This Side of the Pond – Jan. 25

By Sarah Pridgeon

If you ever find yourself in need of a British driver’s license, you might want to head for my home town. The latest statistics show that more learner drivers pass their test in my old stomping grounds than almost anywhere else on the isles.

The experts believe these improved driving skills to be related to the rural nature of my hometown, which is something those of us who prefer to live surrounded by nature already know.

I’m talking in relative terms, of course. As I’ve mentioned, the combined towns of Poole and Bournemouth boast the same population of Wyoming, all squished up into a few square miles with a park in the middle and a beach at the end. To you, dear reader, that will hardly seem to qualify for the descriptive of “rural”.

But it is more rural than a city such as London, where taxi drivers must pass a near-mythical test called The Knowledge before they’re allowed behind the wheel of an iconic black cab. Without The Knowledge, the chances are remote of making it to a destination without heading up at least six dead end roads and getting stuck on the giant one-way system that encircles the entire town of Kingston-Upon-Thames.

No British towns match up to American city-building standards – a “block” is a foreign concept in a land where cities have grown over the space of a thousand years. What started as a thatched cottage with a pig in the yard and a neighbor across the way could now be a sprawling metropolitan area, and nobody was thinking clearly enough back then to make sure the road between the two was straight.

It’s stressful, quite frankly. There’s a reason my first car died of neglect at the side of the road: I was too frightened to drive it anywhere and too poor to pay the parking charges when I arrived.

I’ve always giggled quietly to myself when a Wyomingite acts as my chauffeur. Inevitably, at some point along the journey, they will complain about how bad the traffic has become. In almost every case, we are looking upon no more than three other vehicles.

This, for a learner driver back home, would seem like a gift from Heaven. The roads of my home county are covered in cars from one end to another – merging onto a main street can take days.

This may explain why the local paper is celebrating an achievement that doesn’t seem that spectacular to the outside eye. According to the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency, 55 percent of learners in Bournemouth and 56 percent in Poole passed their test between April and September last year.

Yep, you read that right – not much more than one in two. This is because the British driving test is unnecessarily difficult from start to finish. We are so snotty about our test, in fact, that your driver’s license is not valid in my country.

First you must pass a written test, for which you must get a score of 86 percent. This number was higher when I took it (I think it was about 95 percent, but my brain has tried to block the memory of that particular trauma).

That would have been fine, except my studies of the Highway Code turned out to be unhelpful. Typically for my luck, my randomly generated questions included the wild-card weird ones the government must have tacked on for a giggle.

For example, one of my questions was: in which lane of a roundabout should a sheep travel? Exactly what life experience would I have had as a town dweller at the age of 17 to know the answer to that?

I failed, predictably, but did better the second time. Then it was on to round two: the practical.

Unlike over here, where the lady who conducted my test was one of the loveliest people in Wyoming, the examiners in Britain are stony-faced and harsh. One must complete three maneuvers from a range that includes reversing around a corner and a three-point turn as well as an emergency stop, all while following instructions on an extended journey throughout the region without causing any problems for traffic or making any mistakes.

The worst part? One fault and you’ve failed, but the examiner will remain silent and still make you complete the test. This means you could muck things up in the first five minutes but still have to shiver and shake your way through 40 minutes of the examiner’s company before they’ll tell you the bad news.

My father failed his practical test, he says, because he made the mistake of proudly taking the company car to the test center – a posh Mercedes. Unfortunately, he forgot to figure out where the windshield wipers were; I’m told the examiner was white as a sheet by the time he was done.

I failed my first test because I worked myself up into a state well before I got in the vehicle. Fortunately, my savvy instructor told me that taking two pain relievers before my second test would reduce my adrenalin; it was nonsense, but I sure did better with the help of that placebo effect.

I can’t help but feel the cold fingers of dread on finding out that UK authorities have just made changes that increase the difficulty even further. Now, those poor learners must drive for 20 minutes without any input from the examiner at all (presumably straight towards the nearest liquor store) and follow instructions from a GPS device for 20 minutes (which, as we all know, is hard enough when you’re a seasoned driver and is bound to see an increase in learners sailing straight off a cliff into the sea).

They must also explain certain details of their vehicle, such as how to test the brakes and de-mist the windows while driving, all while trying to concentrate on not making any mistakes. Thank goodness my British license doesn’t expire until I’m in my 80s – I’m pretty sure I’d fail if I tried that test right now.