Driving Home the Point

Another grand road

Another grand road

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.

I can park my tractor in town now if I want.

I can park my tractor in town now if I want.

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.

I've learned to be alert for road signs

I’ve learned to be alert for road signs

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.

You MUST not stop or park in a box junction

You MUST not stop or park in a box junction

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.

No parking where there are zigzag lines. Or double yellow lines. Or both.

No parking where there are zigzag lines. Or double yellow lines. Or both.

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.)

Don't drive too close behind the slurry tank

Don’t drive too close behind the slurry tank

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!

Frank O'Driscoll - instructor par excellence

Frank O’Driscoll – instructor par excellence

Rules of the Irish Road

Directional signs in Irish and English, cars parked every which way, street names in small print on the wall. Welcome to driving in Ireland!

Directional signs in Irish and English, not enough room for two-way traffic, cars parked every which way, street names in small print on the wall. Welcome to driving in Ireland!

In my Driven to Distraction post I alluded to having to get an Irish driver’s licence. I can drive legally for a year on my Canadian licence, but if I intend to stay longer, and if I want to get insurance at reasonable rates, I have to get an Irish one.

Do not overtake

No Overtaking. RR (Rules of the Road) p79

I have driven for almost 40 years without incident, in all kinds of conditions (Northern Canadian winters!) and vehicles, standard and automatic. I have rented a car every summer in Ireland year after year. I was prepared for some kind of process whereby I would be asked to demonstrate my competence and my knowledge of the Irish road rules – a process which I assumed would also acknowledge my experience and skills. The first part of that last sentence was a realistic assessment; the second part was a hopeless dream. It turns out that I must start from scratch, as if I was 17, as if I had never driven before.

Double yellow lines: no parking at any time. RR p115

Double yellow lines: no parking at any time. RR p115

Perhaps, you surmise, this is because we drive on the right in Canada and in Ireland we drive on the left. But anybody with a European driving licence can simply swap it for an Irish one, no matter what side of the road they drive on. This also applies to those in possession of licences from Taiwan, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea. Within Europe, all countries have agreed to the principle of mutual recognition for all sorts of qualifications and Ireland happens to have concluded agreements with several other countries for mutual recognition of driving licences. But with the US and Canada, it has not yet happened. There are “talks” apparently, but no real progress. This also means that Irish drivers who emigrate to Canada must go through a staged testing process.

You MUST not park on a footpath. RR p116

You MUST not park on a footpath. RR p116


Right – fair enough – I must prove my knowledge of the road and my driving competence. OK, theory test now passed, when can I take the road test? Wait, not so fast! First I must take, and pay for, a series of 12 driving lessons from an approved instructor. The lessons must be documented and they should occur two weeks apart: that will take six months. In the meantime, I must have L plates on the car and I cannot drive alone or on Motorways. Did you get that? I CANNOT DRIVE ALONE. I have, in effect, lost my independence. I must rely on Robert to drive me everywhere (we live three miles from the nearest village) or to sit beside me while I drive.

Drive at a safe speed.  RR p88

Drive at a safe speed. RR p88

In a future post I will describe the lessons – a whole experience in themselves! Meanwhile, I must admit that studying the Irish Rules of the Road has been a salutary experience. I leave you with some photographs to illustrate the Irish approach to road signage and to the observation of the Rules.

Unprotected quay ahead

Unprotected quay ahead. RR p183

Driven to Distraction

2013-09-24 10.15.34

Hello, Ladies!

Robert is switching his English car to be registered in Ireland and in order to be properly insured I should get an Irish driving licence. In Vancouver all of this (registering and insuring a car, getting a driver’s licence) is handled by the Insurance Corporation of BC (ICBC) – one stop shopping and very efficient. I was unprepared for the levels of bureaucracy involved in accomplishing the same things in Ireland. For anyone thinking of moving here, gird your loins for an obstacle course.

Breathe in!

Breathe in!

Registering Robert’s car is almost done, and here are the steps we have had to follow:

  1. To the VRT (Vehicle Registration and Taxing) office in Skibbereen. We find we are ‘importing’ the car so must first go to the Customs Office in Bantry (only open Friday mornings, make an appointment) with a long list of documents.
  2. To Bantry with all documentation. Customs officer copied everything and said to wait until we got relevant certificate in the mail, then make an appointment with the VRT to register the car.
  3. To Insurance agent in Skibbereen to apply for Irish insurance. This is where we learned that Robert’s English licence is fine, but I must get an Irish one. Robert must procure proof of no claims status from English insurer.
  4. Telephone calls to England requesting no claims document. Will be emailed to us straight away.
  5. Customs certificate arrives. Appointment made with VRT office. List of required documents exactly the same as we have already supplied to Customs even though it’s the same government department (Revenue). Back to VRT and receive car registration number. Registration certificate will arrive in mail.
  6. Back to Insurance office. No claims proof has not arrived, but charming Insurance agent manages to weasel enough information out of English insurance agent on the phone. Now insured in Ireland!
  7. Off to Garage that prints ‘Licence Plates While You Wait.’ They also sell us the double-sided tape with which the plates are attached and instruct us how to do it. Main direction for pulling off the old ones, “Don’t be frightened.”
  8. On to the internet, armed with registration number, to ‘Motor Tax Online’ to pay road tax. Although the tax is collected by the ‘local authority’ or county council, the payment system is operated by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and it appears the tax can only be paid online or by travelling up to Cork (hour and a half). Tax discs to be attached to windshield (without which it is illegal to drive a car) will arrive in the mail.
  9. Once car registration certificate (see step 5 above) arrives in the mail, Robert can make appointment to have a mandatory NCT (National Car Test) to check the car for roadworthiness. This will take us back to the VRT office.

Whew! Got all that? That’s 5 different locations and 8 sessions: Customs, VRT X3, Insurance X2, License Place Printer, Tax Authority. Add to that the assembling of lots of paperwork (examples: original invoice for four year old car, proof of identity and residence, receipt for passage on the car ferry) and multiple phone calls to England…well, I think Robert deserves a medal for negotiating all that!

The speed limit? Tractor speed.

The speed limit? Tractor speed

Interestingly, half of the processes described here are administered within government and involve two different departments as well as county councils. The other half are privatised – insurance, license plates and the NCT are all managed outside government, thereby creating a smaller bureaucracy within government, but a much larger one from a consumer viewpoint with multiple steps, documentation requirements and agencies. The saving grace for the hapless car owner is the cheerful, helpful and friendly Irish people working in each agency. With their sympathetic smiles, their humour and their efficiency in the teeth of labyrinthine processes, they will get you through the whole painful business.

"Tis a grand road.

‘Tis a grand road

My turn next. Must get that Irish driving licence. I have been driving in Canada for 38 years, problem-free, so this can’t be a big deal, right? After all, anyone with a European licence, even from countries that drive on the right (most of them) can just trade in their licence for an Irish one.

Whoa Nelly!

Whoa Nelly!

Can you predict, dear blog reader, given the tortuous route to registering a car, how straightforward this is going to be for me? A future post will reveal all. Meanwhile, I leave you with some pictures of driving conditions in West Cork.