In my two previous posts about driving in Ireland, I chronicled the bureaucracy involved in registering our car and in applying for an Irish driving licence. Since Ireland and Canada do not have a mutual recognition agreement I had to take the theory test, a series of 12 mandatory lessons, and then take the road test. The good news is that I passed – I am now a fully qualified Irish driver! More good news – we got a €50 rebate on our car insurance. And best of all – having never even sat in a tractor in my life, I am now licensed to drive one. This is particularly pleasing since it is the vehicle of choice for the farmer visiting the pub at night in country villages, so you never know when I might be called upon to use this facility.
The bad news is that, between all the fees and the mandatory lessons, I spent a LOT more than the €50 I saved. It also cost me several months in which I was unable to drive on my own, and the aggravation of being trapped in an inflexible bureaucracy that refused to acknowledge my 40 years of safe driving.
However, all that paled when it came to the frustrations of learning to drive in a whole new style. As my friend Danny puts it, if someone tries to teach you how to walk (place this foot here, now lift this one) you will fall down. It just messes with your head to have to unlearn a sequence of actions that is as familiar as breathing, and relearn them a different way. This is not to do with being a better driver (although I think I am a better driver now), but with passing the test by demonstrating the correct procedures in the approved sequence.
Some examples might help to demonstrate. Shoulder checking is a huge thing in Canada – looking over your right and left shoulder before moving off, changing road position, turning a corner, etc. It’s because of the danger of not seeing a cyclist in the car’s blind spot. In Ireland, they want you to do a quick glance, no more. Here, you MUST check your mirrors before signalling, and after – there’s a strict sequence to follow. In Canada they teach you to take one hand off the steering wheel so that you can turn around and look out the back window when reversing – here they want both hands on the wheel at all times. You WILL be asked to reverse around a corner (you would not be asked to do that in a Canadian test) and you WON”T be asked to parallel park (a Canadian right of passage). None of these things are matters of life and death – they are all stylistic, but this is what you will be tested on. The national pass rate for the test is only 56% so there is a very real possibility of failing, no matter how well prepared you think you are.
Meanwhile, all around you, you will see Irish drivers doing the most appalling things and routinely flouting the rules of the road. This can be put down to the lax driving standards of the past, and so it is encouraging that it is now more difficult to get a license and that the expectations for skill and safety have been elevated. (See an interesting discussion on this here.)
There was one bright spot in all of this – my driving instructor, Frank O’Driscoll. Having spent years driving big rigs all over Europe, and huge buses around the tiny West Cork roads, there’s nothing about driving that Frank hasn’t seen or done. Sympathising with my plight, he nevertheless gently prodded me through the lessons in sequence and encouraged me to just get on with it. An hour and a half in the car with Frank wasn’t just about driving, though. He has a great tenor voice and on the long straight stretches we roared our way through Come By The Hills or The Fields of Athenry, punctuated by snatches of poetry or by snippets of local history. Back at the house Robert put the kettle on and we settled down to tea and laughter as Frank filled in the log book and entertained us with his West Cork wit and stories.
Frank – if you’re reading this – I almost miss my driving lessons!