Roaming About

A Life Less Ordinary

Ironies of Life – The US Driver’s License

When Mark and I were cruising full-time on our 35’ catamaran Irie, we made yearly visits to Massachusetts for family and health reasons. Mark was usually the designated driver in his mom’s SUV. For short stints, I would drive, either to get to an appointment myself or to help his mom out. As a visitor to the US, my Belgian driver’s license was sufficient. I did purchase an international driver’s license eventually, only to learn that is doesn’t mean anything. It must be used in combination with a valid license of one’s home country and its main goal is to offer a translation in different languages, like English, which is not one of my native tongues. I happily handed the car keys to Mark in any situation, because, frankly, I hate driving in the US, especially on highways. Particularly driving into Boston is a major hassle, full of annoyances and crazy drivers.

My Belgian driver’s license from 1997

In 2015, we “moved” to the States, bought a Toyota Prius and started a lifestyle as house and pet sitters. Now, we were part of the system and part of the road gang. For the first time in my life, I experienced a prolonged feeling of anxiety and distrust. I’d cross an ocean any time. We were never scared or in danger on the Pacific, but on a US highway… I often fear for our lives. Drivers in general are unpredictable, easily distracted (by their phone or other activities), oblivious to their surroundings, and rarely follow the rules – if they even realize or remember these rules. Contrary to Belgian road etiquette, drivers here don’t like to move over to the right lane of freeways, but happily crawl along in the middle lanes. Tailgaters don’t have the patience to let you get out of the way safely. Cars pass anywhere, on any side, at any time. Drivers are often unaware of bikes and pedestrians in towns. And, did you know that indicating is optional? At least, that’s what it looks like when cars enter the highway, change lanes, turn corners or pull into parking spots. Especially as a pedestrian, this can be deceiving and dangerous.

Driving Carol’s SUV

“I think you should get your Massachusetts driver’s license,” Mark suggested a few weeks ago, “Maybe we can deal with that on our three-week visit to Newburyport.” I shivered. I had looked into this procedure before and it entailed doing a written test, getting a learner’s permit and committing oneself to a road test, all for the round amount of $115. No, thank you, I am completely happy with my Belgian license. That was stressful enough in 1997!

“Why?” I replied. Having to study, being tested like a high school kid, and getting scrutinized by a powerful adult in the passenger seat, all while driving a big car that wasn’t mine, in an area I’d never been, with Mark in the back sounded like a nightmare.

“It would help if we ever change car insurance,” Mark answered. We both remembered the hassle I had to go through, obtaining a police report (which contains a driving history) from Belgium, having it translated by a reputable company to then get it notarized. Geico accepted the evidence of my flawless driving behavior, but never sent the originals back, unfortunately. It probably would be outdated now, a year and a half later, anyway. “And, as a permanent resident, you are probably required to have a US driver’s license,” he added.  Mark was right. Even though I could technically use my Belgian license up to a year after entering the country, I am an MA resident now, not just a visitor.

So, I bit the bullet, committed mentally to the task, and read an electronic version of the “Massachusetts Road Book”, focusing on the road signs and studying some numbers. Because I am 41 and not 16, I skimmed over the information about JOLs (Junior Operator License). Not a good idea…

We jumped on our plane east and arrived in Newburyport late at night. I passed a few example tests online at midnight and felt confident for the written exam – which is actually a multiple choice test on a computer – the following morning. Everywhere else in the country, the institution you have to be for that is called the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles). In Massachusetts, we drove to the closest RMV (Registry of Motor Vehicles). Citizens of the US know what a visit to this department means… Deep breaths and generous portions of patience and determination are required.

It is the first of many busy days for us in our state of residence. We arrive at the closest RMV before it opens at 8am, and join a very long line of motorists. When we finally reach the check-in counter, we learn that they “don’t give out Learner’s Permits here anymore!”. You are kidding… You do road tests here, but no written exams? How about mentioning that on your website? How about a sign about this in the waiting room? Now what? Where do we go? Needless to say, Mark and I are a tad annoyed. We drive to the next nearest RMV building, another 20 minutes away. This office opens at 9am, in five minutes. When we park, we stare at a cue of at least 50 people in front of the entrance. A quick calculation tells us that Mark won’t be able to make his scheduled 10am phone call with a customer and I will most likely miss my noon appointment for my annual MRI at the hospital. Defeated, we return home, having lost about three hours.

