The only wreck was the one behind the wheel

I’ve driven across the U.S. (also hitchhiked it, but that’s another story). Made deliveries in mad Manhattan. Navigated most of the tortured coastline of Great Britain. Yet it took the prospect of a mild-mannered man with a clipboard sitting quietly next to me for a short spin around town to reduce me to a quivering wreck.

It was time for my UK driving test.

This was a clandestine affair. I hadn’t even told my wife about my lessons: my goal was to present her with a fait accompli, to bask in her delighted surprise. To that end, once a week for several months I’d slipped out for expert instruction on how to keep the man with the clipboard happy.

You’re allowed up to 15 “minor” errors. These are faults which aren’t considered dangerous, such as touching the curb when parallel parking, or holding up other motorists — that “undue hesitation” I mentioned in the previous installment of this saga. Fifteen sounds like a lot, but when you can get marked down for simply not being confident enough, you can see how they’d add up.

They say they’re just looking for good observation and control. They say they want you to pass. They say a lot of things that don’t mean much when you’re convinced the only way you’ll get a licence is if the man with the clipboard has a cardiac event and you save his life by racing him to the hospital.

On second thought, he’d still fail you. The UK is proud of its sterling stats, with a road fatality rate about a third that of the U.S.; personal favors don’t enter into it.

We started with the eye exam, which consisted of successfully reading the number plate on a car across the road. Squinting is apparently OK.

“Can you honk the horn, please?” He then asked after enquiring of me how to check tyre pressure. Sir yes sir! Show and tell over, we settled in.

The pedals are still where an American foot expects them, in case you were wondering.

Left, right, left, and on it went, not a particularly exciting ride until The Event, shortly after starting. He directed me to turn into a street which was really more of a parking lot with a narrow corridor as a courtesy to those of us going somewhere. Suddenly another vehicle appeared dead ahead.

You can’t back into a busy road. The rear end of my car was sticking out into the 4-way intersection. I was completely stuck, an embarrassed jetty in the eddy of traffic. Should I heave the car up onto two wheels a la “The Dukes of Hazzard?” That would probably be a fail, if a spectacular one.

No, the road to good ratings was to keep an eye on everything and make slight adjustments so the other guy could get by.

“I’ve just failed,” I muttered miserably. As a human being, I wanted to add. We carried on until he told me to pull over to the curb (taking care not to touch it of course). “You haven’t failed,” he said. “That wasn’t your fault.”

The next half hour or so was incident-free, or so I thought. I pulled into the test centre and was informed I had passed, with one fault: At some point, I’d given a pedestrian right of way. I’d committed this act of generosity because his body language told me he might be stepping into the road.

The examiner hadn’t considered this stop necessary. What’s more, “You didn’t check your mirror first.” That’s because I was busy making sure I didn’t end up with a young lad under my wheels, I wanted to reply, but didn’t, as he was my new best friend.

My driving instructor, who’d been waiting for the verdict back at the centre, was pleased to add to her winning streak.

We’d been through so much together. She’d heard an abridged version of my hopes and dreams. She’d listened to me vent. She’d been a combination drill instructor and back seat driver from hell: “Check your mirrors.” “Handbrake on.” “Faster.” “Check your mirrors.”

Once upon a time she was the better half of half of Wang Chung; which is to say, she used to be married to the co-founder of the ’80s British band perhaps best known for the lyrics “Everybody have fun tonight! Everybody Wang Chung tonight!” This has little to do with my (re)induction into the league of motorists but is one of those random scraps of information I love to collect. I’d gotten my UK licence thanks to somebody once married to a verb.

I was now unofficially granted the right to forget everything she had taught me and drive like a normal human being again.

COMMENTS