There was a time until 2014 that I could not imagine my daily life without driving. I loved driving. When someone needed a ride to the airport or needed to be picked up, I was the one who would volunteer. When the PhD adviser needed someone to drive 3 hours one way to visit some research sites, I was the one who would volunteer. It almost seems like a different life now.
I drove for the first time after 27 months, and it was quite a humbling experience. I suddenly became every nervous driver I never understood- those who complained of loud music, fear of speed, fear of changing lanes, etc. I know people who have either never driven on the freeway by choice, or have been practicing in the parking lot for years. It did not help that unknowingly, I picked the worst day weather-wise to drive to a nearby city for work. I had hoped for some parking lot/empty street practice first, but the car rental company had a busy parking lot that directly opened to one of the busy arterial streets that further took me directly on the freeway during peak office hours. Snowflakes (that later turned into slushy rain) started to fall fast and thick as I put the key in the ignition. I have never been this nervous even during that first driving test.
With a thudding heart and shaky hands, I started, took a few wrong turns, got on the freeway, in the wrong direction. I made a bunch of blunders. I struggled for the basics- staying in lane and not taking a wrong turn on one-way streets. 27 months is a long time, it is three full-term human pregnancies, back to back. Imagine not writing or not cooking for that long and then one day, suddenly starting to do those defensively (Also, cooking wrong doesn't kill you, but driving wrong does). Little things rattled me, like that tiny rear windshield wiper that suddenly started to wag its tail like a lizard's. Among the myriad of switches, I had no idea how to turn it off.
In this nervousness to drive, I actually forgot to panic about my upcoming and dreadful dental procedure, prioritizing my panic issues. The last few nights saw me spending hours in bed sleepless, googling for articles with search words like, "does one forget driving after two years?" Hear me out, from my personal experience. You don't. But you get rusty. Real rusty. Your instincts are not as sharp anymore, and the fact that you are nervous and overtly alert makes it worse. Pro dancers do not think and then do a series of steps mechanically, they just do it with fluidity. Public speakers do not rehearse every word in their head before speaking up, it comes naturally. When you analyze every future step in your head, you instantly become a bad driver. Driving to me was always calming. I never analyzed it, and I never feared it. Today was different though.
I think I finally understood what driving memory means. Sure, it is knowing how much to swerve left or right without going out of the lane, or how quickly to change lanes without hitting or being hit. It's all those little measurements in your head. But how much of that constitutes actual driving? During long distance freeway driving, it is actually remembering to coordinate your foot between the brakes and the gas pedal. We do it sub-consciously. Most drivers control the speed of a car on a freeway by taking their foot on and off the gas pedal, they do not hit the brakes unless there is a pressing need. For me, that instinct has rusted. People usually drive defensively, which also means sticking to speed limits. I drove like a mouse, I no longer felt I own the road like I used to. I constantly drove 5-10 below the speed limit (driving 25 at 30 and 50 at 60). This is because the sensors in my brain have somewhat lost the perception of speed. Earlier, I did not have to look at the speedometer to know if I was speeding, I just knew it. Now, I did not have a clear sense of how fast or slow I was going without constantly looking at technology. An analogy would be knowing how much to turn on the gas/cooker to fry your onions without burning them. You do not constantly check the temperature of the flame to see what temperature produces what heating effect. You just do it instinctively and with visual and olfactory cues. You know that probably 5 minutes is too less but 30 minutes is too much. The speed sensors in my brain went nuts, they thought that I was speeding while in reality, I was not. Multitasking was another issue- keeping your eyes on the road in front of you, on traffic behind you, staying in your lane while constantly checking on your speed and also listening to a very harsh-pitched, talkative GPS that I had never used before while driving a car that I had never driven before. It sounds complicated when I put it like that, but really, it is not. Every time a huge truck went past me, my car shook, and so did my hands. These things do not bother seasoned drivers. But one day if you suddenly forgot and had to relearn how to walk, walk with speed, and not get killed while walking, imagine your horror.
So when people say that driving memory never fades, what they perhaps mean is that people still remember to maneuver their cars, turn left when they intend to turn left, and right when they have to turn right. That knowledge never goes away. What gets rusty is the fine tuning- how much to hit the gas pedal, when to start applying the brakes, and how quickly to change lanes. But perhaps, the memory comes back with practice, just like with most other things.
Driving those 160 miles was the most stressful thing I have done recently, and I came home and crashed for two straight hours, I was so exhausted from focusing on the road all the time. I am actually looking forward to taking the bus tomorrow morning. I wanted to meet a friend, but changed my mind after my morning drive since I wanted to be back before it got dark. These things never bothered me before, I have breezed through some of the notorious cities like Chicago, Miami, and Houston. Yet today, I struggled to wade through the paddy fields at a humble speed of 60. Summer of 2014, those 8,000 miles driven all over the US in one month was my reality. And today is also my reality.