In the afternoon, our frustration has eased and our patience reserves are topped up. We drive back to Laurence, get in line to receive a number and wait another 2 hours. Then, things go fast – vision test, mug shot, payment, written test. I stall when I read the first question, and the second and the following four… All of a sudden answering 18 out of 25 questions correctly doesn’t seem so evident and easy anymore. They are all related to Junior Operator regulations, from possible fines to periods of license suspension. What? My hands sweat. I guess a few and skip a couple (for later, I think) and am hugely relieved when the next set of questions relates to rules of the road and road signs. A green message flashes: you passed! It startles me. My mistake. I didn’t realize that the test stops once you have 18 correct answers. I thought you would be asked 25 questions – all of them – and needed to answer at least 18 adequately. Oh well. I passed! But, the perfectionist in me is mad for guessing two JOL answers wrong that I could have skipped. I did, however, obtain my Learner’s Permit, and am allowed to drive with a sponsor in the car. 🙂

Learner’s Permit

Step one is done and nervousness sets in. I drive the SUV everywhere we need to go. I practice parallel parking. I suck. I don’t hit any other cars, but I end up over a foot away from the curb. 12” is the maximum gap, I learned. This car is big. I cannot see the hoods of sedans already parked. I have to estimate, staring at the front windows of cars. I schedule and reschedule the date for my road test. I need to wait for other student drivers to cancel at an RMV close by, on a date that works for our busy agenda and car accessibility. Open appointments aren’t available for at least two months. We have three weeks. Ideally, one week, so I can redo the test if necessary. Then, a Monday 9am slot opens up, ten days after my written exam. Perfect! I have a whole weekend to freak out and practice my parking skills.

I have been driving for 20 years. Why do I need to do this stupid test? (It actually does make sense for foreigners who live here to do the tests.) More importantly, why am I so nervous? I have been driving for 20 years! Well, on and off, years apart, for short stints, mostly in areas that are familiar to me. In Belgium, there are no four way stops, right on red is illegal, most cars have manual transmissions, speed limits are in km and some signs are different. Except on major roads, right of way means that you yield to all traffic coming from your right. Always. It is a weird and confusing rule, I know, but a very different one than in the US. Yes, I am nervous and hearing the many “OK then, I’ll see you next time!” statements coming out of the examinator’s mouth when it is almost my turn to hit the road, does not give me much confidence.  Neither does her raised voice, “I asked you to turn on the LEFT signal, not the right one!” when she is checking out our car. I guess that’s why nobody indicates anymore. They don’t remember their left from their right.

But, it all goes well. The instructor is easy on me. Maybe my 20 years of driving experience has to do with that, or the fact that she “played a Belgian girl in a play once”. The road test is over in five minutes. That I forgot to curb my wheel when parking on a slight hill, another driver did not take her right-of-way at an intersection and a truck and trailer pulled up at the exact spot I was asked to do a three-point-turn, did not faze her. Or me. I passed!

License in hand

Just like that, I am joining the ranks of US drivers, most of whom, to be honest, could use a little refresher course. Imagine, if every driver would be obliged to do a written exam and a road test every five or ten years, how much safer and quieter the roads would be! As for me, proud owner of a Massachusetts driver’s license interested in a new car insurance policy… it made things worse. You see, with a US driving history of one week, you are treated like a 16-year-old just starting to drive and the insurance premium is twice as high!

Massachusetts driver’s license

Have you ever done tests or exams as an adult? Were you nervous?

50 Comments

  1. Congratulations Liesbet, that sounded like more of an ordeal than it needed to be! :o) xxx

  2. In my mid 20’s, I had to renew my license, and as I’d had two violations (one for speeding, one for improper lookout which resulted in an accident), I had to retake the written test. I wasn’t aware of this when I went to apply, so I had not even looked at the manual or the rules since testing when I was 16. Needless to say, I missed 6. You could only miss 5. I was allowed to retake the test that same day and was surprised when I was given the exact same set of questions. Yeah, 100%. Not sure how that tested anything but my short term memory.

    • That made me snicker, Ryan. Lucky you! And, quite ballsy to redo the test the same day, without time to study! Why am I not surprised to learn that you have a great short-term memory? BTW, what is an “improper lookout”?

      • When I was 22, I was driving home from work with my fiance. I was tired and not being very attentive. I looked left at a person walking along a suburban sidewalk, and when I looked back at the road, the car in front of me had stopped to make a left turn. It was too late to really brake, so I tried to slow down and pass on the right. Didn’t pull that off. That is called improper lookout. I should have been paying attention. Lesson learned again.

        • You know, I have come to realize that driving and paying attention to everything is actually not that easy! Yet, people manage to text and keep conversations while doing it. I guess it is not surprising that accidents happen. It does scare me, but it is one way to learn the hard way… Not sure whether I meant this sarcastically or not. Sorry this had to happen to you!

