I got my UK driving licence at the age of 17 – the minimum legal driving age there – and I somehow managed to pass not only first time but with an entirely clean test sheet.
I had had no more than ten formal lessons, a few trips around industrial estates with my Dad to practice maneouvres and my Grandad had made me do stunt driving a la Starsky and Hutch, like reversing around a series of cones, even though that was never going to form any part of any test. But still my instructor thought I was going to fail. Luckily this was in the age before separate theory tests. I still have no capacity for memorising statistics and numbers. There was never a chance I would be able to accurately recall all those stopping distances. Had there been a written test back then, I am sure I would have failed it at least once. But back then knowledge was assessed as part of the practical test so I didn’t let it vex me so much.
My instructor decided it would be best if I did not sit the test at the nearest centre because I was constantly driving to where I thought I should go rather than where I was being told to go. I was just too familiar with the roads there. So instead it was decided that I would sit my test and the next closest testing centre which was a much smaller town. I soon sussed out that there were really only two routes I could ever be taken on my test since only those two routes would permit all of the components of the test to take place. I, therefore, set out to memorise every details of those routes even down to how many turns of the wheel were required to reverse perfectly around each corner. Still my instructor was sure I was going to fail and that the test was just going to be a learning exercise. That may have been because his attempts at getting me to do an emergency stop always resulted in me gradually rolling to a stop that could have mowed down several grannies. I just couldn’t seem to get myself to reflexively respond to a faked emergency. A tap of a newspaper on the dashboard was not a nonagenarian stepping off the kerb after all.
It transpired, however, that my driving examiner was a talker. As soon as he got in the car, he asked me about my fairly rare surname. He was able to geographically pinpoint my paternal family origins – Aberdeenshire – because of it and told me that he was also from Aberdeen. And so followed a test that was really just a monologue from him about Aberdeen and travelling in Scotland and places he had lived with the occasional interruption for him to say, “Turn left ahead” or “do a three-point turn here”. I am pretty confident that most of the time he was not paying full, focused attention to my driving. He asked me to park up and I knew that was the driving element over and that I was now going to be asked some questions to assess my knowledge. As soon as he held up a picture of a triangle with a cow silhouette in it and asked me what this sign meant, I knew I had passed. All the questions I was asked were very basic, the most challenging one being what colour the cat’s eyes are on a slip road. He informed me that I had passed. Phew! But it was when he showed the paperwork to my instructor that he and I were both dumbstruck because there was not a single fault recorded. It was a flawless test. Except that I know it wasn’t a flawless test: I just had an examiner who was so busy gabbing that he had not noticed my minor errors (though none of those would have led to a fail).
So that was how I passed my first driving test and became a qualified driver: no specific theory test and a hyper-loquacious examiner.
Now I am in the process of undergoing my attempt to become a fully qualified driver in the US.
Since I finally – finally! – have all of the documentation I need, today I went to the driving centre to obtain my learner’s permit. I thought all I was doing was obtaining the equivalent of a UK provisional license – a permission slip to start learning to drive, the first hurdle in becoming a fully-fledged, licensed driver.
Then came the bombshell that to even obtain the learner’s permit I had to take the Knowledge test.
I have not read the Pennsylvania Driver’s Manual. I have flicked through it and I looked up some specific things to ensure I was not breaking the law in the meantime (since I am legally driving using my UK licence and international licence). I have not, however, studied it in any way. The pass rate is 80% with 18 questions. I had that sinking feeling.
I was directed to a little booth containing a touch screen. I poked a button and my test began. Multiple choice questions appeared on the screen, I made a selection, confirmed that selection and then the screen would indicate correct (green for go!) or incorrect (red for “You are never going to drive in this country ever, you dimwit!”).
And I was getting green after green. How was this possible? Partly it was luck I’m sure. A rash of questions involving statistics would have scuppered me for sure. I was finding I could answer them without much brain-ache by dint of over two decades’ driving experience and simple common sense. I did get two questions wrong: one because I guessed the wrong level of fine for a drink-driving offence (I wrongly erred on the side of harshness) and one because the question and potential answers were so riddled with American terms I could not stitch them together into something coherent to allow me to comprehend what was being asked of me. So I guessed and got it wrong. That was the penultimate question. I got the last one right and a screen appeared congratulating me for passing.
Really? I passed? Phew!
It didn’t all go as smoothly though. Being me and my luck there had to be a glitch. That ruddy lost hyphen struck again! My SSN was one of the critical components of my permit application and, of course, in their wisdom the Department of Social Security had failed to insert a hyphen in my surname. It transpires there is also not a hyphen in my surname as it appears on my green card. I am scheduling in some primal screaming just to vent my frustration over this lapse in punctuation. Neither of these documents, therefore, exactly and precisely correspond to my passport, which records my surname accurately. There was some humming and hawing, some referring to superiors, and finally they decided that the SSN was the over-riding supporting document and that, therefore, my driving permit was going to have to be issued sans hyphen.
The Curse of the Lost Hyphen strikes again.
Slowly but surely US bureaucracy is eroding my identity.
But my quest to have a US driving licence is progressing.
Giveth and taketh.