic lights. 

“I never know what to do at these things,” I said absently. Instantly realizing my error, I glanced over to the passenger seat. Todd/Gary pretended like he’d neglected to tell me he was deaf in the left ear.

Pulling back into the DMV parking lot, I knew I’d passed with mediocre colors. Then I practically parked sideways in the student-parking spot and figured I’d have better luck next time. Walking through the automatic doors again, this time holding my test rubric, I received a few indifferent words of congratulations from employees who directed me from a blue chair to a red chair, to an eventual folding chair facing a camera. The photographer, who also happened to be Todd/Gary, emerged from a door behind the counter. 

“Okay, take off your glasses and stare at the little birdie,” he said, indicating to the small Beanie-Baby bird hanging from the camera. I smiled in a way that I felt would appear fun and approachable. After the photo finished developing, he paperclipped it to a packet of documents. Looking at the photo attached, I thanked him and smiled so as to show him I wasn’t anything like the depressed-looking person in my new license photo.

Step #7—Abuse your new powers and “drive” your friends away!

Congratulations, you’re a licensed driver! No more awkward rides home from your friends’ parents, or sketchy public-bus routes! Out: Walking. In: Getting to school without being a

sweaty/freezing/parent-conscious mess. Not to mention road trips, leaving parties when you feel like it, and guys, getting gas? So sick. 

Of course, there are plenty of downsides to driving: constant expenses, parts going out or breaking, the general negative impact it has on the environment, etc. But there’s something to be said about having the freedom to drive at dusk, brooding about the complexities of life, listening to Joni Mitchell’s Blue and staring sagely to the shadowed terrain beyond, thinking, “What does it all mean?” Or just the freedom to make spontaneous trips to Starbucks.

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