Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Dreaded Driving Test: Part Three

Part One Part Two

Alone in my car with an hour to go before the test, my first impulse was to pull out The Rules of the Road and do some last minute studying. I've always scoffed at classmates who use the five minutes before a test to cram a few more facts into their addled brains. It seems to me that if you don't know it by then, an extra five minutes is not going to help you. But flipping through the book and brushing up on some of the numbers seemed like a good way to pass the time. Speed limit on a national road? 100kph. When can children stop using booster seats? When they attain a height of 150 cm and 36 kilograms. What are the drink-driving limits? 80 mg/100 ml for blood, 107 mg/100 ml urine and 35 microgrammes/100 ml for breath.

After about ten minutes of this, my anxiety level was through the roof and my brain was starting to shut down. I remembered that listening to music had helped me on the drive down. I'm especially fond "If I Ever Leave This World Alive" by Flogging Molly.
You can find the full lyrics here and a YouTube video here.

The song reminds me of my Nana Anna. She was a huge influence in my life and ever since she died in 2004, I've always felt like she was looking out for me. I don't know what your personal feelings about death and the Afterlife are. To be honest, I'm not exactly sure what my thoughts are on the matter. But it's a basic fact of physics that energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change forms. Nana Anna was practically a force of nature - I have a hard time believing that all of that love and energy just disappeared when she died.

When I was driving back to Chicago after her funeral, I saw an eagle soaring above the highway in Indiana. For the rest of the autumn, I found ladybugs landing on me at random times. (Nana used to have us catch ladybugs for her so they could eat any tiny insects on her houseplants.) It made me feel good, like she was close by.

A similar thing happened after Tom died, except with him, it seemed to be herons. Peter thinks I'm crazy and silly, but for months after Tom died, a heron practically took up residence in the field next to our house. He was there every morning for ages. There were other bizarre heron sightings, but you're probably thinking that I'm losing the plot.

Back into the story: I put on the song and turned it up really loud so I could sing along. I really didn't care who could see me, so long as no one could actually hear me since I am a dreadful singer. (Really, this is not just false modesty. I couldn't carry a tune of you stapled it to my hand.) When I sang my favourite part, I really felt as though the words were true:

She says I'm okay; I'm alright,
Though you have gone from my life
You said that it would,
Now everything should be all right

It was around this time that a bit of motion in the sky caught my eye. It was a heron. I had a little Moment (complete with a few girly tears) because I knew it really was going to be alright. I could relax because I could and would pass the test.

I listened to the song repeatedly and then went into the test centre. The place where you wait for your test feels like the hallway outside of the principal's office. About ten minutes before my scheduled time, the door swung open and the same tester I had last time called me in.

We flew the paperwork and then through the Rules of the Road question. (None of the numbers I crammed into my head were needed.) Then he sent me outside to open the bonnet of the car for the technical check. I breezed through that and passed the road worthiness check. Everything was moving right along.

The examiner got into the car and started to ask me about the controls on the dashboard. I put my hand up (I nearly touched his arm and had to stop myself) and said "I'm sorry, I know you must go through, what 7 or 8 of these tests a day?" He told me the number was actually 10. I said "Wow. Ten tests. So you're used to just rolling through all these instructions, but I'm having a really hard time keeping up with you. Can you please go a bit more slowly."

"Yes, yes, of course." He took a deep breath and then opened his mouth. Then he looked at me and said "I'm sorry, I've lost my train of thought." I reminded him about the controls and he tested me on those. I could see already an interesting trend - he would start off speaking slowly but then he'd just slip into his ordinary way of speaking, which was at about 200 mph.

He gave me directions to leave the test centre and then I ventured out onto the longest five miles of my life. I breezed the first roundabout, encountered only light traffic in front of the hotel (which is usually a choke point) and was relieved when he told me to follow the road around and take the first right. (The alternative, taking the right before the road curves around is a pain in the ass.)

At the turn, a kindly old lady stopped her car and waved me through. I gave her a one-finger country wave and drove up through my favourite part of Skibbereen. It's the path of an old railway and I always feel like I'm driving through a green canyon, so mossy are the steep carved-out walls of stone on either side.

I knew I was firing on all driving cylinders. I was remembering to check my mirrors before indicating. My gear changing and clutching were as smooth as a lazy summer day. It all felt very good.

