Thursday, March 12, 2009

Driving Miss Me, part I

I don't have a Dutch driving license, but I'm working on it. Technically, I already drive all the time. If I got into an accident, I wouldn't get in trouble for not having a license. I would, however, not be insured. My American passport served as my license for the first 6 months. Unfortunately, it took at least that long before I even wanted to try to drive here. I was just sure that I would forgot one tiny rule difference and get into an accident.

It's been 20 years since I took my driving test in the US. I'm going through it all again now, Dutch style. Maybe it's different now also in the US, but for me, this has been a difficult 'adventure'.

In the US, the theory part consisted of walking in to the DMV, standing in the insanely long line, receiving a paper packet and sitting in an area with desk cubbies to fill out my exam. I then dutifully turned it in, got scored and received my learner's permit. With that, I could drive for a year as long as I was with a licensed driver. When it came time to take my practical exam, my mom and I took the parental car to the next town over, as our own town was notorious for having a very hard exam. You had to parallel park and everything! Oh the horror at the idea of having to actually be competent! Instead I took an exam that consisted of driving about 4 blocks in a big square. I got in trouble for not slowing down enough at crossings where I had the right of way, but that was the only glitch. I'm not quite sure what was up with that choice of exam, since generally I'm a person who challenges themselves, who got involved in plenty of stuff when I was younger that makes me now think, "WHY did I put myself through that and do it the hard way??"

Either I've wimped out in my old age or the omnipresent difficulty of living in a foreign land has put me in a mindset where I want things to be generally easy. Cue Dutch Driving Instruction twirling its villainous mustache at me while cackling.

The Dutch driving age is 18. You can drive a scooter at 16 and they're pretty popular here among the high school crowd. And much, much safer than driving one in the US. The drinking age here begins at 16 for beer and wine. I rather like the idea that kids can get used to being drunk before they can use a car. Crashing a bike while drunk is not nearly as problematic. And very common, according to T. At least now I know to look forward to it with the kids (sigh).
Driving schools. Multiple. In my hometown, there was just one. Granted we were a rather small town, so the school had a definite monopoly. Here, as long as you are certified and do continuing education and have the correctly outfitted car, anyone can do it. We didn't go with the recommendation of a cousin and picked one based on website.

If you've never driven, you're better off buying one of the complete packets offered by driving schools. These run around 2k, but are intended to give a completely new driver as many lessons as it takes to be competent enough to pass the test. This also includes the exam fee, which is around 200 euros. After my first lesson, they confirmed that I could indeed drive just fine and that I only needed some 'loose' lessons to make sure I could pass the test, knew all the specific Dutch signs, etc. I think I drove a total of two weeks or somesuch in high school. We had 3 students and the instructor in the car. Each person would drive a bit, then switch. You were expected to get the most practice driving with other people using the learner's permit. Not so here. You aren't allowed to drive except with a driving instructor, in their car. They are all clearly marked with a big L on top of the car and outfitted with extra pedals and mirrors and whatnot for the instructor. When you take your exam, you will use their car and they will ride along with you, presumably to know what to fix if you fail.

Not knowing how things really work and having gotten a lot of instruction from T, I just signed up with a driving school to begin the driving lessons. Not having done the theory exam first was a mistake as I spent the first few lessons being yelled at and not understanding why a lot of the time. They have a weird slant on 'conservation' here in regards to driving. Things like taking your foot off the brake while at a stoplight (and putting on the hand brake if you would roll) to save your brake lights. Braking as little as possible to save your brake pads (and instead just letting off the gas, even if that means starting to slow insanely far away from your stop). Driving a very specific speed in each gear to use gas the most efficiently (instead of just switching based on what the motor sounds like or the rpms). These things are actually covered in the theory book and having not read it, I didn't understand the irritation of the instructor.

I didn't like him anyway. He seemed oddly arrogant and kept taking personal calls on his cell unrelated to work. Plus, he was sneaky about the price. He advertised a certain price for 45 minutes, around the same price that most places charged for an hour. What was not mentioned anywhere was that he only would give lessons for 1.5 hours. So you end up paying double what you'd expect for a lesson. It's not illegal or anything, just sneaky. Not to mention 1.5 is really a bit long to try to hold good concentration for such a thing. After about 4 lessons, I got an email saying that they were no longer giving lessons and were instead concentrating on motorcycle lessons. I was getting towards the end of my pregnancy anyway and although I fit behind the wheel, other things were becoming difficult, like turning enough to look behind me.

Post-pregnancy we signed up with the school that the cousin had recommended. What a world of difference! A nice husband and wife team who speak calmly to you no matter what you're screwing up. They immediately put my name in for the driving exam, confident that I only needed a few more lessons and knowing that it would be several weeks before there was an open spot. I finally feel like I am making good progress at filling in those little knowledge gaps and I have an end date in sight.

Part II to follow with my experience taking the theory exam and the differences in driving here and in the US.

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