          • People ATTEMPT to text and drive – and routinely have accidents and cause injuries because they think they can!

            • Yep. I once saw a little “experiment” on TV, where they confronted young drivers (who saw no harm in texting while driving) with victims of such drivers. The result was eye-opening and humbling. I”m sure that those drivers will think twice before attempting to use their phones again behind the wheel, having the image of those disabled people fresh on their minds…

  3. I have to laugh. South America is SOOOOO much worse as far as driving goes. When I went to get my NYC drivers licence (years ago), it took 5 visits to the DMV which were a minimum of 3 hours each. You better bet that was a very difficult licence to surrender when we moved states.

    • Holy cow… That is a lot of DMV time, Crystal. I guess I shouldn’t complain, huh? That being said, we do have to make another “quick” visit over there tomorrow. If driving in South America is anything like driving in Asia, I can imagine how crazy it is… We better prepare by driving in NYC before going over their in a camper one year. 🙂

  4. Wow, I’m impressed. Not so much that you passed your test (but, congrats!), I’m impressed that you managed to get a nice picture of yourself on your license! 😀 That doesn’t happen very often (mine looks like I’m dead).

    • Haha, Janis. You know, they take one photo and then ask whether you want a second one to have a choice. Mark’s reaction: “Why are women never happy with their photos? I wouldn’t care at all. Oh, and this photo of you is fine, you don’t need a second take.” So, the first and only photo it is. 🙂

  5. John & Carol

    May 17, 2017 at 17:27

    Your article made my day! I had a headache when I started reading your article. Now my headache is gone and I have a big smile on my face. Congratulations. John

    • I’m glad I could make you laugh, John, especially after the traffic horror you recently went through… I wish the cops would watch and fine traffic infractions (like texting while driving, tailgating…) more often, so drivers start paying attention and become cautious, courteous and respectful (again).

  6. Margaret Claase-Painter

    May 17, 2017 at 17:39

    Got mine in Eugene, Oregon. Yes, I studied too and did the on line tests that are avaiable before you do the “real thing”. I also got sent off before the end. Hey, I was happy to get away from that test anyway. When I did the road test, I had a dog run in front of the car, a fire engine behind me, a man pulled out in front of me and the lady that took me for the test I think would have failed. She was so young! I did not have all the waiting that you had to experience, but we did go to the next big town to get a sooner appointment. Congrats Belgian girl. Belgium and SA Rule!!

    • Thanks, Margie! They do both rule. We will get to experience one of them up close for the next four weeks, but I am still hoping and looking forward to visiting SA one of these years. Especially now that Ed is back there. It sounds like you had quite the eventful road test in Oregon… So many “crazy” people and situations on the road!!

  7. What an ordeal! The DMV is like a visit to the dentist, or worse. I remember people being concerned that the ocean was dangerous, while thinking nothing of taking their lives in their hands for 3 hours every day, passing wrecks, narrowly escaping mayhem, on the treacherous roads of Miami. Congratulations on your perseverance and try and stay safe out there!

    • So funny that people compare the DMV to the dentist… I hadn’t thought of that yet. I guess the DMV is painful for the mind, while the dentist is for the jaw. I had to think about your statement today, doing a mammogram. Talking about painful… 🙂

      People who have sailed on the ocean know the difference between the relative safety (away from other people) on the water as opposed to on the roads. It is unfortunate that we have to worry more about other’s driving behavior than our own. We don’t like it to not be in control. 🙂

  8. Yeah, as much as I love to drive, west coast drivers are ridiculous. I cut my driving teeth in San Diego as a 16 yr old–everyone drives fast and still does. When I moved to Sacramento? Forget about it. How can people not know the simple rules of the road, and this was way before cell phones. I think a lot of folks are just not cut out for driving! Congrats on your test and passing! Be careful not to gnash your teeth too much as you drive 🙂

    • Thanks, Terri. Trying… 🙂 When we drove across the country to the West Coast (very safe and quiet in the middle!), we thought drivers would be more conscious in California, but, you are right, they are not. No need for blinkers there either. 🙂

  9. I went to take a state license many years ago, having forgotten I had a license from the same state previously within the allowable time frame. I didn’t have to take the driving test, so that was a nice surprise. Otherwise, every other driving test I’ve done isn’t much different than your experience. DMV/RMV rank right up there with Dentist’s visits!

