The Passenger

Words by
Alex Holder

Photography by
Coke Bartrina

The last time I drove was in LA. At first I liked the simplicity of their grid system, but very quickly I became so afraid to take a left turn that I ended up driving back to my hotel in one huge spiral. I couldn’t face cutting through on coming traffic, so I’d choose four right turns over one left. It was only when a friend got into my hire car and asked ‘what the fuck are you doing?’ that I realized this wasn’t ok.

I have a driving license but I’m scared of driving. I have never been in an accident, I have eight years no claims bonus and zero points on my license. I have a car, but haven’t driven for four years. I am the passenger.

In an Uber recently, the driver thought it was appropriate to tell me that he was hungover. As I sat in the back, breathing air ‘freshened’ by Air Wick I thought, ‘why do I trust this guy to get me around London more than I trust myself?’ As far as phobias go, being scared to drive a piece of metal at 70 mph isn’t irrational, it’s not like I’ve developed a fear of buttons or feathers. But why did I develop this fear aged 32? I — and I realize how this accusation sounds — believe it’s down to the misogyny across the motoring industry and the sexism I encountered daily when driving.

On my first day of owning a car I became a ‘woman driver’. Less than 24 hours after I drove my secondhand Fiat 500 off the forecourt I stopped to fill it up with petrol, I paid and went to drive off only to realise that my car would not start. As the queue of irate drivers behind me increased, I called the guy at the dealership, ‘woman!’ he said, ‘your steering wheel lock is on.’ A novice’s mistake yes, but an easy one to make — no one had ever told me about steering wheel locks. Was this something I was meant to have learned through osmosis? Perhaps had I been a boy I might have. Maybe older relatives would have talked to me like I had an innate love of cars, I might have bought a car magazine at some point, or flicked through AutoTrader just to have something to discuss with my mates.

Out of the four driving instructors I’ve had three were men. The four cars I’ve owned were all sold to me by a man and with each purchase — I’m embarrassed to admit — my boyfriend or my dad did the talking. The only time a girl bought one of those cars off me, she brought her dad to ‘check the engine and negotiate’. In the eight years of owning a car I have never had a female mechanic. In 2013 it was found that there were 200 female mechanics working in the UK compared to 500,000 male mechanics. As a ‘woman driver’, despite being in the majority — 52 percent of drivers are women — I have consistently been othered by the motoring industry.

‘I hear stories of belittling and being ripped off on a daily basis. We are seen as weak and naive when it comes to the motor trade.’ Louise, a female mechanic tells me. She founded Heels To Wheels, a course to ‘give women knowledge to feel confident when dealing with garages, and their car. ‘If you’re confident in a situation it will show and you’re less likely to be taken advantage of.’ I asked Louise if she has ever felt her gender get in the way of being a mechanic, ‘When I was 19 I found it really tough. From discrimination to sexual harassment I’ve experienced it all. I’m not sure if it’s due to my age now, or that I’ve proven myself or if times have changed for the better but these days I find it much easier.’ Times are changing, today female mechanics account for 10 percent, with 9 percent of garages employing a woman. It’s not equality but a shift is happening.

Right now I defer everything to do with driving to my boyfriend. He puts air in the tires, fills up the tank, books the MOTs, plans the route and does all of the actual driving. In many other ways our relationship pushes against gendered clichés, I earn more, we parent 50/50, he’s the one who wipes down the kitchen sink. We need equality in the car as well, not least because he’s fed up of driving four hour stints with no break.

I know I can’t be the passenger my whole life, so I’ve booked a refresher lesson, and hopefully by the time you’re reading this, I’ll have learned to turn left.