Jean Barker

Licence and registration, Ma'am

2012-06-22 08:27

Jean Barker

Although I still dream about failing tests all the time, I've only actually failed one important test in my life: The California Driver's Licence written test.

I took it, impulsively, about a year ago, when I popped into the Department of Motor Vehicles for some other reason entirely. Imagine "impulsively" writing your learner's licence in South Africa? Even back when I did it, the waiting time for appointments was a few months. Now if you follow the legal route to an SA licence you'll probably die of old age before you get your chance to legally die on the roads.

Failing the test shocked me. It shocked my American friends too. "You failed the written test?" They gasped, clearly wondering how I passed my GRE. Terrified of repeating the humiliation, I kept renewing my international driving licence. Then, just as I began considering trying again, I was pulled over for er...stopping at a green light. The cop stared at my passport, then stared at me. "I don't know how to process your penalty," he said. "Get a CA licence."

He explained: "You having a California licence will make it easier to deal with instances like this". So I didn't get one, obviously! Until, that is, I lost my South African driver's licence somewhere between a wrap party and Denny's early one Sunday morning, and was forced to take the written test and the practical in the space of a week.

I was surprised, when actually (ahem) studying for the written test, to learn the rules of the USA's roads. I thought I knew them. But it turns out that basing your knowledge on what people actually do on the roads isn't any more advisable in the US than it is back home.

For instance:

1/ Although it's foolish to indicate when changing lanes on a freeway, because the person cruising along just behind you will speed up to cut you off if you give them any warning as to your intentions, it is, in fact, a legal requirement in the USA.

2/ Crossing double yellow lines is never legal, even if you just missed the entrance to the store.

3/ You can't go through a gas station in order to avoid a red robot (or, as they say here, "traffic light".)

4/ "When transporting livestock, they... something something". I don't remember. But it was in the book. All I know is that people let their dogs stick their heads out of the window, but it's not legal to do so.

And along the way to becoming a US driver, I encountered a few fresh reminders of my foreign-ness. I stopped into a dollar store en route to the DMV. The conversation went like so...

Jean: "I need to stick my number plate back onto my car. What do you have?"
Shop assistant: "You... what?"
Jean: "My number plate fell off my car. I need to stick it back on."
Shop assistant: "Oh... okay." Then something to her friend in Spanish. They both frowned at me.
Jean: "Mirror tape, maybe? Or some screws?"
She shrugged at weirdo me, and pointed down and aisle.

Her reaction made sense later, when I learned that a "number plate" is a "licence plate" here. A number plate is what you put on your house. I bet that woman is still wondering if she should have sold me a post box so I could get my mail delivered to my passenger window.

The big test

So with my licence plate attached and my many documents in hand, I went to take my test. I was nervous, but needlessly so. Turns out that the CA practical driver's test is the easiest test in the world. A few times round the block, and they don't even ask you to parallel park, or to drive on the freeway - just to pull up to the curb and reverse without hitting anything. And they're really nice to you! You are allowed to make up to 15 mistakes and still pass. Which worried me. A lot.

I called to tell a friend I passed. "California's hard compared to Pennsylvania," he said. "Congratulations."

As I drove home, I realised that my fear of failure had been replaced with a new terror: of legal, licenced US drivers. They're everywhere, in huge cars, and I'm suddenly as nervous as a newly-shaved sheep arriving on a farm in Florida for the summer.

- Jean is a screenwriting/directing dual MFA student in California, USA. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here. She will be back.

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