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!

An Update on My Adventures in Driving (on the Wrong Side of the Road)

I mentioned a few months back that I began taking driving lessons in hopes that I would be able to pass my UK driving test prior to the baby’s arrival. One would think that switching from driving in the U.S. to the UK would not be that difficult, and I’m sure it isn’t when you are in an automatic. But suddenly, everything is on the opposite side and I’m expected to learn to drive a manual at 31 years of age. Okay, cool.

Here’s the thing…you can actually take the test in an automatic. However (and this is a big however in a country dominated by manual cars), if you take the test in an automatic, you are only qualified to drive an automatic on your own. That is fine and dandy, but Richard’s car is a manual. So, I get that license and I basically am back to still not being able to drive. This meant I definitely needed to take lessons. Lessons not given by my husband.

I’m really happy with the driving instructor I chose and so far I’ve completed 12 hours of lessons with him (with more on the way!). He does push me and challenge me outside of my comfort zone, and he’s always ready to answer any questions I have. He says I am improving and I have to agree. This is evidenced by the fact that I no longer feel the need to take a nap the minute I get home because I am so exhausted from concentrating on the the gears and the parked cars (on the wrong side of the road!) and not turning onto the wrong side of the road and ‘Ah, so many pedals!’

A few weeks back, I asked Richard if I could drive the few miles to our house after we got off of the motorway. (On a provisional license, you cannot drive on the motorway.) He cautiously agreed and let me take the driver’s seat. Much to his surprise, my driving of a manual has drastically improved since the day I got out of the car and attempted to walk home during what would be the last of his attempts to teach me. He later told me that he thinks I’m well on my way to passing my test. Yes!

I’ve come a long way since that first lesson when I was so excited to have driven at 20 mph. Now, I’m frequently driving in 4th gear and have reached speeds over 50 mph when permitted, I’ve reversed around corners, and I don’t need my instructor to tell me what gear I should be in anymore. Sure, I’ve stalled a few times and I’ve over-revved the engine when doing an incline start, but mostly I’m getting the hang of it. It really has been amazing how much confidence I have gained on the road since that first lesson at the end of July.

So, what happens next? Before I can put in for the driving portion of my test, I am required to pass a theory portion which I’ve been studying away for. I feel like I’m 16 all over again with the nervousness and excitement that came with getting my permit and then my license. (Come to think of it, it is really similar to being 16 because I was the youngest of my friends, so I was the last to get my license. All of my friends here drive and I’m back to being the one who they need to pick up if we go anywhere! Haha.) This weekend, I plan to book the date to take the theory test. Things are moving along slowly but surely with the driving and soon I hope to add a bit more freedom and independence to life here by being able to drive.

I can’t wait to be able to take little road trips with the baby once she is here and after I get my license!