The first time I took driver’s ed was the summer of 86′. There I was in my parachute pants, cruising the cow fields of my home town in an old brown 4-door sedan with my best friend and the shop teacher-slash-driving instructor. We only had three stoplights and the biggest hazard we faced was the occasional elderly person who escaped from the nursing home and was hoofing it at a half a mile an hour down the middle of main street. We had to drive 15 miles just to get somewhere we could learn to change lanes and parallel park. It was summertime and aside from a few “emergency stops” to avoid going in the ditch, the worst part of the whole thing was putting up with our instructor’s terrible jokes. The written portion was a breeze and even the practical test in my parent’s old K-car was remarkably uneventful. I think I recall missing a few points for not looking in my mirrors enough.
Flash forward 25 years and 5,000 miles from home. We can legally drive with our US licenses for another 6 months, but if we wish to continue driving, we need to pass the UK tests. Why do they simply let us have a go at the good citizens of the UK for a year with no training whatsoever? It was a mystery to me at first, but I now understand that it is a key component of the plan to stimulate the economy.
The only way to keep from crying over how painful it is to get a driver’s license here is to focus on the fact that it is extremely expensive–as opposed to focusing on the fact that it is flat out humiliating. A more spiritual person would say it is a humbling experience, but taking roundabouts at 30 mph has evidently tipped my chakras out of whack.
The written portion is not simply a multiple choice test, you also have to pass a hazard perception portion of the test where you click as you observe a hazard developing, which could be anything from a tractor to a little girl on a bike, but you have to click at exactly the right moments, and not too much clicking or you will lose all the points for cheating. The practical, as far as I can tell, is a complete racket. It is so hard that you need LOTS of lessons to know EXACTLY what they are looking for and when. There are approximately 25 driving instructors within a 5 mile radius of our village. Coincidence? I think not. I’ve heard of people taking the test up to 8 times and know adults who would rather not drive rather than face it and/or pay for it one more time. That’s comforting. I tell you what, if and when I do pass the test I will be doing more than just posting it on my facebook page. If we have any money left, it’s party time!
We are over two hundred and eighty quid ($450) into getting our UK licenses so far and all I have to show for it is a provisional license that allows me to take the actual test in the next six months and a mildly improved idea of why people are honking at me. I will admit that the honking has gone down considerably since I got a driving instructor. I still have to pass the written test, then I can take the practical test. This will cost a minimum of another 130 pounds, but I’m sure we’ll both need a couple more lessons, so we can count on at least another 200 pounds ($300). Ug!
Why is it so hard, you ask? Between my inability to signal at the proper moments, lack of enthusiasm for checking my mirrors every 5 seconds and apparent hardwiring for complete stops when I should simply yield, I have my work cut out for me. You would think that it would be a thrill to finally be able to treat nearly all intersections as California stops, which they call a “give way” here, but I am finding it quite unsettling to be ‘in an appropriate gear’ as I approach intersections. It does not seem like a good time to be in any gear if you ask me. Every fiber of my being tells me to be slowing down to a stop. I imagine it to be exactly opposite of what the surfer dude with no shirt on driving the VW bus feels like as he cruises through a stop sign in Santa Cruz with the window down and a warm wind blowing through his long blonde hair. I feel an ulcer coming on.
The procedure for making any change in direction or speed is summed up by MSM/PSGL, which stands for Mirror-Signal-Manouvre/Position-Speed-Gear-Look. That’s right, you drop your speed down by braking, then settle into 2nd gear a hundred yards or so before you get to the actual corner. You keep your foot on the gas and prepare to accelerate through the turn, then look to see if you can actually keep going. You can put it in first gear if it is considered a blind corner, but you are still expected to keep going until the very last second and go if possible. If it’s not clear, then it’s a quick clutch-brake. Oh, and if you do stop for more than two seconds, you are supposed to set your hand brake. They don’t call it the parking brake because you are apparently supposed to use it all the time. If I stop at all ‘give way’ intersections I’ll fail the test for not keeping traffic moving. God forbid I slow anyone down on their way to the chippie. Our driving instructor tells us that we should never make other drivers do the four “S”-es: Stop, Slow, Swerve or Swear. That’s bloody well and good for them, but there are definitely a few S-words flying around in my car.
Don’t even get me started about roundabouts. You know that whole thing about not changing lanes while in an intersection–forget it. Crossing lanes in an intersection is a requirement here. The proper way to exit from the inside lane of a roundabout is to head directly across the outer lane and into the outside lane of the exit road. It doesn’t exactly give me that warm and fuzzy feeling of safety, but I’m getting used to it.
I did have a good laugh when I filled out the application for a provisional license, though. Check out the health questionnaire–I really wanted to tick the box for yes to number 9: Repeated attacks of sudden disabling giddiness? Why, yes!