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.
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.
“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. 🙂
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!
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!
Have you ever done tests or exams as an adult? Were you nervous?