The examiner directed me through the maze of streets, eventually taking me to a deserted street where they seemed to be building a housing estate. The street was completely empty and was a cul-de-sac, so I could be reasonably sure no traffic would be coming at me. It was the sort of place that if Peter was driving somewhere and we ended up here, I'd jokingly ask if this was where he left me for dead. (I resisted the temptation to ask the examiner that.)

I was directed to turn my car about so that it was facing the opposite direction, taking as many points as necessary. Given my crashing about into the kerb during my cleansing hour, I decided to play it very conservatively. It was in the middle of my second reverse-then-edge-forward maneuver that I realised I couldn't remember if I'd looked left before I started moving. I knew that was a failable offense and my heart sank. Everything had been going so well. Had I really just blown the test by making such a stupid error?

I reminded myself that this was how I unraveled in the first test, by deciding I had failed and then getting rattled. I started to sing to myself (in my head) the words that I had found so calming before the test. I also focused all my energy on just doing all the simple little things required to pass the test. Check the mirrors. Check my blindspot. Remember to use the indicators properly. Watch the gears.

We drove back into Skibbereen for another spin around the narrow streets, including Santa's Grotto of Hell. Mercifully, there wasn't another car in sight when I made the turn onto the dastardly road. Eventually, we ended up near the infamous Lidl roundabout. I completely blanked on what lane I should be in, so I slowed down and asked him to repeat the instruction. In repeating the instructions, he added the words "Baltimore Road" and gestured. Following his gesture, I saw those very words painted in 6-foot tall letters on the pavement, marking the lane I should be in. I deftly switched lanes and breathed a sigh of relief - I knew I'd dodged another bullet.

In time, I was directed to go out the New Road, a great sweeping, wide road that curved up a big hill. Half-way up the hill is an entrance to a housing estate, which is one of the spots that is used frequently as the reverse corner. I was elated when I realised this would be my reverse corner as it was one of my best ones. I followed all of his instructions for approaching and preparing for the reversal. Then I executed the most text book perfect reversing-around-the-corner moves that I'd ever done.

After that major triumph, I was directed to take the next left turn and then pull over. Here it was, the dreaded hill start. Before we began, he said to me "I'm sorry, I seem to have forgotten, have we covered hand signals yet?" We hadn't. I had to smile to myself - he seemed more nervous and dazed than I had been before the test. I aced the hand signals and breezed through the hill start.

Once more into the breech of Skibbereen and this time, I had to approach one of my most difficult intersections. I did okay, but I knew I didn't do it perfectly and I could see his hand twitching out a marking on the clipboard. Oh well, I didn't need to be perfect, I just needed to be good enough.

Finally, I could see the harbour on the horizon when I was directed to take the third exit off the roundabout and return to the test centre. Only one last hurdle remained: parking in the test centre. In the car park, there were a few cars and a few spaces right in front of the doors to the building. But he didn't direct me to pull in. Instead, he directed me to pull in at an area where there were about six open spaces. I was able to easily zip into a spot with an open space on either side.

He hopped out of the car and I followed him back into the test centre. Settling down behind his desk, he told me "I'm happy to tell you that you passed the test." I gushed a breathy, relieved thank-you as he wrote out my beautiful Certificate of Competency. I didn't look at my marking sheet until I was back in the car and could compare it to the first one.

In simplest terms, the test is divided into 17 functional sections (like Observation, Vehicle Controls, Traffic Controls, Progress, Reverse, and Turnabout). Each of the sections is subdivided into testing points. For example, the Right Of Way section consists of Moving Off, Overtaking, Changing Lanes, At Junctions, Roundabouts, Turning Right, Turning Left. You are then assessed mistakes against these various points.

If you make one major mistake of any sort, you fail the test. (This is defined as "Dangerous/Potentially Dangerous or total disregard of traffic controls.) You can make 8 medium mistakes, so long as you spread them out among the sections and testing points. If you make 4 medium mistakes for the same testing point, you fail. If you make 6 medium mistakes in the same section, you fail. You can also get markings for minor mistakes, which don't count towards failing - they are more of an FYI.

In my first test, I made a total of 14 medium mistakes. I failed on the gears alone with 4 mistakes, plus one medium mistake for the clutch. (He also gave me a pile of minor mistakes in that section, I suspect because he ran out of spaces for medium mistakes and didn't want to give me a major mistake.)

