Monday, 13 July 2015

A driving test, mistaken questions - and why it's too easy to get a New York driving licence

The inspector’s accent was so Old New York it ought to be put in a museum or taped for use in announcements on the subway’s nostalgia trains.

“Turn on da vehicle and, when you’re ready, move off,” he told me.

Sensing that, like a true New Yorker, this employee of the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles was in no mood to wait around, I started the driving school’s ageing Hyundai Elantra, I looked carefully into my mirrors and over my shoulder, signalled and pulled out. I was, finally, taking the road test to get my New York State driving licence (driver’s license, here). It was July 2, four weeks short of 24 years since I last sat a driving test, and, having been breezily confident until the day before, I had woken up acutely nervous about whether I would pass.
20th Avenue, Astoria, Queens: a slice of wide-laned suburbia
that I'll always associate with pre-test nerves

Thanks to those nerves, I had begun as I cycled from home towards the test site to dwell on the vagaries of the licensing process. Vast swathes of the information I’d been given had been focused, it seemed to me, more on making sure I’d be a compliant, cooperative participant in traffic than on making sure I’d pose minimal safety risks to others. There had been lots of mentioning of individual rules. There had been very few efforts to underline the general principle that I should behave safely and considerately.

New York’s drivers, as ever, had acted as I cycled over in ways that heightened my misgivings about the Department of Motor Vehicles’ priorities. I had been overtaken at vastly excessive speed just after crossing the Pulaski Bridge into Queens. Motorists went through red lights for which I’d already stopped. Others had seemed severely distracted. Maybe I was fated not to get along with New York’s culture of driving, I had brooded to myself.

“Make a left here,” the instructor told me, pointing up a hill way from the power station that takes up one side of 20 Avenue in Astoria, the part of Queens where I was taking the test.

I should make it clear, since people have asked, that my deciding to get a New York driving licence doesn’t reflect some Damascene conversion to the cause of driving or a first step towards buying a motor vehicle. I continue largely to dislike driving, which is especially stressful when one’s used to using the streets as a cyclist and aware of how frightening cars can be for other road users.

None of my misgivings, however, negates the fact that it’s occasionally extremely useful to be able to drive, particularly during our annual family summer holiday and on certain work trips. Being a rules-focused, cautious person, I had also grown increasingly nervous about the legal niceties of using my UK licence to drive in the US three years after I moved to New York. After hearing a colleague describe how she’d been fined $800 after she showed a police officer her Brazilian driving licence after several years’ US residence, I had reluctantly decided I could ignore the whole muddly issue no longer.

“I want you to move over here to the right – MOVE OVER HERE TO THE RIGHT – and park behind this vehicle,” the instructor said.
For fans of the blatantly obvious: the Department of Motor
Vehicles' probing questions about alcohol and driving

Even the first step – taking a written, multiple-choice test – had felt like a not-very-subtle form of indoctrination. There had been some straightforward questions about safety rules. It turned out, for example, that only time could counteract the effects of alcohol, not having a cold shower or a coffee. The correct answer on how to proceed when railroad crossing barriers started coming down had been to stop and wait, not to zig-zag round the barriers.

But a fair number of the questions, it seemed to me, had focused on rules that were mainly about keeping the roads moving smoothly. “You are making a left turn from a two-way street into a one-way street,” one question read, before giving four alternatives on which lane one should use after turning.

Worse still had been the relative paucity of questions about driving around pedestrians and managing the complex rules around their right of way. I strongly suspect most New York drivers don’t recognise that there is, legally speaking, an unmarked crosswalk, where pedestrians have right of way over turning vehicles, at even unsignalled intersections. Nothing in the written test would have prompted them to find out about that.
How might the victim be to blame for your crashing into
him or her? Some of the DMV's bizarre questions about
cyclists and other vulnerable road users
The most bizarre questions, meanwhile, had been about bicycles. “Motorists should be aware that all bicycles used after dark must have” one question asked before listing as alternatives “reflective handlebar grips,” “front headlight and rear taillight,” “white reflectors on the front and rear fenders” and “brake lights”. “A motorist should know that a bicyclist operating on a roadway must” read another before listing as alternatives “ride on the right side of the road,” “ride on the side of the road facing traffic,” “ride on either side of the road” or “ride on the side of the road with the least traffic”. The correct answer for the side of the road question was that the cyclist should ride on the right – an answer so riven with exceptions under New York City law as to fuel the already considerable misunderstandings between cyclists and motorists.

