Lost Among Europeans

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License to, um, drive?

At last I have received my Washington driver’s license on the mail. I was supposed to get one in my first month in Seattle, but the paperwork to be done was too rigid.

The process to get a driver’s license here is very different from Spain, and it doesn’t make much sense. First, the eye exam, which allowed me to pass without my glasses, even though I failed to read several characters in the first row. I think you have to be legally blind to fail this test. Then the knowledge test, about 20 multiple choice questions, about 16 of which are absolutely idiotic. Then about 4 ridiculous questions to justify that not everybody can pass.

Sample stupid question (a bit exaggerated): You come to traffic light that is green for you, but there is an old lady crossing the street. Choose one of

  1. Run over her, she’s jaywalking.

  2. Swerve to the sidewalk to avoid her.

  3. Brake to avoid her.

Sample ridiculous (not exaggerated): If caught drunk driving, you will be fined at least

  1. $220

  2. $240

  3. $260

Why do you need to know the exact amount? Isn’t it good enough to know you will get a substantial fine? Maybe they want you to have educated discussions with officers when they give you a ticket.

Then the driving test. The testing facilities are in the middle of nowhere, so that there’s no traffic, of course, and you’re supposed to take your own car, and own insurance for it already - yes, you get car and car insurance before you get a license. Since the test facilities are so far from traffic, you don’t get tested under real conditions, and they pick at details. I failed my first time, because I left a stop sign too soon, when there was absolutely no car anywhere to be seen. But as the lady who tested me pointed out, although it was obvious I was a safe driver, this was a test and I needed to show what I could do. I passed the second test, a week later, but the tester gave me a poor grade, for one fair overlook, and two silly details:

  1. I didn’t attempt to turn right on a red light (this is legal in some US states, but not others). She checked a box for “Congestion potential”. Yes, we don’t want me single-handedly provoking a traffic jam.

  2. I made a turn to the left to a parking lot, with a wider curvature than the tester liked.

Throughout all this, we crossed paths with a total of maybe five cars and two pedestrians, and took probably three right turns and three left turns, plus parallel parking, and entering a street in reverse, something that in Europe would get a ticket.

I have to say, I have felt safe driving in this country. The drivers are polite and they respect the speed limits, which are very low, much lower than we’re used to in Europe. But now I know that the drivers, at least in Seattle, are not tested for entering a highway, nor in heavy traffic, nor on left turns in busy streets, nor in roundabouts. They can also have very bad eye sight, and little knowledge of traffic signals. Hmm, reassuring.