Conquering the Art of Driving in the UK

A long, long time ago, I wrote about taking driving lessons in preparation for my UK driver’s licence exam. (That is not a typo rather that is how licence is spelled here.) For my first couple of years living here, I walked, took the bus or train, hired taxis, and relied on friends and family to get me where I needed to go. I didn’t mind any of that, and, truthfully, I didn’t miss driving. However, with a baby on the way, passing my driving exam would present me with more independence here in England.

I had many months (from July 2013 to March 2014, to be precise) of driving lessons with a brief hiatus for the birth of our daughter. I studied hard for my theory exam using the recommended dvd and taking multiple practice exams. The exam has 50 multiple questions as well as a hazard perception test in which you have to click the computer mouse every time you see a potential hazard. It was not easy and nothing like the test I took in the US. It was much more intensive and I invested so much time into making sure I passed. Thankfully, I did pass with flying colors in October 2013 and continued on with my driving lessons. I booked my practical exam for two weeks after my due date because I was convinced she would be early…hahahahaha! She ended up being born two weeks late, so I rescheduled my exam for January 2014.

My instructor felt I was ready, and, more importantly, I felt ready too. We even looked at a few cars the weekend before my exam…maybe that jinxed me! You can probably gather that I failed. It was all going so well until I was about 5 minutes from returning to the test centre with the examiner. I got a little too much speed and things got messy. I didn’t crash or anything, just had a weird sort of stall thing happen that caused me to hold up traffic. It was not my finest moment. So, I failed. I’m a perfectionist and that fail was not easy to take.

Test number two was scheduled for some time in February. I failed that, too. Again, I was doing so well and was about 10 minutes from returning to the test centre. The examiner and I were chatting away about how I liked living in the UK. I came to a roundabout and my driver’s side tires (which are on the left side remember) went onto the white dotted line separating the two lanes in the roundabout. I knew at that moment that I failed again. I could have burst into tears, and I’m quite sure that I did later in the day. Talk about gutting! It is the worst to tell people that you’ve failed once, but to tell people you failed again is really not fun.

There was no way I was giving up though as we had invested a lot of money into my driving lessons and my (ahem…multiple) exams. I got home from that second failed exam and immediately booked on for my third attempt.

At this point I should explain that the driving practical exam is done in your driving instructor’s car with you and the examiner (who carries a dauntingly thick clipboard and makes notes randomly whilst you are driving, which leaves you constantly questioning how many marks you are receiving). The exam lasts approximately 35-45 minutes and includes driving on the roads as well as at least one parking maneuver.

This is compared to my US practical exam which lasted all of 10 minutes in which I drove around a neighborhood and parallel parked within four parking cones set up in the car park of the exam center. If I remember correctly, I ran a stop sign and still managed to pass on my first go. Honestly, there is no comparison. A good friend sent me this article and I can completely relate to the author’s experience. He puts it perfectly with, “A UK license is basically a PhD in driving.” I wish I could say this was an exaggeration. It is not. At all.

Test day number three rolls around and I awoke to absolute pouring rain. Great! The day was starting off differently from the other two already, so as much as I didn’t want to say that this time felt different, it really did. I sat anxiously with my instructor in the waiting room anticipating my name being called. I met the examiner and we headed out to the car. I had to defog the front windscreen and it took ages, so we sat in silence. It was awkward. And then, I realized I didn’t have the key turned the whole way, so only the electrics were working. I attempted to play it cool by slyly turning the ignition on, but obviously he knew. The windscreen cleared rapidly then and we were off.

I was more cautious driving than I was with the other two tests, but I felt calmer this time. I also felt confident that this was the last exam I would have to take, but I didn’t want to get too cocky. About 20 minutes into the exam, the examiner started to ask me questions about why I moved to the UK and if I like it. (Everyone wants to know!) I picked up on his Cockney accent, so I asked him similar questions about being a Londoner living in Yorkshire. The chatting made me feel even more relaxed and I just continued driving as if I was driving with someone I knew.

We pulled into the car park for the exam centre and the examiner usually waits for your instructor to come to the car before telling you if you have passed or failed. My instructor was walking towards us when the examiner told me I passed, so I literally yelled my instructor’s name and “I passed!” Way to keep your cool, Becky – ha! I was so excited!

As soon as I had a chance, I called Richard and could hear the hesitation in his voice as he waited to hear the result. Needless to say, he was thrilled, particularly because that meant the end of dishing out money for lessons and exams!

So, the UK driving exam was definitely a challenge. And, despite the fact that I now drive an automatic here (yep!), I am so glad I went through the process of obtaining the full licence in a manual.

A couple of months after I passed and after not driving a manual during that time, Richard left me in Edinburgh city centre to park his car as he was running late for the start of the Edinburgh Marathon. I spent the first 5 minutes trying to figure out why the car was making a weird noise every time I tried to drive. Yea, the parking brake was on. Oh well, at least I could still drive the manual. I knew it would come in handy at some point!

My First Driving Lesson

After two weeks in the U.S. and driving on the other side of the road and the car, I returned to the UK full of nerves for my first official driving lesson on Wednesday night. I say “official” because Richard tried to teach me how to drive a manual twice and both times ended in disaster. Those disasters usually involved tears and may or may not have included me getting out of the car and starting to walk home. (We can laugh about it now!) Those “lessons” took place last year when I was still legally allowed to drive in the UK on my U.S. driver’s license (or licence in the UK). So, after I received my FLR(M) visa in March, I went through the process of applying for my provisional UK driver’s licence. Basically, I am starting from scratch and currently hold what is the equivalent of a driver’s permit in the U.S. This means I have to take both the theory and practical part of the driver’s exam to get my full UK driver’s licence – ah, the joy!

So, back to Wednesday night…I was extremely nervous. I had spoken to the instructor on the phone and explained to him my situation, so to have him know my driving background was comforting, but I still felt anxious because of my previous UK driving experiences. Thankfully, he didn’t put me in the driver’s seat from the start. We drove to a quieter road where he explained to me how the manual transmission and gears work. (I realize this is Driving 101, but I’ve driven an automatic for 15 years, so I needed the full lesson.) Next up, it was time to get going and I took my place in the driver’s seat. For the first time, driving a manual seemed to make a little bit of sense to me. We started out slow (really slow) with me only using first and second gear during this first lesson, but he was happy with how I was doing so he let me drive the majority of the hour. I was gripping the steering wheel like I was 16 all over again learning to drive for the first time, but slowly I gained more confidence and he had me making right turns across traffic. This is big, people!

I still have a long way to go, but I feel much better about learning how to drive a manual on the opposite side of the car whilst driving on the opposite side of the road. I have two more lessons lined up and I will no doubt require more that that, but this is a great start and I look forward to gaining some added independence when I get my full licence. I explained to him my goal is to pass my test before the baby is due in late November and he seemed fairly positive that this could be done, even after telling me most people require an average of 45-60 hours of driving lessons prior to taking the exam. (Does that seem like a lot of lessons to anyone else?)

When I returned home from the lesson that night, I was so proud of myself for basically driving no more than 20 MPH and making a few turns! I’ve been living here nearly two years now, and it really is the little things sometimes that make the biggest difference when adjusting to life in a new country. I’m excited to continue learning to drive “on the wrong side of the road”!