Thursday, August 9, 2012

Getting a Driving License in the UK

In May, I decided it was time for me to start looking into getting my British driving license.  Since I will be in the UK for the next few years, this is a good idea.  The law here states that my US driving license is only good for a year from when I started living here- then it becomes invalid.  On top of that, no UK insurance company will take ANY of my US driving experience into account- which makes the annual cost of insuring most cars I was looking at more than the price of the car I was looking at.  (One insurance company said that AFTER I got my full license, they would consider up to 3 years of previous experience from another country).  When I was first looking into all of this, I found it a little ridiculous.  I had nearly 12 years of driving experience from home, how hard could it be to get a license here?  And why don't they recognize my experience?  I came to the answer of this after a couple of lessons.

Because we don't really know how to drive in the US.

Don't get me wrong, I know a lot of great drivers back home.  However, the conditions here in the UK (much smaller, curvy, hilly roads) in addition to the fact that 90% of the cars are manual (and you MUST pass the test in a manual car in order to get a full license) make it different.  Oh, and did I mention they drive on the other side of the road?

So, this post, in a recap of everything I had to do to get my license here.  I think it might be the same in any European country- because those people with licenses from the EU are fully recognized here.

Step 1: Find an instructor.  I got a recommendation from another PhD student in my office, Tom.  I called the instructor, Steve, and set up my first lesson.  I explained that I had experience in the US, that I didn't need many lessons, I would be fine.  Just needed to brush up on driving a manual (I understood the logistics of how they work, should be easy to translate that understanding to practical usage, right?!?--> WRONG)

Step 2: Apply for (and pay about £50) provisional license.  This is like a learner's permit back home.  When I took driver's education in 2001, I had to take summer classes before I got the permit. (In the state of Michigan).  Here, you just apply for it by mail, send off your passport, and you are legal to drive.  As long as you have these lovely things displayed on the front and rear of your car, so everyone else on the road can either take pity on you, or be a jerk to you:

Step 3: Lessons.  And then more lessons.  Learn how NOT to stall the car.  Learn how to do hill starts.  Learn how to do reverse manoeuvres.  (There are four of these I could be tested on- turn in the road, reversing around a corner, backing into a parking space or a parallel park).  Learn AGAIN how NOT to stall the car.  Learn how to drive PROPERLY in round-a-bouts.  Understand totally new road signs.  Watch out for pedestrians.  Watch out for MORE pedestrians.  Clutch control.  MIRROR, SIGNAL, MANOEUVRES.

Step 4: Take the theory test.  (and pay another £34) The theory test here has two parts.  A multiple choice, 50 question part.  And a hazard perception part.  Hazard perception is a series of 10 short clips, where you must clip the mouse at the right time whenever you perceive a potential hazard.  I took this the beginning of July.  You can only miss 7 questions on the multiple choice part and you must get a 59% to pass the hazard perception bit.  I missed 4 questions and got a 79% on the hazard perception.  I prepared for this by reading the Highway Code and using a DVD-ROM I got off of Amazon to study.

Step 5: Book the practical test.  (and pay another £61) The soonest I could get a test was for August 9, a month after passing the theory test.  (and the day after my birthday)  And take more lessons.  And a couple more after that.  Have a confidence breakdown that I'm going to do something really stupid.  Stall out.  Stall out some more.  Try to stop doing that.  Get a car.  Learn how to drive it.  Decide that I will drive it for my test the week before.

Step 6: Take the practical test.  Have a lesson beforehand to work all the kinks out.  Stall out in the new car.  A lot.  Because I was being watched (I never stall out when I drive by myself!).  Resign myself to the fact that I may possibly fail.  (after hearing some horror stories from other people.  And reading that the pass rate is less than 50%).  Go to the test center (centre) and meet the guy assessing me.  (known, surprisingly as an assessor).  His name was Oliver.  He was really nice.  First step- read a number plate on a car about 20 meters away.  Had my contacts in- nailed it.  Second step- answer basic questions about the car.  There were two- how would I check the tire pressure and know what the correct pressure was and how would I use the windshield wipers.  Nailed that.  Feeling rather confident at this point.  Took off out of the test center for the "independent drive" portion of the test.  This is where I am told to follow the road signs to certain destinations.  Like Coventry, Hill Wootten, and Kenilworth.  I got to go on an A-road, or a Dual carriageway for a bit, which is essentially a highway to me, but is not classified as a motorway.  (Provisional or Learner drivers are technically not allowed to drive on motorways here).  I then did some round-abouts, went into some neighborhoods around Kenilworth, did a reversing around a corner exercise, and did a couple of hill starts.

