[ThrowbackThursday post from a few years ago on Marcia Meara’s fabulous blog, The Write Stuff. Driving around London for past few weeks reminds me of why I really shouldn’t be allowed behind the wheel, at least there. That is all I will say.]
The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status, or ethnic background, is that, deep down inside, we all believe that we are above-average drivers.”
― Dave Barry,
“Do NOT,” my mother warned as she slid out of the red pleather bench seat of the Vomit Comet, “…come out without IT.” I had just turned sixteen, and IT was my drivers license. Growing up in a California suburb where you practically needed a car to drive to your mailbox, a license meant freedom and adulthood and illicit trips to the beach. In my case, it also meant relief for my mother, who ran a one-woman taxi service for her ten children, frequently logging upwards of a hundred miles in a day.
While I pictured trips to the drive-in with all my friends—the Vomit Comet was purchased to my parents’ rigid specifications regarding the number of children that could be crammed into its seatbelts-are-for-people-without-spare-kids triple rows of seats—my mother was dreaming of the day someone else would help drive to school/grocery/Sunday School/afterschool/after-afterschool/and on and on.
I did indeed come out with the license, and duly received the keys to Gus, a geriatric VW bug twice my age who predated modern conveniences like a gas gauge, but boasted three important features—he ran (mostly), he had a great radio, and he was a teenaged Californian’s most essential fashion accessory—a convertible.
Gus died heroically a year or so later with his radio on, blocking the entrance to the beach at Santa Cruz and resulting in a traffic jam so legendary it made the evening news and the next four decades of my father’s conversation. But I went on to drive for all of the following 40+ years. I even spent a gazillion years (that’s in parent-terror units) doing the required behind-the-wheel practice with all four kids.
You’re a rotten driver,” I protested. “Either you ought to be more careful, or you oughtn’t drive at all.”
“I am careful.”
“No you’re not.”
“Well, other people are,” she said lightly.
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“They’ll keep out of my way,” she insisted. “It takes two to make an accident.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald,
But none of that mattered to Her Majesty’s Driving and Vehicle Licensing Agency, who seemed to feel that while my colonial-trained driving skills were all very well for prissy American road conditions, here in Britain they would be measured, tested, and (undoubtedly) found wanting.
In the UK, driving is not an automatic rite of passage but a privilege that must be earned. Indeed, most years many more people fail than pass. The first hurdle is the written test, which includes a very fun video simulation that is (at least for mamas with on-the-job experience of four video-game savvy offspring) a LOT easier and not nearly as gory as Grand Theft Auto. The second test part is the usual series of written questions, most of which have one realistic answer mixed in with several answers composed by space aliens on crack, along the lines of:Q. IF YOU COME TO A ROAD BLOCKED BY 157 STATIONARY SHEEP, SHOULD YOU:
- A. Run at them waving your hands and yelling, “Shoo. Shoo, I say!”
- B. Honk your horn and flash your lights because what the heck else do you have to do and it might be fun to make sheep jump.
- C. Rev your engine and floor it. You pay your road tax, and you sincerely doubt those wooly freeloaders have coughed up a single pence, so they can bloody well just get out of your way.
- D. Turn off your engine, offer the shepherd a cup of tea from your thermos, and discuss the weather.
ANSWER: D, while obviously correct, is tricky because it doesn’t mention that you will also need to discuss his fine wee dog as well.
So I was able to dispose of the written test without too much trouble. I was issued a provisional driving license, but during my ‘practice’ period, we had to install a giant red L on front and back of the car. The Hub (who had, of course, taken and passed his driving test back when we first arrived) was not amused.
But a far more dire fate awaited me. His name wasn’t Justin Bieber, he informed me when he arrived in his Ford Fiesta from Get Your License In A Week Driving School, although due to his Glaswegian accent, I couldn’t quite tell what his name actually was. I’m pretty sure I could have been his
grandmother, but Not-Justin’s expertise tended more toward instructing teenaged girls. He was frighteningly upbeat.