    • Yeah, I read that some driver’s licenses are transferable to other states and hoped I would just have to do a written exam with my Belgian license, but no such luck. All in all, everything went well, though. You are the second one to compare the DMV experience with a dentist visit! 🙂

  10. Well done on passing! I think if I had to take my test again, I’d just give up.

    • During the process I was thinking about that as well, Anabel, but now I’m glad I stuck with it, even though it is not helping me out much. Yet.

  11. I’m a failed driver, Liesbet, so I have no room to criticise others. I worried a tree on one of my driving lessons, and I can’t say that I improved much after that. 🙂 🙂 I recognise some of the frustrations of being on the road from sitting beside my husband, who gets less patient as the years go by. Our small country really can’t handle the number of cars on our roads.
    Incidentally, I meant to thank you for mentioning my Bristol post to Lisa. It was very kind of you. 🙂 Safe and happy driving! I’m better on 2 feet.

    • We much prefer walking to driving, Jo! You have things more in your own hands that way. In the US, distances are so big that walking only happens in towns and on trails… I think the amount of cars does not make driving any easier, and the common traffic jams are infuriating. I shook my head when I learned that many households in the US now have three cars and I see some houses have three garage doors!

      Every time I see street art, I have to think about Lisa, especially after she showed me the wonderful paintings in New Zealand. No thanks needed! I love our little blogging community. 🙂

  12. I took a winter performance driving course a few years ago. It was taught by North America’s leading road safety expert and half a dozen professional race drivers. I’ve been driving for forty years but I learned so much in that course. You are absolutely right, Liesbet, that drivers in North America are pretty terrible – driving too close to other cars, not anticipating problems and, as a result, getting into lots of accidents. Although the course teachers would correct me on that last one. They say that ‘accident’ suggests unavoidable and no one’s fault, whereas 99% of what they prefer to call CRASHES are completely avoidable with better driving habits.

    I suspect that having taken the test and gone through this process as an adult is already making you a better driver than most of the people on the roads. Congratulations on your status as a newly licensed US driver! And Donna’s right – nice picture.

    • I like the term crashes better than accidents, based on your wise words, Karen. I was actually telling my in-laws last night about the difference, after reading your comment, and it led to an interesting discussion about what exactly are accidents and a whole string of examples… And then, the conversation turned to when to apologize for something that you did by accident, like dropping a glass. Thanks for welcoming me into the American driving circles! You are right, just having to do this test made me much more aware about the signs and my surroundings, and made me a safer driver.

  13. Liesbet this is sooo ironic! I face the opposite situation in Romania. The traffic/road conditions here in Eastern Europe (particularly Romania and Bulgaria) are atrocious. I’ve been driving with my international drivers license as well (which really is a joke) and after hearing the hoops my wife had to go through to get her drivers license in Romania (not including “gifts” that the police officer/instructor expected in order to give the test) seem ridiculous compared with the “streamlined” process in the states. However, after reading your post, I am reminded once again that perspective plays a big role in this.
    Congratulations on getting your license. While many may not consider it a big deal, I feel like I understand .

    • I can imagine driving in Eastern Europe is another cup of tea. “Streamlined” is a good word to describe the tests here, Gabe. While I thought there would be one appointment at 9am (me!), it appeared that the instructor already evaluated (and failed) three people before it was my turn, 20 minutes later. They must book six or so people every hour!! No “gifts” here, but I have traveled to enough places where “propinas” get you where you need to be. 🙂 Thanks for the support. While technically nothing has changed, I now at least have a compact ID card from the US, that everyone here recognizes. 🙂

  14. I LOVE this post, Liesbet! Congratulations on your perseverance and in getting your US license on your first try. I would hate to redo my driving test. Fingers crossed I will never have to!

    • Thanks, Donna. The perfectionist (and budgeteer) in me would have been really upset if I would have needed to do retakes. Nevertheless it was stressful on an already crazy busy schedule. Today, we fly to Belgium and, once on the plane, I will be happy to “breathe” again. 🙂 I don’t think you would ever have to do your driving test again (in Canada), but I’ll keep my fingers crossed as well.

  15. You did so well! Getting my drivers license, back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth, was one of the most stressful things I can remember. I loathe to think of having to re-do it.Good for you to get out of the comfort zone and just do it. My hands were sweating on your behalf reading the post!

    • While it didn’t quite feel like I did my first driving test (in Belgium) when the dinosaurs roamed the earth – you really crack me up, Sue – it did feel like it had been since the Middle Ages. 🙂 All done and over now. Very crazy schedule when we were here, with some interesting developments bringing even more complications, but that will be revealed at a much later stage. Have a great weekend, Sue!

