Driven to distraction

Sunday, March 25, 2012

It was a tough old Monday morning here at Go Stay Work Play Live HQ back on March 12th, which will not be news to those of you who follow my on-again, off-again Twitter feed.

Yes, I had my driving test. No, I did not pass my driving test.

A little background is probably required here. I have been driving in Canada since 1985, and I think it's fair to say that is a respectably long time. To give a bit of perspective, when I got my driver's licence Ronald Reagan was President of the United States, Live Aid was raising money for famine in Ethiopia, and "Back to the Future" (the first one) was a summer blockbuster. So I think we can agree that I am not new to the whole business of safely piloting an internal-combustion-engine-driven conveyance around the roads. I've never even had a bloody speeding ticket. And because of Canada's preferred status as a Commonwealth nation, I was allowed to exchange my Canadian driver's licence for a UK one in a straight swap. Handy.

However - and this is the maddening, hair-pullingly frustrating thing about this whole business - UK licences are issued according to the type of vehicle in which you passed your test. If you drove an automatic transmission car in your test, you are restricted to driving automatic transmission vehicles only and there will be a little notation to that effect on your license. Want to drive a manual? Pass your test in a manual. When I tell people here that Canadian licenses don't differentiate and that the Canadian system assumes that if you don't know how to drive a manual transmission car you simply won't drive a manual transmission car their reactions range from mild incredulity to scandalised shock and disbelief. It's as if they envision an entire nation of drivers grinding their gears into fine iron filings and rolling backwards into other cars, cyclists, passing pedestrians and the occassional stray puppy. I promise, it's not like that.

At first I thought there might be a way to get some kind of documentation from Canada that would prove I was not new to the clutch and the gear stick. Something, say, that showed I owned, registered and insured a series of manual transmission vehicles for more than 20 years in Canada, perhaps? I got in touch with the UK authority for this kind of thing, the DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency). After politely asking what sort of document might solve this thorny issue, I was told I'd need to provide proof of having passed my test in a manual in Canada. But wait, I said, no one records that kind of information in Canada because NO ONE CARES. Was there not something else I could send?

Here is the response I got:

Unfortunately because the Canadian Authorities do not record the type of transmission used in a test, when a driver exchanges a full Canadian licence, the British licence will be restricted to automatics unless the driver can provide confirmation from the relevant licensing authority that a manual test has been passed.

Yours sincerely,

Customer Service Representative
Driving Standards Agency

Is it just me, or is this circular logic? Here's how I read this: "We know Canada doesn't keep track of this stuff. Nevertheless, you have to produce a document (which we know does not exist) to prove this thing that no one wrote down 25 years ago. Thanks for playing."

Nonetheless that's how it is. If I want to be legally permitted to drive a manual transmission car - and almost all cars over here are manuals - then I have to pass a UK driving test in a manual transmission car. So I decided I'd just have to grit my teeth and take the test. However, I was not so arrogant as to think that, 25 years after I last took a driving test, and in a country where they drive on the wrong/other side of the road, that I'd be able to manage a pass without taking a few lessons.

So that's what I've been doing for the last few months. I booked a test date - March 12th, 9:07 am, at the Hither Green Test Centre (which sounds like it should be a sylvan paradise and is in fact a faceless London suburb somewhere to the right of Peckham). Then I booked a package of 10 hours of lessons with Red Driving School. The practical test fee is £65. The lessons were £250. This is not a cheap business.

It turned out that my instructor - Mohammed - was a lovely guy, and I got along with him really well. This is partly because he laughed at my jokes, and partly because he was pretty damned patient with me, and my sloppy haven't-had-to-pass-a-test-in-25-years driving habits, and my incredulousness about all kinds of quirks in the UK driving system.

The lovely Mohammed, and the tiny black car.

Mohammed quickly determined that he didn't need to teach me how to drive, he needed to teach me how to pass the test, which are two very different things. There are lots of things to trip up on. For instance in North America the habit is to signal first, then check mirrors and shoulder check, and then carry on. Here the mantra is "mirrors, signal, manoeuvre". It's iron-clad. Signal before you check and you'll be assessed a minor fault during the test. 15 minor faults and you fail. Four minors of the same type and you fail. And if you cause another driver to slow, swerve, stop or swear (the four Ss) that's a serious fault and you might as well pack up and head home. One serious fault and all is lost.

Of course you've also got to demonstrate proficiency with a number of manoeuvres like the dreaded parallel park (here called reverse parking). There are five manoeuvres, one of which you'll be asked to perform during the test.  They are: reverse parking (parallel parking), U turns, bay parking (backing into a parking spot), emergency stops, and the baffling Left Reverse Around a Corner. Yep. You have to prove you know how to BACK UP AROUND A CORNER, a move that would likely see you clapped irons if you tried it in any Canadian city.

So Mohammed and I worked away on a series of Saturday afternoons. I drove and drove and drove, and he drilled me on the mirror-signal-manoeuvre business, and tried to get me to stop riding the clutch (a minor fault), and helped me get used to shifting with my left hand (weird!), and quizzed me on theory questions, and guided me through countless roundabouts, which are a bit confusing.

Roundabout By the time we got to the last lesson on the Saturday before my test, I was feeling pretty confident. Mohammed and I parted ways and he promised to pick me up at 7am on Monday morning so that I could drive to the test centre and then have a solid hour of warm-up, practice my manoeuvres, and a zip through a few roundabouts before the test at 9am. All in hand.