Not-Justin had a tendency to remind me not to hit objects in front of me, along with an obsession with mirrors I hadn’t experienced since being a teenaged girl myself. He told me to “act like a meerkat” and mimed sitting up with big eyes and jerky head swivels. I told him what unlikely combination of hell and his personal physical attributes would have to occur first, and we mutually agreed to (mostly) keep silent.
It was harder to get my driver’s license than to get pregnant and give birth.—Julie Bowen
Over our series of two-hour drives, Not-Justin initiated me into the mysteries of the British road. Of course, I’d already been driving on my American license, so I had noted a number of differences between American and British driving, to which I added Not-Justin’s observations. I categorized it all in terms of life-threatening (to me) cardiac events and pleasant surprises.
HEART ATTACKS WAITING TO HAPPEN:
- I glance at the next car over and realize that a child or maybe even a dog is driving. Only as I’m breathing into a paper bag do I remember that the driver is on the opposite side of the car, presumably to be near the steering wheel.
- I look at the road and wonder how a car could possibly fit. [NOTE: I use the term “road” loosely, since many seem to be little winding animal tracks that someone paved—also, a term used loosely—when cars started driving down them. Many roads are so narrow, that I picture the deer stopping, pulling over, and even backing up when encountering another animal attempting to go up the track in the opposite direction. That’s certainly what the cars have to do.]
- In addition to Not-Justin’s meerkat obsession with nonstop mirror checks, he informed me that the parking brake needed to be set every time the car stopped, and the engine turned off. Seriously. I countered by inquiring if it was then okay to turn left on a red light. He turned pale and was still shuddering blocks later.
- To turn the car around, Not-Justin told me, instead of making a U-turn, you back into a side street and pull out going forward— a maneuver guaranteed to get you arrested in the States (except in South Carolina, of course, where as far as I could tell you would need to commit cold-blooded vehicular murder or vote Democrat to get arrested). I asked Not-Justin if this was a little driving-instructor prank and the police would be waiting to hand my L-plated self my very first UK ticket, but he assured me that driving instructors HAVE no sense of humor. When I just could NOT make myself do this, Not-Justin informed me (in revenge for my left-on-red sin) that it would almost certainly be on the driving test.
UK drivers aren’t required to stop for emergency vehicles or even a school bus. On the plus side, they are extremely careful of cyclists and the odd sheep in the road.
- Roundabouts. There are actually roundabouts that have more roundabouts inside and around them. I’ve been on extreme carnival rides that weren’t as scary.
- Cars park facing in every direction (instead of the direction of traffic). (Actually, it didn’t take me long to move this one over to the Pleasant Surprises section…)
- UK drivers are incredibly friendly, allowing you to enter traffic or pass with just the British Wave, which can vary from a full-on hand waft that would do the Queen proud to a casual one finger salute. (No, not THAT finger, you Americans…)
- That automatic 10-15MPH over the speed limit we drive in the States just doesn’t happen here. In fact, with national speed limits and nationwide video cameras ready to snap your picture and mail you a ticket, speeders are rare birds. (Plus it’s fun to live in a country small enough to have nationwide speed limits and weather reports.)
- Clearly, I haven’t made it much past seventh grade, because I find the signs here to be unrelentingly hilarious. [NOTE: in America, humping is a more private activity which would generally be unexpected on public thoroughfares.] Still, you have to hand it to the British for sheer stamina. Seriously…a mile?
- And then there are those crossing signs for all the animals—toucans, pelicans, zebras… The combination paints a picture that’s frankly… well…
To Not-Justin’s shock and my own amazement, the actual driving test was kind of fun. The DVLA examiner and I had a wonderful time talking about our kids, grandkids, dogs, and we even (when we passed her on the street) waved to his mother.
A few days later, my new license arrived while I wasn’t at home. Lately the dog has gotten quite competitive with our letter carrier, and often there is a tug of war over our mail. So by the time I arrived home and opened the letter with all the teethmarks, my brand new license looked like it belonged to a morose Klingon with a remarkable forehead bulge.