It went quite quickly and before I knew it, I was back at the test center, where Steve and Sagar were waiting for me.  I felt I had done well, but I wasn't sure....Oliver asked if I would like my instructor over to hear the results.  I said sure.  Steve and Sagar came over and Oliver said I had passed!  He only had one minor comment on my observations during my reverse exercise (could have done with another head check).  All in all, I got only 4 minor faults (all for mirror checks, pretty standard faults) which is quite low.  You are allowed 15 minor faults during your test before you fail.

Overall, my process was a smooth one to get my license- on average it takes someone 14 months to get one here- I did it in less than 3.  However, it was a lot of hard work (and a lot of money- lessons were pricey as well as all the fees).  I had a LOT of help- a very patient and helpful driving instructor, Sagar gave me good feedback, and other people gave me feedback as well (I'm thinking about Matt and Nick when I drove the Land Rover to Birmingham.)  I think I am a MUCH better driver now than I ever was in the US.  It was a much more stressful endeavor than I imagined it would be, but I am glad I came out of it ok.  I am very very grateful to people who had faith in me, even when I didn't have faith in myself.  It's such a stressful thing over here, they even make greeting cards for passing!  Nick Mallinson got me one today!

My NEXT step will be to get my motorcycle license.....but that may be a few more months... :)
My card from Nick and his wife.  They are right next to the Birthday cards in the store....

My pass certificate.  My license will come in the post in the next 3 weeks or so.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre

Hello all;
So I've kept myself busy since the end of Formula Student 2012.  Work and research wise, I've been working on my case study set up for next year's FS group.  I've also been working with Nick Mallinson at WMG to see about getting some research started on Fuel Cells through the Catapult initiative for the EngD large group project.  Finally, I applied for and got a job mentoring gifted students- all in an online medium.  This program, called IGGY, is a network for gifted teenagers (13-19 year olds) in the UK and internationally, based at the University of Warwick.  The cool thing with this is that I will do all my work online- and I may be able to apply the experience to my EngD portfolio.  The job starts next month, and is about a 5 hour commitment per week.

In other news, I have also been organizing and reading for the review paper on Open Source Hardware Design that I want to get done in the next couple of months.  It something that could take a bit more of my focus and I plan on utilizing a lot of my time during August to do it.

I've also continued my work towards getting a British license with driving lessons (1-2 times/week) and more practice on the car Sagar and I bought last weekend.  We are now the proud owners of a 2001 1.4 L 16 valve Skoda Fabia. (Owned by VW, essentially, this car is a VW Polo/Golf)  It made sense to go in on a car together, financially and logistically.  I will not be needing a car on a daily basis, since I am staying in Kenilworth this next year, but it is nice to have access to one.  Sagar will be starting his job at JLR at the beginning of September and will need a vehicle for the commute, especially since his motorcycle blew a cylinder the day after graduation.
The front of the Skoda

We needed to change the wiper blades

The whole car.  It has heated seats, but no cruise control.  Apparently, cruise control is rare here....

A week from today (the day after my birthday) I take my driving test for my British license.  I've been off-and-on nervous about it.  I keep hearing stories about how people failed for stupid stuff, or rather subjective calls from the examiner.  It costs £61 (nearly $100) to take this test, so I'd rather not fail.  However, the more nervous I get, the worse my driving gets, so I need to relax and be calm.  (I can't do a hill start if I have to think about it....)  I've really enjoyed driving the Skoda since we've gotten it, so I am thinking about taking the test in that.  I would have taking the test in my instructor's car, which is a Seat Ibiza (basically ALSO a VW Polo/Golf).  His car, even though it's newer than the Skoda, is a bit stiffer in the clutch to me, probably due to the fact that lots of drivers before me have learned on it.  I'm going to drive a bit more over the next few days before I decide.  My next (and last!) driving lesson is Wednesday afternoon.

I've also signed up for the Kenilworth half-marathon on September 2, and of course, the Loch Ness Marathon on Sept 30.  Both, I think are going to be fun.  I'm in the midst of planning the trip up to Inverness (the city by Loch Ness in Scotland) which is about a 8.5 hour drive from Coventry.  I'm getting into the full swing of marathon training, my long run this week was at 12 miles.  I plan to do a total of about 30 miles this week.
This weekend, I'm going to go down to London to watch the women's Olympic Marathon with Sagar.  Hopefully, it will give me even more motivation for Loch Ness, though I doubt I will need it.  Sagar, Amy and my friend from Ball State, Andy Blough (check out his blog here) will be heading up there.  Amy and I are running the full marathon, while Andy is running the 10K.  Sagar may or may not run the 10K, we are not too sure yet.

Anyway, that recaps about the last week!