Monday, October 15, 2012

Beep Beep

New experiences and challenges are a common experience when you're a senior missionary. We've been here nine months now and we've had lots of 'em. That being said, I hope I just conquered the biggest challenge of our entire mission in England. Last Thursday (10-11-12), I finally passed all my tests and got my Official - British - Driver's - License!!

What's the big deal, you ask? Well, let me just tell you what the big deal is, in 8 easy steps :)

Within a few days of arriving in England, we were informed, quite simply, that as Americans, our drivers' licenses would be valid for a full year after moving here. It didn't take long to do the math and figure out that if we wanted groceries or anything else during the second year of our mission, we would have to qualify for and acquire a British driver's license.

For several months after that, I was just plain too busy to even think about it. Finally, sometime during July, the thought occurred to me that we were already halfway to our one year mark and I'd better get moving.

This step wasn't too hard. I sent my passport and some money to the government and received a "Provisional License" (learners' permit) a couple of weeks later. This allowed me to make an appointment to take the written theory test. The soonest appointment I could get was FOUR weeks later. Four weeks of nerves. Then, and only then, if I passed the test I could apply for an appointment to take the driving test, which takes another SEVEN week wait. Nearly three months to get through the process if I was lucky enough to pass everything the first time.

This is where the stress level multiplied. I think they make you wait that long on purpose, because that's when you start to hear all the horror stories. Everybody has one. For me, it was from other missionaries - both young and old - telling me about their personal nightmares as they tried to acquire a license.

Some of our young sister missionaries at the Visitors' Centre were assigned as drivers and had to get their British licenses. I watched them worry for weeks during the process - and for good reason. On the day two of our sisters took the driving test, one of them passed and the other one didn't. That was a tough day for all of us. One of our Mission Office elders tried and never did pass the test before he was released.

The senior missionaries' stories only made me more nervous. One sister who worked in the mission office before we arrived took the written test four times before she passed. Several others failed it once or twice before they passed. Some had taken it once and given up; some took the practical driving test on two or three occasions and failed each time (paying about $90 each time they tried).

Of all the young elders and sisters, as well as senior couples, that I know who have taken the written and driving tests since we've been here, only about half got their license the first time through. Talk about discouraging! I really wanted to pass the first time because I just didn't have the time, energy or funds to devote to having to try again and again.

My hero was Sister Howard, from Alaska. She was transferred back to the Visitors' Centre in September after being in another area where she had not had a car for eight months. She had only taken a few lessons prior to that move. When she returned to the Visitors' Centre, she went right to work, passed her Theory test, then picked up a last minute appointment for her Practical (driving) exam the very next day and passed it. Amazing! Maybe there was hope?

My next step was to get philosophical. After all, I've been driving for 50 (yes, 50) years. The only accident I've ever had (knock on wood) besides taking out a little piece of the side of the garage when I was backing out (oh, alright, more than once...) is when someone ran into the back of my stopped car at a red light. I've only had a handful of speeding tickets, and I also managed to graduate with a degree from a four-year university. How hard could this be?

The title says it all.

That's when my education began. I got a copy of The Drivers' Theory Book.  Hmmmm: TWO inches thick. But with all my experience, I figured I could brush up on the rules pretty easily. Right? WRONG! After making a valiant effort to get through all two inches of that book, I decided the week before the test that I should take some practice tests. I was assured that there wouldn't be anything on the test that wasn't somewhere in those practice tests, so I took all of them - just for good measure. 20 practice tests (x) 50 questions each (=) 1000 practice questions. Imagine my dismay when I missed fifteen out of fifty on the first one I tried. Must have been a fluke, so I tried a few more and missed eleven, twelve, and nine. Yikes! How could I have such a struggle with those questions???  Maybe a few sample test questions will show you how:
  1. You break down on a level crossing. The lights have not yet begun to flash. Which three things should you do?  A. Telephone the signal operator, B. Leave your vehicle and get everyone clear, C. Walk down the track and signal the next train, D. Move the vehicle if a signal operator tells you to, E. Tell drivers behind what has happened. (Answers: A,B,D)
  2. You park at night on a road with a 40 mph speed limit. You should park: A. Facing the traffic, B. With parking lights on, C. With dipped headlights on, D. Near a street light. (Answer: B) 
  3. At a puffin crossing, which colour follows the green signal? A. Steady red, B. Flashing amber, C. Steady amber, D. Flashing green. (Answer: C)
  4. Which THREE pieces of information are found on a vehicle registration document?  A. Registered keeper, B. Make of the vehicle, C. Service history details, D. Date of the MOT,  E.Type of insurance coverage,  F. Engine size. (Answers: A,B,D)
  5. On a motorway the amber reflective studs can be found between: A. The hard shoulder and the carriageway, B. The acceleration lane and the carriageway,  C. The central reservation and the carriageway. (Answer: C)
  6. You are driving through a tunnel. There has been a collision and the car in front is on fire and blocking the road. What should you do? A. Overtake and continue as quickly as you can, B. Lock all the doors and windows, C. Switch on hazard warning lights, D. Stop, then reverse out of the tunnel. (Answer: C)
  7. You want to turn right at a box junction. There is oncoming traffic. You should:  A. Wait in the box junction if your exit is clear,  B.Wait before the junction until it is clear of all traffic, C. Drive on, you cannot turn right at a box junction, D. Drive slowly into the box junction when signaled by oncoming traffic. (Answer: A)
  8. You are driving on an urban clearway.  You may stop only to: A. Set down and pick up passengers, B. Use a mobile telephone, C. Ask for directions, D. Load or unload goods. (Answer:  A)
  9. At which type of crossing are cyclists allowed to ride across with pedestrians? A. Toucan, B. Puffin, C. Pelican, D. Zebra. (Answer: A)
  10. A Statutory Off Road Notifiation (SORN) will last: A. For the life of the vehicle, B. For as long as you own the vehicle, C. For 12 months only, D. Until the vehicle warranty expires. (Answer: C) 

