Four years ago, I moved from the southern United States to northern England. I thought the main adjustment would be adapting to higher education in a different country (and initially it was), but it turned out that learning to drive in the UK would prove my biggest hurdle. I passed my license in Canada at the age of seventeen and since then had been a driver there and in four different American states, each with their own culture of the road. There is no driving license reciprocity between the UK and the US: neither my driving history nor my sparkling clean record mattered to anyone. If I ever wanted to drive again, I would have to learn all over.
The standards for the UK written and road tests are notoriously high. My new colleagues who passed their tests in high school assured me there was no way they could pass today. Some had been lucky enough to acquire their licenses before the separate written test was introduced in 1996. Since its introduction, it has become increasingly difficult, so much so that the Guardian recently ran a piece tauntingly titled Would you still pass your driving theory test? (Go ahead and try.) The very name, the “theory test,” seemed like a cruel joke. I would have gladly been tested on the work of actual theorists (even Deleuze and Guattari), than face the task of memorizing hundreds of facts about the Highway Code. The name, I came to understand, helped to distinguish it from the road test, which was called “the practical.”
Like any good student, I studied and then studied some more. I crammed facts about driving distances in the rain and fog; safe tire tread depth (1.6 mm across the central three-quarters of the breadth of the tread); arm signals for turning, which I have never seen anyone use in real life. I read books and took practice tests after my children went to bed. My studies were slowed by new terminology for things I had previously known. What I use to call a “median” was now a “central reservation” (was that a good table at a restaurant?); a two-way road was a “dual carriageway” (for horses and carriages?); to join a highway, one took “the slip road onto the motorway.” Then there were the puns about birds: puffins, pelicans, and toucans (the last not a native species). To be clear: the bird terminology bore no relevance to the road conditions at hand. A “toucan crossing” allows two types of people—pedestrians and cyclists—to cross an intersection (two can cross). A “puffin crossing” is a timed light (with no flashing countdown) that requires pedestrians to cross the road quickly, causing breathlessness or “puffing.” A pelican crossing has a motion sensor so pedestrians can amble across at a leisurely pace, like a pelican.
The Highway Code includes 35 rules for pedestrians on how to cross the street.
Many of the theory questions invited me to picture a pastoral landscape that was conceivably available to me in Yorkshire but less so to aspirational drivers in major cities like London (never mind, no one I’ve met from London has a license). I memorized answers for endless questions about tractors, farmers, and sheep. And most of all horses: how to pass a horse on the side of the road; countless scenarios with horses in roundabouts. I’ve now passed a horse on the road. I’ve never seen a horse in a roundabout, but I will know what to do.
The test also demanded that I learn how (theoretically) to treat accident victims. I amassed detailed knowledge about burns, bleeding, respiratory rates, and other first aid. The questions were so specific (which liquids not to apply to burned skin) that I wondered if the theory test had been revised to account for the public health crisis under the government’s program of austerity. The medical questions always offered the option of offering the accident victim a cigarette. I knew this was wrong, as everyone in Yorkshire had switched to vaping.
The theory test is multiple choice and requires answering 43 out of the 50 questions correctly: a high bar to pass at 86 percent. But that’s not all. After completing the multiple-choice section, would-be drivers must also pass the hazard perception test, which is essentially a video game that tests the rate and speed at which one recognizes the darting pets, children, bus-users, cyclists and motorcyclists that could appear at any moment. Over fourteen video clips (one with two hazards!), you must click as early as possible in order to maximize points for spotting the correct danger. Rumor has it that the test disadvantages experienced drivers who anticipate risks too quickly and rewards teenagers who play video games. I learned to take two breaths before clicking.
I felt equipped to drive neither in theory nor in practice on the narrow city and country roads of my new nation. The dead-end street we live on is technically a two-way street, but with cars parked on either side, its width would barely qualify it as an unmarked alleyway in North America. I have learned to love side view mirrors that fold in, the thrill of parking one centimeter from the curb.
But these new affections and thrills have only become mine after hours and hours of practice: 44 hours over 22 lessons with a very patient driving instructor. I approached my driving instruction ambitiously: I decided to learn how to drive manual after 20 years of driving automatic transmission. At the time, the three driving instructors who taught automatic in my area had long wait lists. Learning manual would mean having a “full” license; my left hand would just need to prove its dexterity in shifting.
By the time I started lessons, my American license had expired so I couldn’t legally drive at all. I fantasized about driving my children to school, as we cycled through rain that came at our limbs and faces in horizontal streams. I imagined the heavy groceries I could purchase if I didn’t have to walk or cycle them home. I dreamed about country walks and all the horses we would see in roundabouts. It was a triumph when I finally started to shift without stalling or killing the transmission; my instructor complimented my ability to keep safe distances and drive in the middle of the road, to which I ungraciously snapped “That’s because I can drive!” She was more alarmed when I drove away from traffic coming at me on my right side because I was afraid of driving on the left side of the road (I was her first North American student and the adjustment was admittedly rough for me). “Look for your space” she would counsel. UK driving instructors all use the same phrases and these became comforting refrains. Each command for the next maneuver was followed, for instance, by “when it is safe to do so.”
