Getting Your UK Driving License: A Rite Of Passage For Americans

Few events in adolescence carry more symbolic weight than that blissful moment when you get behind the wheel of your car and drive it for the first time…with a proper license. No more Mom and Dad. No more Driver’s Ed. Just you and the open road.

Getting your own license is a moment one rarely forgets: right up there with losing your first tooth and the day that you realize that there really isn’t a Santa Claus after all. It’s one of those signature experiences that seems to embody so much of what lies ahead in adulthood:  freedom…responsibility…danger… fun.

Those of us living overseas, however, have the rare opportunity to go through this experience twice. And I’m here to tell you that it’s no less thrilling the second time around.

I know this because my husband – miraculously – just passed his UK driving test this weekend and was awarded a British license as a result.

I say “miraculously” because if you know anything about the UK driving test, you’ll know that it is notoriously difficult to pass. So difficult that most of my American friends here have failed it at least once, if not multiple times. They have left the test cowed and demoralized, if not downright terrified.

In it’s own weird way, the U.K. driving test has become a sort of litmus test for how well Americans really can adapt to British life and culture.

Why is it so hard, exactly? Mostly, it’s just that the rules are so entirely different from the ones we learn in the States. The hand brake, for example, features prominently in the exam, as does checking one’s mirrors compulsively and the ability to make a turn from the inside lane of a roundabout (traffic circle). (And that’s just the practical test. There’s also a 35-question, computerized “theory” test which makes our own written tests look like a cake walk. My husband has a Ph.D. and he easily studied for six hours before attempting the theory portion and, even then, barely passed.)

The results of the practical test bear out its difficulty. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal (which gives a fabulous account of exactly what it’s like to endure this process from start to finish), the pass rate for the test in Britain was under 44% (and falling) in 2002 when the article was written, compared to New York, where 61% of drivers passed.

Which perhaps explains why people here invest so much time and money paying instructors to teach them how to “Drive British.” (For a brilliant send-up of this experience, see Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky.)

Indeed, teaching driving has become such a racket here that some instructors have begun charging extra for secret tips to passing the test that have absolutely nothing to do with driving whatsoever. A friend’s husband, for example, was told by his instructor to warm the car seats in advance so that he could then “bond” with the (male) driving examiner about how awful it is that wives always make their husbands over-heat the passenger seats. (He passed.)

And so we were elated that my husband made it through on his very first try.

Part of our joy was just relief that we didn’t have to shell out more time and money to revisit this whole thing all over again. Right up to his very last lesson (which took place one hour before the exam), my husband was entirely unconvinced that he would pass.

We’re also excited because while we’ve traveled extensively outside of the U.K. during our time living in London, we’ve done comparatively little travel inside our country of residence. A lot of our hesitation was due to our reluctance to drive with an American license which – while scores of people do it – is actually illegal after you’ve been living here more than one year. As a sign of the exuberance we’ve experienced after passing the road test yesterday, we’ve already signed up for Street Car – which, after cycling – strikes me as the best way forward for a greener, healthier lifestyle and planet.

But I think that most of our happiness derives from the fact that symbolically, passing this test was a major psychological hurdle towards feeling like we might possibly stay here in London. I wrote not long ago about the eternal uneasiness one feels as an expat as to whether – and when – you might repatriate to your country of origin. One of the central ways to reduce that anxiety is to eliminate the barriers – psychological and practical – that keep you from sinking roots. In short: to figure out ways to commit, large and small, to your host country.

In our case, it turns out, not being able to drive had become one such barrier. And with it now removed, we feel that much closer to staying – or at least being able to contemplate staying here for the long haul.

There’s only one catch: I still need to pass the test as well.

Stay tuned…


Image: driver’s ed by sciondriver via Flickr under a Creative Commons’ License



  • Reply Kristen @ Motherese

    May 23, 2011, 2:45 pm

    My husband grew up in Manhattan, then spent his college and grad school years in a city where he never needed a car so he didn’t learn how to drive until his late 20s. His instructor? Me. It’s a marvel that our marriage lasted that particular crucible.

    We considered making a driving tour of the UK countryside as our honeymoon, but at that point he couldn’t yet drive and I was terrified of the idea of being our sole means of transportation when I had never driven on the “wrong side” of the road. (We ended up spending a week in the Caribbean.)

    Now we talk about spending his sabbatical year in London and your essay has conjured up all sorts of memories of our shared driving past. The good news is that we’d likely be there less than a year and so wouldn’t have to submit to what sounds like a killer driver’s test…if either of us is willing to get behind the wheel at all, that is!

    • Reply delialloyd

      May 23, 2011, 5:22 pm

      @kristen-funny you should mention this as my husband thinks that before I take proper lessons here, I should practice w/him. Not sure our marriage can withstand that either! Hope that you do come to London so that we can meet in person. In the mean time, if you’re here for less than a year you are right-you don’t need to change licenses so problem solved!