In my victorious test, I made four medium mistakes: Pedestrian Crossing (this was near the end of the test at that nightmare intersection), Progress Turning Right (no idea), Progress Turning Left (again, no idea), and Reaction to Hazard (yep, no idea). My sheet was blessedly clean in the Clutch, Gears, Handbrake points.

Now you know the long, tortured story of how I passed the dreaded driving test. If you've found this post because you have to do a test at Skibbereen, send me an email and I'll give you the names and numbers of my driving instructors. If you're only just signing up for your test, I'd steer clear of Skib.

In fact, my newest, dearest ambition in life is to never, ever drive in Skibbereen again.


At 17 February 2008 at 11:57, Blogger SwampAngel65 said...

CONGRATS!!!! I'm sure your guardians angels were right beside you, helping you out.

At 17 February 2008 at 19:54, Blogger Fence said...


So happy you passed.

At 17 February 2008 at 21:23, Anonymous Claire said...

Well done! I'll be referring back to these posts in the future when I have to take the bloody thing. It just seems so so hard to pass I can't imagine I'll pass first time. It's so good to just read through a description of what it's actually like.

At 17 February 2008 at 23:32, Blogger Babaloo said...

I am SO glad I passed my test in Germany. Honest. And I wonder why many Irish people are such incredibly bad drivers. If the test is that hard? I don't get it. Even people with full licenses.
But, you passed. And if you don't want to, you never have to drive in Skib again. Ever.

At 18 February 2008 at 02:06, Blogger Cynthia said...

Do you have to take the test with a stick shift?

At 18 February 2008 at 02:45, Blogger Sweet Irene said...

Well, thank goodness, what a nice ending to the story and, although I knew you made it, I still held my breath for a good outcome. You never know, maybe you had faked us out at the very beginning. Hooray, you didn't!

At 18 February 2008 at 14:30, Blogger Kaycie said...

Wonderful story. So glad you were able to calm yourself down. That probably is why you passed this time, you know.

At 18 February 2008 at 15:09, Blogger Kim said...


I really enjoy your writing style.

Thanks for the comment on my blog!

It was gross!

At 18 February 2008 at 15:34, Blogger The Rotten Correspondent said...

Yahoo! Way to go!

I can't believe how much more rigorous the driving test is there, compared to here. Wow.

I'm thrilled for you.

At 18 February 2008 at 17:42, Blogger laurie said...

i love this post, ann. you certainly were paying close attention, in order to recreate it this way.

and the heron? and the ladybugs? i'm with you on that, and it's not silly. not in the least.

congratulations on your test. flogging molly is probably not the way i would relax (they key me up), but i'm glad it worked for you, and glad you thought of it. you clearly have great presence of mind.

At 18 February 2008 at 20:42, Blogger -Ann said...

SA - Thanks. I know I had help. :)

Fence - Thanks. Such a relief to be done with it.

Claire - Thanks. My only advice is to take plenty of lessons, have a lesson right before, and take Rescue Remedy. :)

Babaloo - It's mad, isn't it?

Cynthia - If you want to be licensed to drive a manual, yes. If you take the test in an automatic, your license only covers automatics. Cars, like everything else, are really expensive here, so the majority of cars are manuals.

SI - Glad you enjoyed the series. No way I could fake that much relief and happiness.

Kaycie - Yeah, being calm and relaxed definitely helped.

Kim - Thanks and thanks for stopping by. :)

RC - Thanks. I am still so happy and excited, it's silly. I wasn't so happy when I passed my Ohio test at age 16, and back then a license meant Freedom.

Laurie - Thanks - the whole day is totally engraved in my mind. I am SO glad I don't have to go through that again!

At 19 February 2008 at 05:58, Blogger ped crossing said...

The hill start would be a killer for me too. I love my little automatic. Especially this weekend when I had to parallel park facing down hill.


At 23 February 2008 at 11:17, OpenID ainelivia said...

Congratulations and well done. your post is really helpful as I will be taking the dreaded soon, I'm told. My driving instructor is Swiss and amazingly laid back, he told me he doesn't fear for his life when I am driving as I can steer the car straight, something some of his instructees fail to do even after months of lessons. Sometimes I actually feel sorry for him.


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