A SORN? Dipped headlights? Central Reservation? Urban Clearway? Box junction? Puffins, Pelicans, and Zebras? Calling the signal operator at a level crossing? I have to say, I was starting to feel like Allice in Wonderland playing a game of words with the caterpillar:
       Alice:  Oh. Yes sir. How doth the little bumblebee improve each...
       Caterpillar:  Stop. That is not spoken 'correctically'. It goes: How doth
         the little crocodile improve his shining tail. And pour the waters of
         the Nile on every golden scale. How cheerfully he seems to grin,
         how neatly spreads his claws. And welcomes little fishes in with
         gently smiling jaws.
       Alice:  Well, I must say, I've never heard it that way before.
       Caterpillar:  I know. I have improoooved it.

Well, the big day finally came and I took the Driving Theory Test. I was as nervous as I was when I took my first test at 16. Even though they promised there wouldn't be any questions that weren't covered on the practice tests, there were. Somehow I managed to get 50 out of 50 right on the first half of the test. Pretty proud of that.

There was no way to prepare for the second half of the test. Sheer luck. I was shown 14 video clips of hazardous traffic situations, filmed as if I was driving the car in the video. I had to click the computer mouse every time I saw a hazard so my reaction time could be calculated. If the hazard increased, I was supposed to click again, but too many clicks would disqualify me. Purely subjective. Too many clicks? Too few clicks? Somehow I passed that one, too.

Ten minutes after my Theory Test we were walking through the mall
across the street and Don snapped this photo. Do I look a little dazed?
I decided that the message in the card store in the background
 must have been put there just for me :)

Next came driving lessons. Yes, I felt like I was 15 1/2 years old again, but I now had a seven week wait until the appointment for my Practical Driving Test, so I might as well do something useful.

First, I took SEVEN lessons (spread out over 2 1/2 months) from an official government-certified instructor. Stuart is a great driving instructor who has taught a lot of the missionaries around here, and he knows how to help Americans change the driving habits that will cause them to fail their British driving test. There isn't nearly enough space here to go into all the differences, but the most difficult changes for me were to stop all hand-over-hand steering around corners, to figure out all the unfamiliar and confusing signs on the road, and to learn to rely on all three mirrors at each and every start, stop, roundabout, speed up, slow down, and lane change. The Brits are much more technical than Americans on the road.

Sister Hess, my driving lesson buddy from the Mission Office, with Stuart.

Next, I took two more lessons from Grant Neale, our wonderful neighbor and long-time friend and supporter of the Visitors' Centre.  He helps us out in so many ways at the Visitors' Centre, but none of his generous service has ever been more appreciated than the two times he kindly offered to take Don and I out driving to give me last minute instruction and encouragement for my test.  Along with everything else he does so well, he has had many years of experience as a police officer, and I have to say I learned as much or more in his two lessons as I did in the other seven. By the time we finished, I wouldn't say I felt calm, but I knew I was a lot more prepared and ready to take the final test.

Brother Grant Neale

The day of the Practical Driving Test dawned dreary and wet, which actually turned out to be a blessing. A British driving test lasts for exactly 38-40 minutes, and the rain gave me a reason to slow down a little. The examiner and I also spent about 5 minutes waiting for a slow train to pass at a railroad crossing. It seems I did a little less driving and I think I got off a little easier than I expected. I passed the test with only one minor demerit for forgetting to check my right mirror one time before turning right.What a relief! After three months of anxiety and worry, I had passed the first time. Hallelujah! I could hardly believe it was over!

Totally thrilled!
I woke up the next morning with the usual knot in my stomach that had been my companion for the past few months, then remembered I had already passed the test and I didn't have to feel that way anymore! What a feeling!

I'd like to thank all those who told me about their nightmares and horror stories. Looking back now, I can see that your experiences compelled me to work really hard and maybe even over prepare, but it was not in vain. Over three months, $600, and untold hours of preparation have come and gone since I started the whole process, but the coveted British Drivers' License is mine and I feel certain that I am a much better driver than ever before. While I must say I did not enjoy the process, I'm really glad I did it. Yes, the qualification process for a British license is grueling, but it does produce more qualified, polite drivers. I rarely ever hear someone get honked at here. Drivers are more civil, focused, and aware of what's going on around them. During the time we've been here, I can only remember seeing one fender bender in all of our travels (though I do here accident reports on the radio). I can see why Great Britain is one of the safest places to drive on earth.

Right now, I just want to celebrate the moment - and I am! -  but looking down the road (no pun intended), I know the challenge isn't really over. My greatest desire and continuing focus will be to finish out our mission and return home to Utah after two years without a single accident, problem or incident while we're here. Wish me luck!         ~Pat~

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