Imagine, if you will, this. You're 17 years old, and Mummy and Daddy have just shelled out big zlotys to procure for you a nice shiny new Vauxhall Tigra or Ford Ka or BMW Mini or whatever runaround you've been dreaming about for weeks. And you go out into the front yard, breathless with anticipation, just waiting to start wowing the ladies/gentlemen (delete as appropriate) with your fly new wheels, and hold out your hands expecting one of your 'rents to deposit the keys to said vehicle into your grubby little nubbies...

But instead you are presented with a pile of official-looking papers about applying for a provisional driving licence, the contact details of various driving instructors, and a ballpoint pen. You've still to pass your test before you can drive unsupervised on public roads. Your chance of christening your new ride is yet to come to fruition. Your adventure ends here. Denied!.

(Incidentally, may I just say that the above never actually happened to me. I was never presented with a car for my seventeenth birthday, and besides, I doubt I ever would drive one of the above-mentioned conveyances. I prefer something with leg room in the front and leg-over room in the back.)

Now, driving tests in the UK are known for being really quite tough. Unlike in the USA, you have to actually know all the ins and outs of working a manual transmission, how to navigate roundabouts, basic maintenance, and various manoeuvres that have to be done to a quite unnecessary level of precision. There are many, many, many things for which one can be immediately failed, and to the learner driver, it seems like having to jump through hoops which are in a really illogical order and which also just happen to be on fire.

So, the first thing one must do is find an Approved Driving Instructor. These individuals are normally hired on a per-hour basis, going rates being from £18 to £30 per hour, and who instruct you. All of them have, according to the DVLA, passed a "searching three-part examination" to qualify as an instructor, although sometimes a trainee will be encountered, if they are about to take said "searching three-part examination" to enable them to get some actual instructional experience.

So, I've got an instructor and I'm beginning not to give him heart palpitations whenever I emerge from a junction. In fact, I'm beginning to get quite good. So how do I take the test then?

You can't.

First you have to take a theory test. This will set you back £20.50 (assuming that, as in my case, the DSA didn't cock up your licence, putting your date of birth as 11 April rather than 11 September despite having seen your passport which shows said date of birth, and then they obfuscate and lie and shuffle blame around and basically steal your money and refuse to listen to anything you have to say) and will require you to go to a centre to take it, which is usually in the next town along. The theory tests are outsourced, or at least they were when I took mine, to a company named Thomson ProMetric, who specialise in this sort of thing, apparently.

What happens is this - firstly, the computer (which is operated by a touch screen) throws 35 multiple choice questions at you. There are over 1000 questions you could be asked, which can either be common sense/rules of the road:

"Using a mobile phone while driving:
A. Is acceptable in a vehicle with power steering.
B. Will reduce your field of vision.
C. Could distract your attention from the road.
D. Will affect your vehicle's electronic systems.

Or they can be on correct driving practice, such as stopping distances and what to do when a lorry signals right but moves over towards the left hand side of the road. Officially they are categorised according to their subject matter, such as "attitude," "alertness," "motorways," "accidents," "road signs," and "vulnerable road users," which, when I took the test, was the only category in which I got any questions wrong. Make of that what you will.

So, after the multiple-choice workout, then comes the Hazard Perception test. What happens here is that you are shown a series of video clips, shot from the driver's point of view, of going along a road somewhere, and in that clip will be an event that would cause the driver to take action in order to avoid becoming a casualty. When you see that event about to take place, you whack the mouse button, and you are scored on how accurate you were. You can click multiple times if you think it would be later or there's more than one such hazard, but if you click too much a large red X appears on the screen, which officiously tells you that you "responded to this clip in an unacceptable manner." If this happens, you score 0 points for that clip. This is bad.

Thus the theory test is over. If you pass, you get a little A5 certificate with a hologram on it to certify that you passed and that the certificate isn't a forgery. In all honesty, the theory test is simply a formality; not once have I seen anyone fail it except by clicking indiscriminately during the hazard perception bit. THe more cynical part of me suspects it's just a method of having the DSA extort yet more money from the general population. After all, they're a public body and thus have a monopoly...