Given that the test was for a licence to drive a motor vehicle, the only possible explanation for these questions was to give motorists excuses to be frustrated with cyclists. In the several practice tests I tried and the test I actually took, the nearest I encountered to a question asking about safe driving around cyclists was one that asked how a motorist should behave when trying to pass a cyclist. But the correct answer - “exercise extreme caution” – was less close to truly safe behaviour than another answer – “swerve into the opposite lane” – that had been written to appear absurd.

Those and other questions had read as if written by some ill-informed angry motorist eager to get other drivers and cyclists to stay sensibly out of his way, rather than a considered effort to filter out bad drivers. My over-liberal ideas about where cyclists are allowed to ride on the road had cost me one of the 20 points on offer. I had been surprised as I waited afterwards to receive a temporary learner’s permit to hear another test participant berating the staff because he had fallen short of the 14 out of 20 pass mark.

“OK,” the examiner said. “Make a left here.”
Everyone hunches over their mobile phones before a five-hour
lesson that ignores their effects on road safety
Much the strangest part of the process had been the compulsory, five-hour classroom lesson I had to take back in May. Just before 10am one Saturday, I had cycled to an unglamorous storefront in Sunset Park, where a rotund man from the Caribbean called Raymond had talked to us, essentially, about how to get through the coming road test. During the road test, he’d told us, it was vital to pause for any pedestrian anywhere near a crosswalk before turning through it. During the road test, he’d gone on, it was vital not to exceed the city’s new 25mph speed limit. During the test, it was important not to swing onto the wrong side of the road while turning a corner. That was a definite fail. These were the unreasonable requirements of the finicky old test, it was strongly implied. Such prissy behaviour wouldn’t be necessary once we were properly licensed drivers.

Raymond had then padded out the time by showing us a series of films, none made more recently than 1997, covering a series of safety themes. Much the worst was a film, dressed up as a corny noir detective thriller, about the mystery of how anti-lock brakes behave in an emergency. Drivers would have to change their old habits to adapt to this new technology, it warned. Another had covered how to drive in adverse weather conditions. “The first question is, ‘What’s the most important thing you can do to improve safety in adverse driving conditions?’” a man in a suit and tie asked. “And the answer is, ‘Slow down’,” answered a woman with curly, 1990s hair, making a downward movement with her hands for emphasis.

The two most effective films had focused on the suffering of bereaved families. One described the death of Nancy McBrien, a US navy officer killed in 1996 on the George Washington Parkway near Washington. She died when two angry drivers jostling with each other crashed, sending one of their vehicles across the parkway’s central reservation and into Cmdr McBrien’s car. The other covered the effects of the behaviour of Bruce Kimball, a former US Olympic diver who in 1989 drove drunk and crashed into a group of teenagers in Florida, killing two and seriously injuring four.

The anti-lock brake video had been especially misdirected. It was warning course participants – most around 20 - of the challenges of adapting to a technology that became near-universal around the time they were born. Even the more effective videos, meanwhile, had been potentially counterproductive. Both had reflected specific moral panics over specific apparent social phenomena – teenage drink-driving and road rage. Yet few drivers who drive aggressively view themselves as acting out of “road rage”. Hardly any drivers who drink too much to drive safely would identify with the hedonistic recklessness of Bruce Kimball.
This is the kind of distracted driving I encounter
nearly daily: but there was no time to discuss
it in my five-hour lesson
The behaviour that I see around me on New York’s streets day by day had gone largely unaddressed. There had been no information about distracted driving – even though one student felt compelled to ignore the instructor’s request that we switch off our mobile phones during the class. There was nothing about the dangers to ourselves and others of exceeding the speed limit, except in snowy or icy conditions. There was no effort to stress the obligation to give way when turning to pedestrians crossing the side street. The lesson had been shaped, it seemed to me, by the imperatives of New York’s car-dominated Long Island suburbs or life upstate, rather than the streets of New York City. The day’s sole real utility had been to provide us all with the certificate that allowed us to go on and book our road tests.

