Goldilocks and a UK licencing (with a ‘c’) test

Imagine you’ve been driving for decades. You’ve acquired the habit of not crashing into anyone. Driving has become second nature, almost as easy as walking, even if you’ve never actually grabbed your keys for the trip down to the mailbox.

With years of muscle memory and many thousands of miles of experience, it is, in short, a no-brainer, though to be on the safe side you do try to keep your brain in gear when you’re behind the wheel.

Now imagine moving someplace where cars work the same, most of the rules of the road are the same (rule #1: don’t crash into anyone), and the same laws of physics apply. Because it’s a new country you need a new licence, but fair enough, much of life is about acquiring the necessary paperwork.

Tests are required before they’ll give you this important piece of paper. The first is multiple choice. You’ve studied The Highway Code, a booklet published by the government which fortunately has all the answers in it, so if you actually read it and your memory isn’t too bad, you’ll pass.

Next comes the computerized hazard perception test. This involves watching a series of clips from the point of view of a motorist and identifying potential issues (kids playing near road — hazard!) in good time to avoid mishaps.

Click the mouse too late or too often and you’ll fail. Don’t click it too early either, or you’ll also fail. Like a nervous Goldilocks, you’ll need to click it just right. Those years of muscle memory acquired in an actual moving car don’t mean much here: better to have played more video games.

Now it’s time for the practical test. This is where I’ll shine, you think. Well, maybe. Maybe not.

The UK allows drivers from some countries to simply exchange their licence, but no such luck for Americans. You’re given a year’s grace (probably so tourists can rent cars), but when time’s up, it becomes worthless and you’re treated as a complete beginner, to the extent that you aren’t permitted to drive without a licensed UK chaperone, and must attach an L plate to the car. That stands for “learner” and not “loser,” in case you were wondering.

If you’re smart, you’ll avoid this embarrassing situation by getting your licence before it comes to that.

I wasn’t smart.

New drivers and experienced expats alike are advised to take lessons, the real goal being more how to pass the test than to actually learn how to drive.

The standardized test lasts about 40 minutes. You can take it on an automatic or a manual, but if you use an automatic your licence is only good for that.

It starts with a quick eye exam and a few questions about the car meant to weed out people who, for example, have no idea what goes in the tires. Then the examiner hooks up jumper cables to the battery and threatens to electrocute you for making the slightest mistake. Or at least that’s what it feels like.

It’s very easy to fail, and most people do the first time. Many fail on their second and third attempts, too. The record is over a hundred, at which point you might want to consider taking the bus.

Examiners are notoriously picky. For example, just flicking your eyes at the rearview mirror as necessary isn’t enough — it’s best to make sure you’re seen looking in the mirror often enough to leave yourself open to charges of narcissism.

Don’t speed, naturally, but don’t go too slow either, or points will be deducted on that dreadful clipboard.

Don’t show “undue hesitation” and obstruct other motorists while making up your mind what to do. Stop for pedestrians on so-called zebra crossings, which are striped crosswalks where it’s mandatory to yield if they so much as wiggle their foot over the road.

Always remember the mantra: mirror, signal, manoeuvre. In the States, we’re much more accustomed to signaling first, which is a hard habit to break. Likewise, many of us are used to passing on either side, which would be an automatic fail here.

The test doesn’t just consist of driving around at the right speed while compulsively looking into the mirror and not running into anyone. You’ll have to prove you can park, and may be asked to perform an emergency stop, as if suddenly realizing there’s a police car behind you at a yellow light.

I had to practice reversing around a corner without touching the curb or ending up too far away from it — another Goldilocks moment — but they’ve since dropped that. The test regime is tweaked over the years, ostensibly to make it better and more pertinent to current driving practices (for example, the use of Sat Nav), but really, it’s all about refining the torture.

Next: my test.

Scott Munn is a former Tiffin resident who has lived in England for 21 years.