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How I turned out to be bad at driving

It is my turn to practice English driving skills with an instructor. Far be it for me to doubt my ability to pass any exam, but I have to admit: It’s not easy to do things the way one should be doing them in order to pass the English practical driving test.

Oh, there is no doubt that I can drive! The instructor, an amiable fellow in his 50-ies, largely commended me on my skills while continuously going through his routine of reminding me to do this and do that. (I choose to be naïve in believing that he was genuinely impressed with how I handled the driving 🙂 ). But even though this was not the actual test, I felt tense throughout the lesson. There are simply too many useless things to keep track of that I don’t bother to when I drive in my regular fashion.

First of all, holding the steering wheel with two hands – at “10 and 2 o’clock” – is extremely uncomfortable. I drive with one hand, and even when I turn the wheel, one of the hands plays a very supplemental role. Simply focusing on keeping both hands in the same position takes up a serious portion of brain activity.

To exacerbate the matters, I had to think all the time about keeping my hands on the respective sides on the steering wheel when turning. In other words, one should slide one’s hands against the direction of the wheel, re-gripping for traction and completing the movement in several overlapping phases. Normally, I grip and turn in as close to one single movement as possible. While I have heard all about the dangers of locking your arms in a crossed-over position, I certainly feel that I control the car better when I don’t move my hands around the wheel so much… They are not going to fail you for that, but it certainly looks better if you don’t cross your hands, said the instructor.

Keeping track of speed limits – and staying right under the correct one – is another complication. In addition to posted limits – which could change with every turn – there is a concept of “national speed limits”, which differ depending on the type of the road. When that limit is in force, there are no signs that advise you of what the actual allowed speed is; you have to figure it out in your head. Furthermore, in built-up areas, there are no signs to advise you of the fact that the appropriate speed limit is in force; you have to recognize that by the absence of explicit speed limit signs. Why can’t they simply post speed limits everywhere is beyond me; must be some weird idea of saving money on road signs.

It goes without saying that you may fail the test for going too slow, so keeping a constant speed of 30 mph is not an option.

Continuously – and emphatically – checking all mirrors, including the undoubtedly safe but mostly not very useful six-point check (the practice of looking over your both shoulders, into both side mirrors, the rearview mirror as well as out front) before moving off from parked position, requires more effort than simply letting your instincts rule. The concept of checking mirrors prior to signaling a lane change is entirely un-instinctive. I would have thought that the sequence should be the opposite.

I am certainly quite diligent in indicating turns and lane changes (apparently, more than so necessary; for instance, I was told that if I am moving off straight after having been parked on the side of the road, and there are no cars coming up behind me, then signaling is unnecessary). The problem is with turning the blinker off immediately after completing the manoeuvre. Exiting a roundabout often means a very shallow left turn – the blinker will not switch off automatically. If you let it continue for a couple of seconds, you are “confusing other drivers”.

Getting into the correct lane before coming to a roundabout (in relation to your anticipated exit from it), and switching lanes as needed while on the roundabout, is a mental calculation that can be rather complicated depending on the actual configuration of the said roundabout. Not rocket science, but still. Anything to the right of “twelve o’clock” is a right turn, while left turn is only the one immediately to the left, and everything in between is “going straight”. So if the examiner asks you to take the third exit, you have to project that onto the map of the roundabout – which is helpfully available before its entrance on a huge sign – figure out whether you need to be in a specific lane, whether or not you need to be signaling turn ahead of time, and so on. You also have to remember to indicate left turn immediately after passing the exit that precedes the one you are taking, which actually makes sense if you are correctly positioned in the left lane at that time and are following the curve of the road.

Keeping focus on all of these nuances is necessary to pass, even though I only do the obvious bits when I drive… No wonder the passing percentage for the practical test is below 50%, especially if you factor in that majority of people are also operating stick-shift, and you do not need much to throw you off and fail.

And we have not really done any of the required manoeuvres. That will be another lesson, right before the test.

Who knew driving was so complicated? In America, it was all about your ability to parallel-park…

Posted in Expat Archive

1 Comment

  1. Kisintin

    Not everywhere, only in large cities, in the suburbs knowing how to parallel-park is not even a requirement. I have surprized not one person by being able to parallel-park in the city, a skill I lost already, due to lack of practice.

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