Puffins, Toucans, and Zebras, Oh My!

After three and a half years in a place, you get a false sense of familiarity. You’ve settled into your job, your home, your daily routine and (of course) the ambient local dialect; the accents are much more intelligible and previously unfamiliar words are now familiar. But then you decide, “Hey, I should get my driver’s license driving licence,” and suddenly the world goes upside-down again.

In a few weeks I’m taking the theory (written) portion of the UK driving test. Studying for it has been a little frustrating and, occasionally, very amusing. Below are a dozen examples from the practice tests on Theory Test Pro. I’ve grouped them according to six themes that vary with respect to my source of amusement or frustration.

Theme 1. British terms that are just inherently funny.

To begin with, there’s the puffin (and pelican, toucan, and zebra) crossings:

These animal names are supposed to be mnemonics, and while I actually do find most the other ones vaguely helpful, “puffin” (pedestrian user-friendly intelligent crossing) is just not. I have this image of a bunch of guys sitting around a conference table with a list of animal names, trying to squeeze out a very awkward acronym and, well, succeeding.

Want another funny term? Well, there are many, but how about the ‘immobiliser’?

(The correct answer is ‘immobiliser’.) Superhero weapon, anyone?

Theme 2: Elements of British culture are charming, and this shows in their test questions. The best examples are the questions about sheep and horses:

(The correct answer, fwiw, is to stop. Posting this one on Facebook led to a rather long comment thread, including comments several people who had experienced this exact scenario. There are a lot of sheep in this country, people!)

Okay, this next one isn’t exactly ‘cultural’ (or maybe it is, I don’t know), but I find it similarly amusing that obtaining a UK driving licence entails having to learn the maximum speed limit of wheelchairs and scooters:

I was most interested to learn that they even have a speed limit.

Theme 3. The actual rules of the road. These are less funny, and more flabbergasting. One is that Brits use the handbrake a lot more than Americans do; in fact, more than the foot break.

I actually don’t think this is such a bad idea, but it will take some getting used to when I start driving lessons. Another rule is that you are supposed to use your mirrors a lot more often:

Again, this makes some sense, but I don’t know of any American state driving test that insists that you check your mirrors first before braking.

Okay, but the rule that really gets me is this: there is no right-of-way rule in the UK!

I simply do not understand this. If you do, please leave a comment and explain to me why this is a good idea!

Theme 4: The UK has some weird road signs. I won’t even get into the fact that a red circle means the same thing as what a red circle with a line through it means in the US. Here are just a few of the tougher ones:


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Theme 5. Pure silliness. As is the case with all good multiple choice tests, there are the questions that you know the test-makers had a little fun with.

(For me, the lower left answer conjures up the image of Hell’s Angels in neon.)

Theme 6: What? Lastly, there are questions that are just flat-out perplexing:

My husband‘s guess for this one is that you’re not meant to signal to the pedestrian (which is what my incorrect guess was), but rather that you’re meant to signal to the hypothetical car that is behind you; the hand signal is meant to warn that driver that you’re slowing down unexpectedly (for zebras…!).

Please leave a comment if you actually understand what’s going on here.

And please wish me luck on my test.


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13 Responses to Puffins, Toucans, and Zebras, Oh My!

  1. Oh, this is to funny. I don’t drive so, despite being British, it’s all quite mystifying to me! 🙂

  2. What, there’s no right of way rule in the UK?? Ok, I should’ve failed my driving test then… I did not know that.

  3. Camille says:

    Hilarious, great post! Captures some great elements of British driving, including the ever present sheep in the countryside.

  4. Peter Sells says:

    Having grown up here (and having passed my test back when it must have been even quainter?) I must say, most of that seems totally intuitive to me, and I was surprised by how different the expectations were in the U.S. I think Jefferson’s right about the last answer. (Though I didn’t know the birds names meant anything. As children we learned the pedestrian rules from a squirrel, so I guess birds just seemed to fit as well.) When the new road signs came in the 60s or 70s, there were lots of jokes about them, e.g.:

    Anyway … good luck!

  5. Dorix says:

    The key in the crossroad conundrum is that it’s unmarked. There are quite clear priority markings at most road junctions, but occasionally these are obliterated/obscured for whatever reason, upon which the sensible thing to do is to assume that you should stop and only proceed with caution. It doesn’t mean that there’s no priority ever, just that there’s no protocol for an unmarked junction.

    • vocalised says:

      Right, thanks for that clarification. In the US, the protocol for an unmarked junction is that the car on the right gets right-of-way; all I’m saying is that, in the UK, there could/should be a protocol that the car on the left gets right-of-way. Of course, neither of these is useful in the event that all four cars really do arrive at a junction at exactly the same time. And I do recognize that there are a lot more perpendicular, unmarked junctions across the US than there are across the UK. So I get it, I’m just being grumpy. 😉

      • Saltwater says:

        To be honest, the chance of finding a completely unmarked crossroads will mean you’re so far out in the sticks that there probably won’t be another car there that day, let alone the same time as you. I think this just relies on the British culture of “after you, oh no after you…” to avoid accidents.

  6. Murli says:

    your husband is right about the last one. straight arm going up and down means slowing down. the top-right picture means turning left and the bottom-left one means turning right. the bottom-right one isn’t a legitimate signal. bonus: reverse the direction of your arm’s movement and it means you’re u-turning! all these signs are for cars behind you not for the pedestrian.

  7. Murli says:

    oops, forgot to clarify that my bonus signal was in reference to the top-right picture.

  8. Pingback: Why Even Good Drivers Need Driving Lessons (in the UK) | vocalized/vocalised

  9. dw says:

    You’re right about neglect of the handbrake in the US. Drivers here (California) seem to think it’s completely acceptable to roll backwards a few inches when starting on a hill (whether in a stick or an automatic) — it’s a pretty big deal in San Francisco!

    I was always taught in England that rolling backwards was wrong. I agree with the UK position on this one.

  10. Pingback: This whole post could have been about King Henry VIII, but it’s not. | vocalized/vocalised

  11. this all made me laugh out loud!

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