My father gave up teaching me to drive my first time out: There’s no parking lot big enough for you, he claimed. I was 27 when I passed my driving test in small-town Louisiana. After a short drive out of a parking lot, around the block and back into the parking lot, the examiner instructed me to park. The lot was empty: Where? I said. Anywhere, she replied, and marked my form with a big red PASS when I managed to pull straight in between the painted lines into an empty space and kill the engine.
I had a license, but I still didn’t know how to drive. We moved to Ohio and I found a studio forty miles from my house. The first time I attempted the trip myself, I managed to drive over a log that demarcated our back lawn from the parking lot. Visibility was low, and, in my defense, the log was completely obscured by snow. The car tipped nose-forward into a snowbank. A tow-truck was required to pull the car back over the log. The tow-truck driver refused to meet my eye, and treated my husband with a mixture of pity and condescension. His attitude suggested a filial sympathy tempered by disgust that a guy with a wife like me wouldn’t have his own equipment to take care of this kind of business.
Needless to say, I’m a somewhat cautious driver. I’m not much of a passenger either: nervous, prone to clutching the door handle or dash, occasionally screaming out FUCK! or SHIT! when the traffic throws up a surprise. I will say however that I consider myself a Good Driver. I put 125,000 miles on our Honda Civic in five years. I’ve driven in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. I know how to parallel park. But Melbourne driving has really got me spooked.
It goes without saying that it takes some concentration to get used to driving on the other side of the road. Then there’s the hook turn: a particularly tricky technique where one pulls right over to the left in order to make a right turn and is most usually executed in the shadow of a looming tram. But far more frightening than the actual driving is the government’s scare campaign to lower the state’s death toll on the roads. The Transport Accident Commission’s
public service announcements include billboards, TV commercials, full-page print ads and signposts along the highways that warn against drunk-driving (“Don’t Be A Bloody Idiot!”), fatigue (“A Microsleep Kills!”) and other potentially fatal driving scenarios. An up-to-date tally of the number of dead on the roads leads into every newsbreak on the hour and half-hour on a long weekend, just before the latest sports scores. It’s not a new campaign: gory accident scene photos were plastered all over billboards when I left Melbourne eleven years ago. In fact, I have a few actor friends who featured in the ads: lucrative gigs which require contracts forbidding other commercial work for two years in order to sustain the public’s belief that they’re watching “real life”. (Nothing kills the heart-stopping effect of seeing a graphic car accident on TV than seeing the girl who just flew through the windscreen show up on the next commercial flogging tampons.) But the combination of these reminders of one’s mortality and the constant tallying of the number of dead on the roads has raised my terror level from a comfortably anxious orange to a nerve-racking red.
In Melbourne, the possibility of dying on the road is presented more as an eventuality than a possibility. It very nearly kept me home on this past Easter when we were invited to a friend’s beach house, three hours by car down the notorious Princes Highway. I contemplated my statistical chances of making it home alive, and gripped my seat whenever we passed a semi, or cars in the control of drivers appearing either under 30 or over 40. I breathed a sigh of relief each time we successfully traversed an intersection. In my more reasoned moments, I wondered if it would help the government’s cause to give the campaign a rest; allow everyone to fall into complacency and then shock them back to their senses with another round of gore. I know it’s worked for this bloody idiot.