  • Reply Shelley

    May 23, 2011, 3:57 pm

    Congratulations to your husband! I had no problem with the theory test – aced it easily – but I had to do the driving test twice. I failed the first one with my first maneuver: backing around a corner. Of course the test guy didn’t tell me and I sailed through the rest. My driving instructor never had me practice it, and I was furious, not to mention really disappointed. I was desparate to change jobs to get away from a bully and I needed that license. I did get it a couple of months later; what a relief! Other than needing to be able to drive to another town to save myself a horrendous public transport journey, I can’t say I find a car really necessary in the UK. This is largely because I’m retired now, of course, and Bill still has his car, but since he’s retired we put about £20 of petrol in each month and walk most of the time. Being over 60 he has a free bus/metro pass.

    But having access to a car does make a big difference to quality of life and it’s one of the indicators used to measure deprivation. So, congratulations … and good luck!

    • Reply delialloyd

      May 23, 2011, 5:21 pm

      @shelley-yes the backing around the corner thing is notorious-it’s as if they pick the very hardest maneuvers and then ask you to do them! Agree that you don’t really need a car here and we have no plans to purchase. But it’s nice to think that we could leave on a moment’s notice!

  • Reply sassy

    May 23, 2011, 4:48 pm

    Oh, what memories you have brought back. We lived in England for 11 months (was supposed to be two years minimum) and I took advantage of the corporate offered driving lessons. We soon figured out that whenever I shifted (in a standard transmission car) I drifted to the left, without realizing it. I eventually got an automatic to drive, which caused my instructor to exclaim about how miraculously my driving had improved. But the test! I ended up not taking it but my instructor scared me to death and also told me which testing places to avoid (ie “no one passes the first time in Slough because of the major roundabout in town: even if you drive perfectly someone else will do something wrong and you will lose points when you adjust”). He also promised to come back and teach me how to really drive as opposed to what I had to do to pass the test. Not taking the driving test was the ONLY good thing about leaving early.

    Oh, and I loved the advice another expat got from her instructor. She tested in an automatic and her license was restrictred to an automatic. Her instructor told her that if she was stopped driving her husband’s standard transmission car, she should have a good emergency story ready and should burst into tears!

    Thanks for stirring up some memories.

    • Reply delialloyd

      May 23, 2011, 5:20 pm

      @sassy this is so grt esp abt roundabout-my husband actually flubbed his roundabout in hendon (which should have failed him) but b/c there was no other traffic on the road, the guy gave him a pass. This really is a riot-I’m so glad that Mike Leigh has immortalized it on film for the rest of us-it has to be seen to be believed! Thx for dropping by…

  • Reply daryl boylan

    May 23, 2011, 9:50 pm

    Go, Lloyd! Go. Lloyd! Go go go, Lloyd!

  • Reply Happy Homemaker UK

    May 24, 2011, 5:29 am

    We have a mutual friend, Suzy, who led me to you blog. I just passed my test a few months ago with driving lessons (and failed only once) – yea! I totally agree that it felt like a rite of passage. XOL

  • Reply Laura Harrison McBride

    May 24, 2011, 11:06 am

    I am going to take the dreaded test tomorrow, one year and two weeks after arriving. I would have taken it six weeks ago, but they were booked. So….a few more lessons. And no sleep already for two nights…

    The backing around a corner thing is the totally weirdest part of it all. If I had done that in New York, and a cop saw, he’d have ripped up my license in front of me. It is ludicrous, dangerous, nonsensical…as is backing into a parking bay. Who would do that? If you’re at the supermarket, you’ll want the back toward the roadway to load the groceries in the trunk/boot. And the not crossing the arms part; it makes cornering impossible to do any way except as an old lady driver. I’ve been driving for–gasp!–46 years, no tickets EVER, and the only insurance claim a deer running into my car in Maryland about a dozen years ago.

    Anyway, I shall spend this evening with the following mantra: Old Lady Driver, Old Lady Driver. I am, actually, an older lady, but have never been and Old Lady Driver. Except for tomorrow. I’ll get all OCD about mirrors and swiveling my head like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. And pray there is nothing weird on the roundabout. Middle of the day Wednesday? I think I’m going to need a LOT of praying about that. All help gratefully accepted.

    Thanks for a great article…and best of luck to you!

    • Reply delialloyd

      May 24, 2011, 12:28 pm

      @Laura-LOL re: exorcist. One tip my friend’s husband’s driving instructor gave him (the one with heated seats) was to position the examiner’s seat so far forward that he’d have to really turn his whole body in order to see you do anything…and that whenever he did, you should quickly look int he mirror. Love your Old Lady Mantra-best of luck to you!!

  • Reply Patricia

    May 29, 2011, 11:28 pm

    It took me years and years to pass a driving test…Congrats to your husband. With dyscalcula it is really a miracle that I was able to pass, but it took a fellow who had a daughter with dyscalcula to teach me how to drive – left turns are agony – I just have to find a light or a totally empty road.

    I think I would have to go completely public transportation if I moved. One has to take a test in every State that you move to here too…that scares me :)

Write a comment