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.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, catching up again. Sorry I missed your birthday. Congratulations on passing the driving exam! :-) Love the wellies, red is your color. Great pics from the ball, you look very happy! I'm glad things are going so well, hard work not withstanding.

    Alicia asked if you would be home for any holidays, I told her I doubted it, but it would be great to see you again. Let us know.