Monday, April 4, 2011

Terror on the roads, aka the UK driving standards, take 1

A lovely Rolls Canardly, similar to many a motorized machine I've driven...albeit with better paint! (Wiki Commons)
Is there any rhyme or reason to the way UK examiners assess new drivers? Or, ostensibly, old drivers who learned to drive in a sane environment--in this case, Long Island, New York. Home of the Long Island Distress--I mean, Expressway, Jericho Turnpike and its "death lane" (a lane down the middle between two opposite lanes for, oh, about 40 miles and cars in it turning every which way and/or passing), and flocks of deer crossing the dunes and the roads that interrupt the dunes (since deer have no traffic signals whatsoever).

Granted, the Long Island Expressway was barely finished when I got my license in 1963. Indeed,just enough of it was finished around New York City to make a new driver freak out.

I didn't freak out. I had been taught by Mr. Fitzgerald, a Kennedy cousin, and his lessons in good and defensive driving sank in well and deep. And they have kept me safe for 47 years on two continents driving cars from state-of-the-art to close-to-the-landfill. With good transmissions and bad transmissions. Manual, three-speed, four-speed and five-speed. With and without passenger side mirror. With and without reliable brakes; ABS? Huh? Whazzat? Bald tires, new tires, mismatched tires. Cars, vans, pickup trucks, moving vans with and without a car on a trailer at the back. In short, anything from a luxury car to a Rolls Canardly.*

So why does the spectre of the UK driving test send me into paroxysms of misery and fear?


Instructor: I teach defensive driving, but not until a new driver has been at it for about three years.

Me: Why so long? I mean, wouldn't it be better to teach defensive driving at the outset?

Instructor: No. They don't have the experience to assess when it's OK to straighten out an open curve, especially one with double solid lines.

Me: (Gulp.)

Instructor: Until then, they may not really be able to tell if the curve is safe enough or not.

I wanted to scream: "Are you people nuts? These are people who say pardon me to pedestrians they are approaching when they have burped 100 feet away. These are the people who elevated simpering to a fine art. Are you crazy? Why would you EVER want a driver to straighten out a curve and ignore double solid lines? Why would you EVER want them to assess it? Why not just say, it's illegal and that's that and if you whack someone who was UNACCOUNTABLY doing 110 around it, why would you not go to jail forever? What if there's a hidden driveway and some kid shoots out of it on a bike? ARE YOU FREAKING NUTS?"

But I didn't. I just kept driving, ever on the lookout--now that I knew--for "defensive drivers" cutting the curve on the twisty little road between the testing town and my house. (Oh, yes. Here, you drive the actual test course, rather than being prohibited from doing so, as in New York. Here, they test whether you are robotic enough and have paid for enough lessons to exactly do the inane little things demanded by the Level 5--whatever they are--standards. In New York, they test whether you can handle a car, handle situations you don't know, and have any sense whatever.)

The UK driving test is reputed to be the most difficult in the world for new drivers, and only about 43 percent pass the first time (on which more later). That's bad enough, but at least they spend 40 to 50 very expensive driving school hours learning to do it that way from the outset.

For those of us who learned to drive in sane environments, it means forgetting everything you ever knew--things that are now intuitive and ingrained and second nature and need I add have kept one safe for 47 years--to satisfy an examiner who is ensuring--as my instructor said--that every Brit drives exactly the same way.

Ain't gonna happen. Different brains, different bodies, different perceptions, different cars, different reactions, different assessments of relative distance, lack of flashing lights that say "Signal now or you will fail" on exit lanes from motorways....need I go on? You will NEVER get a whole population to drive same way. It ain't military marching; there's a lot more involved. And no drill sergeants.

Give it up, Brits. Assess safe driving, not mindless adherence to a set of rules which, by statistics, have not been shown to improve traffic safety one tiny bit.

Oh, sorry. It's about keeping the bureaucracy employed.

Silly me.

*Rolls Canardly. Old Brit joke. My car goes downhill OK, but it can 'ardly make it up the other side.