So now to the practical test. This will set you back £40 or so, and lasts 40 minutes. In these forty minutes the following things happen:

  • The eyesight test. The examiner, who will almost certainly have been trained to speak in the dullest monotone he can possibly generate, will lead you out into the car park and ask you to read the registration number of a car about 35 feet away or so. If you get it wrong, he'll gradually ask you to name closer and closer ones, but if you get one wrong which is only 20 feet away, which is the required minimum you be able to see to drive in the UK, you will fail immediately, and your £40 will vanish forevermore.
  • Maintenance interrogation. You will be asked a few things about how to check the oil, how to test the power steering without exiting the car, and whatnot. If you get any of these wrong, that's a minor fault.
  • Generally driving around. You know those OAPs in old Rovers that you see puttering down to the post office at exactly 27mph? Drive like one of them and you'll be just fine, but don't delay pulling out of junctions or you'll end up accumulating faults like anything. Faults come in three flavours - minor, serious, and dangerous. You may have up to 15 minor faults before you fail. But if three or more of those faults are for the same thing, you also fail. If you make a single serious or dangerous fault, you fail. The only difference is a serious fault is something that makes a strange and unwanted noise (like clipping the kerb) and a dangerous fault is one where the examiner has to wrest the controls from you to avoid smoking automotive megadeath.
  • Three-point turn in the road. This is probably the most useful thing in the whole test (other than not killing people.) It always comes up. Basically, you must pull up by the kerb, then advance slowly, as if to do a U-turn, but not hit the other kerb. Then reverse, equally slowly, but as you reverse, spin the steering wheel the other way like a maniac so the back is almost touching the first kerb, then steer equally fast the first way, straighten up, and off. If you do it right, you end up in the other lane facing the other way. It truly is a useful manoeuvre; I've done it since passing many times.
  • Reversing round a corner. I wish I could say the same about this manoeuvre. You pull up next to the kerb in front of a turning on your left, then slowly reverse round the corner. But, given what we know of the DSA already, they make it artificially difficult. You will be serious faulted for clipping the kerb, or for touching any centre lines. You will be minor faulted for cutting it too narrow, or for being too wide. You will be minor faulted repeatedly for using your left-hand door mirror too much, or for not using the left-hand door mirror enough. Basically, your head has to jerk around between windows, mirrors, and suchlike like a demented ostrich. In reality, I have still yet to perform this move; a three-point turn would suffice, surely. Either that, or doing a U-turn round the next roundabout.
  • Reverse parallel parking. You pull up next to a car parked at the kerb, then reverse back behind it. Another pointless move, and one that I cannot do, but thankfully I wasn't asked to do it on my test. I think it pointless myself when you can go in forwards onto the end of a chain of parked cars, or just find a proper car park. Lazy? No, I prefer the term, pragmatic.
  • Emergency stopping. The examiner will ask you to pull over and he'll say that when he whacks the dashboard you should brake immediately and hard, as if there was an imaginary child in the road. Running over this imaginary child or saying, "No there isn't," will get you failed. This move isn't too tough at all, just stamp the brakes and just before the engine stalls stomp the clutch as well. Stalling is not liked by examiners.
  • Results. You either pass or fail. If you pass, you are presented with all the forms necessary to send off and exchange your n00bish green provisional licence for a nice pink full driving licence, a certificate with a hologram, and a DSA-sanctioned "New Driver" magazine, which contains lots of horror stories in the mode of Wheels of Tragedy, the importance of protecting the environment, implicit exhortations to avoid anything with an engine displacement greater than 1.4l (which, ironically, rules out just about every diesel-powered car sold in the UK, all of which are usually 1.7 on small cars, 1.9, 2.2, or 2.5 on midsize cars and 3.0 or larger on luxury saloons (the Volkswagen Phaeton has a 5.0l V10 diesel engine option which apparently is good for 320bhp and still gets 25mpg combined.) Even more ironically, all these cautionary tales and whatnot are balanced out by adverts for aftermarket rims and subs and Recaro bucket seats. I personally ponder the sanity of this; surely advertising for people to act and look like boy racers will only increase the neophyte drivers' beliefs that their 1.2l Vauxhall Corsa pulls low 10s at the drag strip when it doesn't. (I also don't think it could; if anyone has any idea on how to tune a humdrum 1.2l Corsa to become a 10-second dragster, please /msg me, citing how and at what cost.)
  • As you can see, how you drive on the test has very little relation to how people drive in reality. For example, there are stretches of road where the speed limit is 30mph, but everyone else goes at 45mph down it. If you drive at 30mph on these stretches, you would cause more of an accident than if you had broken the speed limit with everyone else. Also, doing a lap of honour at a roundabout to effect a U-turn is also not approved by the DSA, yet if done properly and with consideration for other road users, indicating and mirror-checking and all that, it's no less safe than turning off at said roundabout. Now I'm not advocating that people should start to blur the fourth wall between reality and Need for Speed Underground II, since trying to dodge traffic at 140mph in the wrong lane of a motorway is without a shadow of a doubt the quickest route to a coffin in existence. But the general consensus is that the driving of the driving test and that of reality are different.

    Hideously expensive as learning to drive may be - for me, it probably cost, all things considered, about £2,000 or more - it cannot be denied that it's quite a significant factor in the reduction of accidents in the UK, and there are some features, such as roundabouts and box junctions that one really has to learn to negotiate them. Although I do think that less hoop-jumping and more emphasis on reality is needed.

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