Diary of a dreadful driver
When her US licence expired, Wendy Sloane decided to take her test over here. But it didn't go quite as planned...
Tuesday 14 February 2006
In those days, the practical test in my home state of Utah took place in a large car park. I passed that with flying colours as well, since demonstrating how to navigate a 360-degree turn with 25 feet either side of me wasn't very tricky. Unfortunately, that was 20 years ago, and US licences expire after a mere two decades.
So last month, after living for more than 10 years in the UK, I decided to bite the bullet and take an intensive driving course. My three small daughters are quickly approaching the age when they'll need Mummy to drive them to swimming lessons and birthday parties, and lugging home jumbo-sized packs of nappies underneath my ageing buggy is quickly losing its appeal. When I called Bob from the AA to arrange lessons, he readily agreed.
Bob showed up outside my Hampstead flat in his spiffy little Ford Escort, and we spent the next 10 mornings in a row together, leaving behind the perilous hills of my neighbourhood for the glorious flatlands of Hampstead Garden Suburb. As I had driven an automatic in the States, it took me a while to remember which one was the clutch and which the brake. Once that was under control, everything was plain sailing - or so I thought.
The good news was that Bob and I hit it off instantly. I enjoyed listening in on his mysterious mobile phone conversations with his wife ("Two soft rolls. Seeya.") and he enjoyed noting down the increasingly obvious - and increasingly humorous - number of mistakes I made. "Keep to the right a little," became his mantra as I tried to forget that I was driving on the wrong side of the road and negotiate scary, foreign things like mini-roundabouts and flashing yellow (that's amber to you) lights, which for some bizarre reason turned green before turning red.
By day six, my driving skills had not noticeably improved. The time was ripe to confide in Bob about a nasty little accident I had had about 15 years ago on a country road in Portugal. Our hire car ended up in a ditch, and my then boyfriend, who was asleep at the time, was almost thrown from the vehicle. Bob made no comment, but I noticed that his cosy phone chats with his wife ceased, and that from then on his right hand never strayed too far from the steering wheel.
By day nine, I asked Bob what he thought my chances of passing the test were. I was still shifting "down" from third into fourth, and my parallel parking skills were almost non-existent. But as my theory test certificate was due to expire the day after I took the practical test, rescheduling it for a later date wasn't a realistic option. "About 70 per cent, if you remember your manoeuvres and stay calm," he told me. Good enough odds for me.
Test day arrived, and Bob and I showed up at Barnet test centre in an optimistic mood. Well I did, at least. To make sure the odds stayed in my favour, I dragged Bob into the bookies (conveniently located next door) and placed a bet on a horse with a winning name. When my own name was called out at the centre 15 minutes later, a pleasant-looking woman in her mid-fifties led me out to Bob's car and asked me how to check the power steering. "Um, turn the steering wheel and see if it steers?" I asked. She jotted something down on a pad of paper and my intestines turned to ice.
From then on, it was all downhill (unfortunately, not literally). I managed to complete a seven-point turn without incident and keep to the speed limit, but my hill stops were less than perfect. I stalled three times, misunderstood a road sign, causing me to brake in the middle of a busy road and almost get rear-ended, and touched the kerb with my wheels when I parked.
You are allowed 15 minor faults, and I scored 16. That's a failure, but an admirable one. You are also allowed zero major faults - and I scored three: touching the kerb, not obeying the road signs, and consistent faulty shifting. Less than admirable. "To be honest, your driving is scrappy," said the examiner. "Someone more of a jobsworth than me would have given you a lot more faults."
Bob asked to sit behind the wheel as we drove home. He's offered to give me more lessons but my budget is shot, and now I have to pass my theory test again. Worst of all, I'm going to the States soon and I won't have a driving licence. Where I come from, you can't even pick up milk without driving 10 or 15 minutes to the closest grocery store. I still haven't checked my ticket from the bookies, but I'm not holding my breath.
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