Taking the wheel

How I finally got to know myself better through driving


Ishaani Dayal

“Do you have road rage?”


“I think you have road rage.”

Those were not the words I was hoping to hear from my mom after exiting I-280 for the first time. Yes, I had been honked at several times while attempting a lane change. And yes, I had missed the exit twice and had to drive an additional 15 minutes to our destination. But I couldn’t pinpoint a time while driving where I had contributed to the chaos due to my own anger or frustration. In fact, I couldn’t pinpoint any fault of mine on this drive — and that was the problem. 

When you first get your learner’s permit, the law requires you to always be accompanied by a parent or guardian until you get your license. The COVID-19 lockdowns and quarantine put me in a close proximity to my parents at all times, so I figured this would be a piece of cake. 

I was wrong. 

I didn’t account for the fact that I would have to be in a small, enclosed space with my mother — the parent I drove with the most — for long periods of time. So for six months, she and I experienced the highs and lows of motherhood and daughterhood together: having excruciating arguments where our voices echoed through the car, but also forming sweet memories on boba runs after school on Fridays. 

Driving with my mom for so long also meant that my mistakes were pointed out very bluntly. In fact, it was often what sparked most of our car-guments; I wouldn’t stop for long enough at a stop sign or would drive too fast on a sharp turn, making my mom fly into the passenger-side door. We would disagree on my decisions as a driver, and I was never willing to acknowledge that I had done something wrong.

In hindsight, a lot of these mistakes weren’t just specific to driving; they were tied to deeper shortcomings of mine. Now that I have my actual license, I often spend long periods of time in the car alone with nothing but my thoughts and whatever music is playing on AUX. It’s here that I witness aspects of my own personality that I’ve never had to come face-to-face with before. I’ve learned that I don’t handle high pressure situations as well as I’ve always believed, which can sometimes lead to some rash decision making. That’s evident whenever I freeze and hit the brakes at the slightest altercation, even when I’m not at fault. 

I’ve also realized how impatient I am: I instinctively inch forward at any red light that doesn’t turn green in 0.5 seconds, and I even get frustrated at the car in front of me for driving at the exact speed limit. And that’s just to name a few. 

Of course, there’s more beyond just the faults. It turns out I’m pretty open to feedback and always willing to learn what I don’t know, so when my friends tell me my parking job sucks, I really try to get it right the next few times (and I’m more responsive to my mom’s feedback too now). I’ve also learned that I love having other people in the car with me. Over time, the five seats of my SUV have become an extension of myself, a space that feels like a part of me, and I love sharing that with others. I genuinely enjoy carting around a car full of people from one adventure to the next, or spending quality time with one or two people who mean a lot to me while getting food or coffee.  

These are all character flaws and traits that have probably been with me since birth. But I never bothered to crack myself open and inspect them until I had to climb into the driver’s seat. It’s a bit extreme, but I never looked deeper into myself until it concerned my safety and driving capacity.

Next year, I won’t be driving very much. My college doesn’t allow freshmen to have cars on campus, so I’ll miss all the moments of learning and failing and growing that I experienced within these four doors and tinted windows. Not to worry, though, I’ll be doing all that from within a dorm room, which I can’t imagine is much bigger than my Acura. I’m looking forward to all the future opportunities to recognize my real parts and imperfections, but I’m glad that I was given the chance to explore myself from behind the wheel first. And no, I don’t have road rage. At least I don’t think so.