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Why I’ve given up driving (…and it’s not a new year’s resolution)

Monday, 1st January 2024. Mark Mardell, The Independent

When former BBC correspondent Mark Mardell was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, he underwent tests to ensure he was not a greater risk behind the wheel. He was declared ‘not unsafe’, but felt compelled to make a painful – and life-changing – decision

It’s around this time of year that people feel compelled to think of things to give up for the new year. In that regard, I am way ahead of the pack. I have already given up driving.

I’m not forbidden, it’s my choice – and, in the finest tradition of resolutions, it is a pain.

I’ve never exactly been a petrolhead and I have never been in love with cars – I used to say as long as they work, have a good audio system and are preferably red, anything will do.

While I did enjoy the act of driving, that is not what I miss. It is the freedom it grants. While I don’t agree with the line from an old Mod tune “A man ain’t a man with a ticket in his hand, you gotta have wheels”, it captures a certain sense of the triumph of individual ease over a planned process. The pain is in the loss of autonomy, the ability to go where you want when you want on the spur of the moment, at the drop of a hat.

So why have I stopped ?

A year and a half ago, shortly before I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, my wife Jo noticed I was weaving on the motorway so encouraged me to drive less. Then, I noticed I was continually, alarmingly, pulling to the left. So as soon as my condition was spotted by an old friend, I stopped altogether.

The very first thing on the Parkinson’s UK website’s “to-do list for the newly diagnosed” is the advice that you need to tell the driving licence people in Swansea about your condition. I must admit it wasn’t my top priority but, being a dutiful citizen, I notified them pretty much immediately. Eventually, I got an offer of a special test for people like us and went along to a nearby mobility centre, which was originally set up in the 1930s as the UK’s first “cripple’s training centre”. I kid you not.

Even in these more enlightened days, first you have to wait, which is not a problem. The waiting room is the problem. The NHS and its allies seem in no doubt that what will calm, soothe, even cure everyone under its care is forcing them to wait for hours while daytime TV blasts its inanities full volume at us hapless captives. Perhaps the theory is that any indignity imposed will be a breeze compared to being subjected to the heart-warming, but very loud, exposure of the minor peccadillos of very minor celebrities.

Anyway, when that was over, the first test into my cognition seemed to be going swimmingly once we’d agreed there was little point in asking me who the prime minister was, as it was changing with such frequency that no one could be sure, whatever their neurological fitness.

There followed a series of tests on “the machine” which made me feel like a test pilot playing an early -1980s video game, of the sort where you have to shoot baddies but avoid killing mums and nuns. Only this one involves slamming on the brakes to avoid running over anyone at all, even if they looked like a proper villain. After a series of these exercises in which I not only avoided barrelling into parties of school children but also stopped at every single red light, the nice lady and gentlemen decided I was ready for a real car and a real road.

Now, I hate driving tests because I have a history of failure. Not only because when I was 17 or 18, I failed three times before I eventually passed, but because, much more recently, in America, I failed my Maryland State test, twice. Once for lacking neatness in my parking – it was what they call on MasterChef “rather rustic” – and once for failing to turn right on a red light: if there is nothing coming, you can and so should. America is so weird.

So I felt significantly jittery, making my way around the mean streets of northeast Surrey which were lined with parked cars on both sides. I felt sure I was going to scrape one of them while on the alert for nuns and mums wantonly jumping into my path. But eventually it was all over without incident, and I was sent back to the waiting room and the tender mercies of daytime television to await my verdict.

They deliberated fast. I was judged “not unsafe”, and allowed to keep my licence. After this less-than-ringing endorsement, I decided to continue not driving.

I am rather surprised by how many of my fellow “Parkies” do continue to drive, despite a conspicuous lack of coordination and dexterity. I view it in rather the same light as my reaction to those who condemn drinking and driving but ask: “Surely one pint is alright?”

My choosing not to drive any more has been even more of a life-changing imposition for my wife, who now spends hours more behind the wheel, acting as my personal chauffeur. It has changed our dynamic in lots of ways. Whereas I had been known to start beeping the horn impatiently seconds after getting behind the steering wheel, she is now the one kept waiting while I’m still inside the house fighting my recalcitrant jacket to allow my arms entry into its sleeves.

And it is not just that the burden of driving now falls entirely on Jo’s shoulders, but that extra pressure ripples out. For what’s the point in two people going to the supermarket when it is a job for one? So now she does not only all the driving, but all the shopping too.

There’s no respite on an evening out. Like most couples, we used to take it in turns to drive but unless we shell out for a taxi, Jo is permanently the designated driver. The only downside for me is that the driver gets to choose the soundtrack, so we listen to her chosen podcasts rather than my excitingly noisy post-punk and nu soul playlists.

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