Yesterday, I got my UK driving licence — on my first try (after 20 hours of lessons), and with only three minor faults, despite being a bundle of nerves and taking what felt like an hour just to parallel park. To celebrate, my friend Stephanie suggested I blog about it. So, in the ex-pat spirit of this blog, here are the Top Five Differences between the practical driving test in the UK and the ones in the US. (Caveat: I never even took a practical driving test in the US, because I’m from Arizona!) Limiting this to only five was a bit of challenge, so feel free to ask questions or list your own tips in the comments below. My list is pretty different from some of the ones out there that are just for Americans visiting the UK (who are just trying to stay alive on the road and not get a ticket, which is a different thing entirely). For more details pertaining to American ex-pats in the UK check out this site.
Before we get started, keep in mind that to pass the test you can accumulate no more than 15 minor faults. More than 15 minor faults, or just one major fault, and you fail. If, on the test, you do anything that causes another vehicle to alter what they otherwise would have done (e.g., if they have to slow down even slightly because of you), it’s considered a major fault.
1. Mirrors Are God
As mentioned briefly in my earlier post about the written/theory test, the UK driving test is all about mirror checks. You’ve gotta check your interior mirror, and then the side mirrors, before you do anything. Seriously, ANYTHING. Not just changing lanes, but before speeding up, slowing down, or turning on your turn signal. And what’s more, turning on your turn signal should always precede breaking. “Mirror, signal, brake” will become your little mantra for how to make any turn. Every time you diverge from that Order Which Rules All Things, you will receive a minor fault!
2. You Drive Badly
When I started lessons the first thing I had to do was relearning how to drive. I drove a stick-shift for many years in the U.S. and had picked up all sorts of atrocious habits, like keeping the clutch in too often, like while making a turn from a main road into a side street, or while coasting into a red light. Keeping the clutch in results in reduced control over the car, and so doing so can result in a minor fault on the test. The other thing was that, like most Americans, I previously only used the handbrake to park the car. Silly me! As mentioned in my earlier post, you’re meant to use the handbrake at ANY time during the course of driving when the car is stopped. I have to say, now I kinda like it. Among other things, it’s definitely easier to start from a stopped position on a hill.
3. Drive in Reverse into a Side Street
Everyone hates the manoeuvres. Yes, manoeuvres, not maneuvers — these babies are distinctly British. There are four possible manoeuvres; on the test they ask you to perform one of them. Parallel parking and a three-point turn are easy enough for Americans; just make sure to use that handbrake, and stop and check your blind spot, at every. single. damn. point. of. the. turn. The third manoeuvre is to reverse into a parking spot — sort of weird for some of us, and an easy one to mess up on the first try, but not utterly foreign. It’s the fourth one that has all us Yanks scratching our heads: reversing around a corner. Many UK roads are very narrow, and so sometimes it’s not possible to do a three-point turn when you need to turn around. The alternative in such a case is to turn around in a side street. But you can’t legally drive in reverse on a main road, so you have to drive in reverse into the side street in order to get yourself turned around legally. The thing is, on the test, you have to do this while staying within 1-2 feet of the left kerb and without ever crossing into the side street’s opposite lane. Make sense? Yeah.
4. Position Left to Go Straight
You’ll get the basics of entering and exiting roundabouts pretty quickly. The challenge is doing so in the correct lane, and using the turn signals in the right way. If you’re turning left or right it’s obvious; just enter the roundabout from the respective lane; signal left for left, and right for right (but switch your signal to left as you pass the last exit before your exit… obviously, right?). But funnily enough, that thing which should be easiest — just going straight — is the most perplexing. To go straight, you need to enter the roundabout in the left lane, even if ‘lanes’ aren’t actually painted on the road. And this is true even if the exit to go ‘straight’ is actually positioned to your right as you enter the roundabout… which is potentially very confusing. Also, although you might be moving into the left lane in order to go straight, don’t signal left until you’ve entered the roundabout and passed the first exit. If you do, and if there’s a car there, and it looks like the driver of the car might possibly have been confused by your early turn signal, you will fail the test.
5. Drive on the Left, while Sitting on the Right
Those who haven’t studied for the test often make a big deal about this one, probably because it’s the most visible difference from outside of the car. But trust me, once you get behind the wheel this is by far the least of your concerns!
Good luck and happy driving! If anyone needs a tip for a good driving instructor in Edinburgh, let me know. :-)