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Letter from St. Andrews: Driving Contest

Think you’re a good driver—of a car? The British License exam will test all of your road skills.

By: George Peper

Editor's Note: This column appeared in the February/March 2009 issue of LINKS.

Not long ago my good wife informed me that she intended to apply for a British driver’s license.

God help her.    

There’s really no need for this. If I were she, I’d avoid it for as long as possible—because of two major issues. The first relates to the way the Brits deal with speeding violations. In contrast to the U.S., where the cops pull you over and you have a chance to chat your way out of trouble, here it’s all done with speed cameras. As the police sit in the station eating coffee and donuts (sorry, tea and scones) a nationwide network of surveillance cameras cruelly record the speed of your car, the number on your license plate, and the expression on your face.    

In our first two years here I had a bit of trouble adjusting to the slower pace of things, with the result that my nondescript little blue Honda hatchback became one of the most photogenic vehicles in the United Kingdom. But no worries, in those days I had only an American license. Thus instead of penalty points and hefty fines, all I got were letters from the local constable saying, effectively “We’re a bit cheesed off at you, Yank. One of these days we’re going to get you, but for the moment we’ll admit that you have us over a bit of a barrel.” That honeymoon ended the day my auto insurance company said, ”Get a license or get a horse.“        

Now let me make it clear, Libby doesn’t drive with quite the same exuberance I do. Still, she has her moments. I recall an evening in the U.S. when circumstances forced us to take separate cars to a dinner party. On the way home, after a brief stop for gas, I was cruising blithely along when I got pulled over.    

The officer looked at my license and registration, and his eyes popped.   

“George Peper,” he said. “Do you have a wife, Elizabeth Peper, drives a white Jeep Cherokee?”     

“Why yes, I do,” I said anxiously. “Why do you ask?”   

“I pulled her over for speeding five minutes ago,” he said. “I’m not gonna give you both tickets—get the hell out of here.”   

So I was a bit surprised at Libby’s decision. I would have thought she’d want to stay under the British radar. But I suspect she’ll reconsider once she confronts issue number two—the examination process.    

If you’re an expatriate, even if you’ve been driving all your adult life without an accident or violation, the U.K. requires you to pass three different tests—a Theory Test (analogous to our Written Test), a Hazard Perception Test (where you view videos of traffic situations and identify potentially dangerous developments as they arise—the faster you spot them, the higher score you get), and a Road Test (actually not just a Road Test but one of the most stringent driving examinations in the world).    

The Theory Test turns out to be, above all, a gold mine for Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. In order to have any chance of passing it, you must purchase The Official Theory Test for Car Drivers, a 422-page paperback selling for £12.    

There’s a lot to memorize—rules not simply for car drivers but motorcyclists, bicyclists, and pedestrians. There is also a lengthy section entitled “Rules About Animals” with advice such as  “Don’t honk at sheep” and “Don’t expect a broodmare to signal before turning.”   

And speaking of signals, I’m not sure how many different signs, traffic lights, pavement markings, and electronic signals there are in America (a nation with eight million miles of roadway) but I imagine the total falls well short of the 234 signs in the British Theory Test book. They come in a variety of sprightly shapes, sizes, colors, and symbols including one with a Sisyphean fellow attempting to push a boulder with a stick (Work in Progress) and a notably unsettling one—a  car  hurtling off  the edge of a cliff (River Bank Ahead).    

Then there is the whole matter of “crossings” or cross-walks as we know them. Over here there are three different kinds, and with typical British whimsy they’ve christened them “pelican,” “penguin,” and “toucan” crossings. The day I took the Theory Test I knew the differences among them—now I have no idea.     

I also learned, briefly, that bomb demolition vehicles have flashing blue lights, doctors’ cars have flashing green ones, and powered wheelchairs have flashing amber ones (this, presumably, for those who are otherwise unable to distinguish among those vehicles). More importantly, I learned how to measure the wear on my tires and add brake fluid to my engine. Don’t ask me how to do those things today.    

I did pass the test—missed only one of the 35 questions (they wouldn’t tell me which) and earned a high mark on the Hazard Perception Test, maybe because I have a habit of motoring  myself into potentially dangerous situations.     

Now I had my first learner’s permit in 40 years and along with it an enormous scarlet letter “L” to be taped to the rear window of my car. It stands for “learner” and is intended as a way of asking other drivers to have patience with the clueless, bumbling neophyte. Ninety percent of learners have acne and braces—for someone my age, the L means  “loser.” When the cellophane gave way, I let it slide onto the back seat.    

And so it was on to the Road Test. Several friends had warned me that I’d have no chance of passing it without getting some driving instruction, so I signed up for a series of six one-hour lessons which took place on the same streets and highways where the test is administered.    

The first day, the instructor just asked me to drive for a while as I normally would. After fifteen minutes he had me pull over. Then he told me I’d made 37 mistakes. For the next five lessons I stopped driving naturally and instead simulated a robot, studiously planning and executing every start, stop and turn. My lessons introduced me to a mind-numbing series of acronyms to be obeyed: POM (Position, Observe, Maneuver), MSM (Mirror, Signal, Maneuver), and the dreaded MSPSL (Mirror, Signal, Position, Speed, Look). It was a bit like being taught exactly how to position your legs and feet to walk down a flight of stairs.    

My favorite was the process for pulling out from a curbside parking space. For the test, it had to be performed in exactly this order: Press down clutch. Select first gear. Return hand to steering wheel. Apply gas and find a gentle “biting point” while keeping clutch down. Check center mirror. Check side mirror. Look over shoulder and check blind spot. Release hand brake. Turn wheels. Recheck blind spot. Pull out.    

When I arrived for the test I was one nervous robot. We  began with a look under the hood where I answered a few questions about the engine, showed how to check the oil and demonstrated my knowledge of tire wear. I nailed the back-into-a-parking spot, parallel parking, and K turn maneuvers, and I thought I’d done reasonably well over the rest of the nearly 45 minutes.    

Once back at the test center, I got the word. “I’m afraid you’ve failed,” said the examiner. “You made only four errors, but three of them were in the same maneuver and that means failure.”   

My downfall—the pull-out from the curb. I’m not sure whether I left out one of the 11 steps or just got a few of them in the wrong order. I wasn’t surprised. What did surprise me was my fourth mistake: “Out on the highway, you drove a bit too slowly.”   

After two weeks of relentless curbwork I gave it another try and passed. So I now have both a U.S. and U.K. license. Happily, my encounters with police—on both sides of the Atlantic—have been few, but at least I now know how to deal with them: I show the U.S. cops my U.K. license and the U.K. guys get the one from the U.S.    

Sometimes it even works.

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