Comfort was important because so many of the commands and maneuvers felt shockingly foreign. There was the time we practiced reversing around a blind corner. Or the many times that we practiced crossing the road to park on the right-hand side (facing the wrong direction), then reversing two car lengths before rejoining traffic on the other side. This turned out to be the maneuver I was asked to demonstrate on my road test. It’s weird and something I’ve never done as a driver since. Other maneuvers were familiar to me such as “bay parking” (reversing into a space in a parking lot), which I did perfectly for my teacher on my first try. Dear reader: this is the maneuver that caused me to fail my first driving test at sixteen. I tried to embrace all of these commands, including my new country’s staunch commitment to the parking brake, which my teacher instructed me to use any time we stopped for “more than a pause.”
Despite my book studies and road lessons, my extensive preparation failed to dim my nerves for either the theory or practical tests (thereby countering the very advice I give my students). While I frequently write and grade tests, I hadn’t taken a proper test since my comprehensive exams as a PhD student (though academia often feels like a life-long test with only the murkiest of rubrics). Much to my surprise, I sweated excessively through both tests. In the theory test (which I had to reschedule because I showed up, by accident, 15 minutes late for my original time), I wiped slick palms on my jeans and fretted that my clammy fingers would slip off the mouse and cause me to offer the accident victim a cigarette.
The weeks before my practical test ramped my anxiety up further. Friends and colleagues regaled me with their inability to pass. There was my university friend from California who failed four times; the colleague who failed five times; the colleague who failed once and then managed to pass the second time after starting the car in third; my California neighbor who failed the automatic test twice. As soon as I shared the date of my test, people eagerly divulged their trials. I was a walking repository for doomed testing stories. These fiascoes followed me from faculty meetings to the school drop-off to chance encounters on the street. (It was not unlike the stories of excruciating labors that greeted me when I attended the annual conference in my field while heavily pregnant. Twice.)
In the run-up to my road test, my driving lessons had first been interrupted by this very same conference (where I bored countless colleagues with agitated recitations of hard-won knowledge about bird crossings and burn victims) and then by the children’s school break. The day of my road test was unseasonably hot for April in Yorkshire, further increasing my recently discovered propensity for sweating. The practice session right before my test had gone badly. My ability to parallel park had forsaken me. I kept forgetting to check all my mirrors maniacally before using my turn signal. Normally in the UK, the driving instructor sits in the backseat of the car during the test because you are expected to fail and so will need feedback on what you did wrong for the next time(s). We had planned on this scenario, but at the last minute my instructor suspected that my driving would make her succumb to her daughter’s stomach virus. It would be me and the examiner alone in the car.
There is an examiner at my local testing center known for making tsk-tsk noises that so unnerve student drivers that they fail. This was my spouse’s examiner who, much to the shock of his instructor (seated in the back throughout the test), passed on his first try, on the rainy morning that Donald Trump was elected President. My nauseous instructor was alarmed when the tsk-tsking examiner emerged as my name was called, but immediately relieved (she later confessed) to see I had been assigned a kind tester instead (otherwise I surely would have failed). As we set off, my tester attempted some small talk, asking me whether I had driven in my previous country and if so, whether I had driven manual transmissions. I refused to answer his questions because admitting the truth could only count against me (either I had never learned to drive or had never learned manual). But the truth was obvious. The only way I had been able to grasp the mechanics of shifting was to count slowly “1, 2, 3” every time I lifted my foot off the clutch. I counted out loud.
Half the time of the practical test is devoted to following “Sat Nav”, a GPS route. The tester had set my Sat Nav route to country roads. Unfortunately, it had been at least seven weeks since I had practiced country roads in lessons and so I frantically tried to review strategies for shifting down into second (1, 2, 3) to manage the double switchbacks (1, 2, 3) that I would inevitably encounter. Months before I had come to the realization that country roads made me feel more alien than other any type of driving conditions. First I had learned to drive in a city and had always felt more comfortable in stop-start traffic. Second North American country roads are mostly wide, smooth, and straight, with good sightlines. The ones in Yorkshire felt excessively narrow, bumpy, and bounded by hedges or ancient stone walls. There could be sheep or horses. As an experienced driver, my body wanted me to drive 40 miles per hour on them, but I was allowed to drive 60. Eager to compensate for my initial refusal to answer questions about my driving record, I rambled on about the majestic landscapes of Canada and apologized profusely for the bumpiness of the country roads of my examiner’s nation. I prayed that my sweaty hands wouldn’t slip off the steering wheel (which in UK driving, one is supposed to grip at all times, even when turning). My examiner marked me down for failure to progress up to speed and hesitation, and also for forgetting to check my side mirrors before signaling. After he assured me of my respectable pass, I confessed that I had been an automatic driver in Canada and the US for twenty years, to which he replied “1, 2, 3.”
It was a momentous day, but like many big exams, not that much in reality has changed for me since. I still cycle my children to school in the pouring rain (when “it’s chucking it down”); I cycle, walk, or take the bus to campus; I try to avoid the relentless traffic in a city where the roads were first laid by the Romans. Perhaps the biggest change is that my test date was the last time I drove a manual car. We bought an automatic.
Chloe Wigston Smith teaches in the Department of English and Related Literature and the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies at the University of York. She is the author of Women, Work, and Clothes in the Eighteenth-Century Novel and co-editor of the forthcoming Material Literacy in Eighteenth-Century Britain: A Nation of Makers.