Learning to drive is dangerous. Your life is quite literally in your instructor's hands, so she or (most likely) he needs to be someone you trust and feel comfortable with – not someone whose own behaviour leaves you fearing for your safety.
But women are sharing accounts of the inappropriate comments, sexual harassment and worse that they've experienced at the hands of male driving instructors. More than 20 women have reported being sexually harassed or assaulted by their driving instructors to the Everyday Sexism project within the last fortnight, while more than 100 had done so in the past six years, its founder Laura Bates wrote on The Guardian today.
Women recalled tales of being young, vulnerable and powerless in the presence of more powerful older men. If you think about it, a driving lesson – in a confined space, with no one else present to stand by a victim's account of the situation and nowhere for them to escape to – is the perfect environment for a predator to strike. It's only in our post- #MeToo world, with female victims of abusive men more likely to be believed (or so we hope), that many women feel comfortable sharing their accounts. Who knows how many more have been swept under the rug in decades past?
As someone who was on the receiving end of similar behaviour for over a year between 2016 and 2017, this didn't surprise me one bit. I was 24 when I first started driving lessons, and while I thank my lucky stars that I was never physically harmed, it was bad enough that I couldn't continue learning without changing instructor (wasting months of learning time).
The middle aged, married man in question took an unhealthy interest in my sex and dating life, asking if I'd slept with men I'd been on dates with, and trying to enlist me to help him cheat on his wife, who was apparently too "out of shape" for his flabby self. He'd scroll through explicit pictures of random women he’d added on Facebook and ask me what to say to "turn them on". I remembered having to prove I could read number plates when I signed up for lessons, but didn't recall needing to prove my sexting expertise.
He'd comment on my body, too, describing me as "too athletic" and regularly saying I'd be more attractive with "more meat" on my bones. "If I wanted a thin woman I'd go to B&Q to buy a rake," he told me once. He’d point out other women's breasts and bums to me as they passed by. What had he expected me to say in response? Another time, he looked me up on Facebook during the lesson and added me later that evening. I declined and never arranged another lesson.
He insisted on a hug and then bombarded me with Facebook friend requests
Alice Heather, 21
Judging from the stories other women have shared with Refinery29, this creepy behaviour is not isolated. Alice Heather, 21, from London, had an eerily similar experience four years ago. Her instructor, a married man with children, would regularly probe her with personal questions (like if she "worked out" or had "a lucky guy"), call her pet names, and touch her hands on the wheel and gear stick too often to be justified as "helpful".
On one occasion down a dark country road, she claims he sensed her nerves and assured her: "Don't worry, I'm not going to murder you." The behaviour continued once he and Heather parted ways. "When I passed my test he insisted on a hug and then bombarded me with Facebook friend requests. I'd ignore them and eventually had to block him."
Luckily, Heather claims to have been a savvy, mature 17-year-old, so rather than giving her instructor what he (presumably) wanted, his behaviour made her "cringe". "I knew his type from working in hospitality and dealing with creepy old men, so I wasn’t going to fall for his crap," she adds, but admits she still wishes she'd reported him.
Sara Webster (not her real name), 37, recalled receiving a Valentine's card and chocolates from her married instructor. "It’s only looking back that I realise how dodgy it was. He used to add on an extra hour to my lessons for free and delay putting me forward for my test," she said, adding that she's sure the experience led to her failing first time.
He leaned forwards and kissed me squarely on the mouth
Lana Shiel, 26
"I was 100% ready for the test and looking back, he definitely held me back on purpose. I was so naive and introverted and politeness was everything so I never said anything. And I still can’t drive!"
A minority of women feel endangered to the extent that the only option is to report their instructor to the police. Lana Shiel, 26, from Enfield, north London, took this step after being harassed by a married instructor in his 50s. He began touching her after a few months and the pattern culminated in assault. "He started to hug me at the end of the lessons, and I know Turkish culture so didn’t think too much of it. But when he asked for a 'cuddle' at the end of a lesson, the phrasing made me feel uncomfortable.
"I declined but he either didn’t hear or pretended not to hear and hugged me anyway. I let it slide," she said. This pattern continued until one day, he went in for a kiss. "He went to hug me and I could see his lips tracing out a pathway to mine. Short of time, I turned my head sharply into the headrest, so he hugged me and ended up planting a kiss on my right cheek."
Despite her struggles to move away, she continued, "he held my head in place, cocked his head to the side, smiled, then leaned forwards and kissed me squarely on the mouth. I was in complete shock that he would be so brazen, so decided against confronting it at the time. I said thank you for the lesson, smiled and removed myself from the car."
It was a police officer friend who encouraged her to report the incident to her local force. "I called the police when I was at home to file a report and they came to my house the next evening to take a statement. I was very surprised at my reaction to this, considering I'd been sexually assaulted by a senior at work when I was 18.
"I was much more vocal and proactive about reporting it than I was this time round. The scale of assault then was much larger though, so I felt 'not enough' had happened on this occasion to warrant calling the police." But it was the officers who deemed it sexual assault rather than harassment, as contact had happened and there was intent, and she had resisted him and turned away to show she wasn't consenting. She cut ties with him immediately and is planning on reporting him to the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA).
The DVSA updated its guidelines in February, warning instructors that if they became sexually involved with 16- or 17-year-olds they could face punishment, even if it was consensual. It revealed it had conducted 109 investigations into instructor misconduct, including inappropriate sexual behaviour, between 2016-2017, and encouraged learners to report inappropriate behaviour.
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.