On the Sunday night before my test I was out at a lovely event with friends when I got a call from Mohammed who informed me that something had come up at the last minute and he would not be able to accompany me on my test the next morning. But I shouldn't worry because he'd arranged for another instructor from the same company to be there, in the exact same kind of tiny black car, at the same time, so it would all be fine. Suuuuuuure. I was nervous enough to begin with, and this did nothing to boost my confidence.

The next morning Omar arrived as promised, and off we drove. We did not get far. As soon as I'd moved off (we don't call it "pulling out" over here) he told me to pull over.
Omar: Did you notice that I'm not wearing my seatbelt?
Me: Er... no, I did not.
Omar: This is your responsibility as the driver.
Me: No one has ever mentioned that before.
Omar: Mmmm.
It turns out Omar said that a lot. "Mmmm." As in:
Omar: Why are you indicating right? (Translation:"Why are you signalling right?")
Me: I'm getting ready to move off right, so I'm indicating right. ("I'm getting ready to pull out right, so I'm signalling right.")
Omar: But there is no one to see you indicate, so this is unnecessary.
Me: I was taught to indicate when moving off.
Omar: If you indicate when it is not necessary this can confuse other drivers.
Me: That's not what I was taught.
Omar: Mmmm.
Omar: Do you always grip the gear stick this way? We call this "The Claw". Do you know the "Palm Method"?  It is the preferred method.
Me: (grinding teeth) I've been shifting this way for 25 years. Perhaps 45 minutes before my driving test is not the best time to try to change this.
Omar: Mmmm.
And don't even get me started on the "dry steering" and the reverse parking manoeuvre. So you can imagine that I was not filled with confidence going into my driving test after two hours behind the wheel with Omar. I'm not in any way implying that Omar was not a good, competent instructor. It's simply apparent that there are different schools of thought about some of this stuff, and Mohammed and Omar are in different schools. It's also apparent that the time to change schools is not on the morning of your driving test, because by the time we got back to the test centre after the warm up my confidence was lower than the parking garage under the ninth level of Hell.

Given all that, I thought the test went fairly smoothly except for two things, which naturally were two things too many.  I don't really want to get into exactly what happened, but let's say that in one case there was honking on the part of another driver, and though no one ended up in an ambulance, I suspect that at least two of the four Ss were involved (swerving and swearing, I think).  It was not just a serious fault, but a dangerous fault.  Game over.  Of course the examiner was right to fail me on that, no doubt about it.  But damn, I can't help but feel that I was not in the best head space for that test.  It would have been stressful even with the lovely Mohammed in the car.  After dealing with Omar and his Mmmms it was headache, dry mouth, about-to-burst-into-tears, off-the-charts stressful.

I know I'm not even remotely objective about this, but it seems to me that the UK driving test is - and I think this is the technical term - bloody hard. 54% of all tests are failed, and only about 20% pass on their first attempt. People take an average of 44 hours of lessons before passing, though to be fair, most are new drivers who are figuring out everything for the first time.  I've talked to people who had to retake the test SIX TIMES, and these are not mouth-breathing cretins, these are normal intelligent friends and colleagues of mine.  (Incidentally, the record is 36 unsuccessful attempts at the practical test.) One friend failed the test for NOT driving in a bus lane when it was available to her.  I'm telling you, they take no prisoners over at the DVLA.

But here is the thing that makes me really crazy about this whole business. I HAVE A VALID UK DRIVING LICENCE. Her Majesty's government has deemed that I can be trusted on England's roads. In fact, before I traded my licence I could have driven any damned car I wanted, automatic or manual, on the strength of my Canadian licence. The minute I surrendered my Canadian licence for a UK automatic-only one I was suddenly no longer fit to drive a manual transmission car. Nothing changed about my skill level or experience, but now I'm a danger to myself and others if I get behind a gear shift. What the hell is that about? 

Ok, ok, ok, I just have to keep breathing calmly and get over this.  I'm taking a bit of time to cool off about this, and then I'm going to phone those dragons at the DVLA and book another practical test.  And then Mohammed and I will have another go at it.  And if we're all lucky, I'll pass the next time and I'll be able to put this all behind me and you won't have to read another two thousand words of me ranting about the injustice of the whole stupid thing.

Let's all just keep our fingers crossed.


Anonymous said...

LOL - you gotta tell Wes this one live when we have dinner in June. I have driven a few thousand miles all over the UK in the past few years, in a manual shift, on the wrong side of the road, and had people do all 4 "S" things to me at once! Many times! Maybe I am on some wanted posters at the post office! Best of luck, Pam. We're cheering for your success next time. rh

Kathryn said...

I feel your frustration. Upon moving to the US, I had to 'surrender' my Canadian driver's license and get a California one. If I had just moved from another state I would have only had to do a written test. But moving from Canada - where, clearly, no one knows how to drive (but yet I was entitled to drive any car I wanted in the US BEFORE I went to GET the license)I had to also do the practical test. It was quite the opposite of your test. I was asked to drive around the block, and reverse down a side street against a curb. That was it. As we drove back to the DMV I asked "Aren't we going to go on the freeway?" and was told "Oh, we don't do that. We don't have time to do that for each driver - we only do it for people missing limbs or with severe vision problems." Ummm???!! So, as much as your experience was annoying - take comfort in the fact that they actually want skilled drivers on the road. It's a free-for-all here!

Anonymous said...

I'm with you all the way Pam. I have been supporting my Granddaughter whilst she did her theory test. At the fourth attempt we drove over 100 miles away for her to take her test where there were facilities for people with Dyslexia and comprehension. She needed a room of her own to read aloud and there is nowhere in this city or this county that provides that. Britain seems to be a stickler for making making everything as awkward as possible - and I'm British!!!!!! A.

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