  16. Congratulations! I rant and rave all the time about all the U.S. drivers who dawdle in the middle or (even worse) left lanes, fail to signal, etc. But I sure love to drive! Hope you get to drive on some nice country roads or some more civilized highways soon!

    • I do quite enjoy driving as well, on empty roads, Lexie. As a matter of fact, we will take such a trip in a couple of months. More about that later! 🙂

  17. Ahhh ha this was too funny! I mean I could so relate to so much of it. I am not a good driver ( I drive too fast) and not good at parallel parking. Just not my thing. After 6 years of living in Nicaragua sans car, it was a scary adjustment driving on freeways in Chicago. My dad at 90 should not be driving but he got his license renewed. We finally got the doctor to convince him of the dangers, but the permit folk were quite happy to let him at it!

    Peta

    • After 6 years in Nicaragua without a car, you know the feeling, Peta! We had the same problem adjusting to US traffic after eight “peaceful” and car-less years on a sailboat. It appears that driving behavior has changed everywhere over the years, with people seeing the action of driving as a secondary occupation, while doing something else! I had to laugh, but also cringed, at the story of your dad. You wonder sometimes about those DMV examinators… My father-in-law is in his mid-eighties and he still has his license as well. He only drives in places he is familiar with, but we are worried every time we know he is out by car.

  18. Congratulations, Liesbet! I sat the test for a license in New Zealand. It was a lot more difficult than the one for the state of Kansas, but I wasn’t worried. Fortunately, I didn’t have to do a road test because my US license was still valid — THAT would have made me really nervous because I wasn’t the most confident right-hand side driver (no accidents though!).

    Stephanie @ SV CAMBRIA

    • It is interesting that they didn’t require a road test by you in New Zealand, since you learned to drive in a right-hand-sided country. But, I’m glad and relieved for you that you could skip that part. I was much more nervous about the driving part than the written test as well. I guess you and I both trust our minds better than our “actions”… 🙂

  19. Congratulations! I apologize – but I found this post amusing and entertaining. It brought back so many memories as a 16 year old going in for her license. Can’t wait to see what new adventures you two have in mind!

    • It was quite funny here for me as well, Ingrid, since one of Mark’s nieces, who is sixteen, is also practicing for her road test, so we had some interesting conversations and tips to share! While I am 25 years older, it sure was something unexpected to connect about. 🙂

  20. Congratulations! Being tested is always nerve-racking, but having road lessons from a driving school definitely helped get in some much needed practice.

    • Thanks! Yep, the idea of getting tested in my mid-life years gave me the creeps. 🙂 Luckily, having many years of experience driving made me comfortable enough to get in a driving routine and not fail, since my head was surely not thinking clear!

  21. Good for you Liesbet! Wow, your description of US drivers is no different than our streets here in Toronto. I tell my husband we risk our lives every time we go in our car. We have all the same distracted drivers. Signal lights are a thing of the past, and red lights don’t mean stop. But the most annoying are those turtles who drive slow presumably texting in the left hand passing lanes! I just want to scream. 🙂

    • I”m sure the advent of the iPhones and other electronic devices have not helped people focus on the road! I do think the driving behavior has changed everywhere over the last decade. My parents picked us up at the airport in Brussels the other day, and, once on the highway, the first car in front of us to change lanes did not signal! This seems to be a worldly behavior now. I have a hard time calling that laziness, though, since that lever is within easy grasp! Weird… Maybe one day, someone can explain to me why anyone would think that not blinking helps a traffic situation. Maybe they don’t think!

      • It’s plain awful. It’s enough those ‘texters’ have no regard for their own lives, but they have no regard for the lives of others they put at risk. Someone needs to stop the madness!

        • Agreed! More cops should be keeping an eye on that, and writing tickets. Talk about a sure way to make some money for the town/state/province! 🙂

  22. Congrats, Liesbet! I can’t believe your road test was so short. I swear mine took forever, but then again, I was a teen getting her first license.

    I haven’t driven in forever. Sometimes I miss it, but everyone who does drive seems so tense and frustrated that I’m rarely tempted to get another car. Still, someday…

    • My first road test, in Belgium when I was in my early twenties, took forever as well. And, having my dad sitting in the back as the sponsor back then was more nerve-wrecking than having Mark sit behind me.

      You are so right about the feeling that comes over most drivers when they step inside a car. You need a ton of patience and tolerance to deal with heavy traffic and fellow drivers. I often feel frustrated and angry when I sit behind the wheel as well (in busy areas and when on a tight schedule). A change of behavior is necessary, and, way less cars on the roads!! So, I assume you don’t have a car then at the moment? That is admirable!!

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