As I made the left turn, a man pushing a stroller emerged from behind a parked vehicle, heading towards the crosswalk. I stood hastily on the brakes, only to have him wave me through. I fretted that the incident would cost me my test pass.

The driving instructor had pushed my stress levels up on the morning of the test higher even than they’d been when I’d woken up. I’d arranged for a driving school near the test site in Astoria to give me a short lesson – starting at 7.30am – before the test, due to start at 8.30. Starting driving, I had found the slightest touch on the accelerator sent the vehicle shooting forward. The slightest touch on the brake had brought it shuddering to a halt. As I had grappled with this lurching monster, the driving instructor had worried I was going so slowly – at around 20mph – that I’d be failed. “Go at 25,” she’d kept telling me, referring to the city’s 25mph speed limit, “Definitely not less than 20.”
Don't worry; the line will soon clear: would-be drivers
wait in Astoria for their 8.30am driving test appointments
I had begun to worry that my fear over driving down Queens’ narrow, two-way streets, lined with parked cars between which someone could step at any moment, would conflict with the inspectors’ reluctance to approve new drivers who didn’t drive fast enough. Like Raymond, this instructor stressed what I should be doing “for the test” – stopping before the “Stop” line at intersections, sticking to the speed limit but not going too far below it, yielding to every pedestrian at an intersection. The list of potential infractions that would lead to an automatic fail started to grow. I’d fail if I hit the kerb when parallel parking, the instructor told me. I’d fail if my wheels entered a cycle lane as I made a right turn. I’d fail if I drove too slowly. Fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail. Who would drive on our family holiday if I failed?

“I want you to turn da vehicle around in a three-point turn,” the inspector said. “Shall I wait for this vehicle coming the other way to pass?” I replied. He grunted in a yes-wait-but-I-don’t-want-this-test lasting-longer-than-six-minutes tone.

We had arrived at the test site with 25 minutes to spare before the test’s 8.30am scheduled start, to find 12 other candidates already waiting in line. Three inspectors had nevertheless worked through the queue so effectively when they arrived at 8.30am that I started my test at 8.59am. Each test was taking an average of seven-and-a-half minutes.

“I want you to pull in at the side of the road here,” the instructor told me, indicating a point across 20 Avenue from where the test had started. “Secure da vehicle.”
One of my least satisfactory personal victories:
the receipt that makes me a licensed
New York State driver.

His head went down into the little notepad and handheld computer in his lap. He jabbed at the computer with a stylus. The momentary silence seemed to stretch on forever.

“You passed da test,” he finally muttered before handing me a receipt showing I’d passed and going on to his next candidate.

But I felt only minimal relief as I headed back to the driving school in the passenger seat. I threw my mind back to the day in 1991 in Glasgow when I’d passed my UK driving test. Apart from the UK test’s being far longer and more demanding – I’d had, for example, to show I could safely make an emergency stop and driven on a wider range of roads – there’d also been a different emphasis. The theory questions I’d been asked after my test in the UK – it was before the UK introduced a full, written test – had focused heavily, for example, on the distance it took to stop a vehicle at different speeds. The UK’s Highway Code of road rules had dealt far more in general principles – such as that one shouldn’t ever execute a manoeuvre that forced another road user to brake unnecessarily – than the emphasis in the New York process on rules and right-of-way.

The differences reflect wider cultural differences. The US – admirably, in many ways – views itself as a nation of laws, operating by adherence to a strict application of the law, with a legal system that tends to look for specific violations of specific statutes before prosecuting someone. The English legal system – which has some points in common with the system in my native Scotland – is more wedded to the principle of common law: that legal precedent and common understanding elucidate what is illegal as much as specific statutes. One country came into being through a dispute over taxation. The other stumbled into existence by such a haphazard process that it still lacks a written constitution.

The New York driving test reflected, I think, the emphasis I see in the city’s often bizarre arguments about road safety rules. The city’s main bus drivers’ union, for example, is still seeking to have its members exempted from a law that makes it a specific offence to strike a pedestrian or cyclist who is proceeding with the right of way. English law treats such obvious wrongdoing on the roads under wider categories – careless driving, dangerous driving, reckless driving. The basic assumptions between the two systems – one putting drivers through a long, difficult test, the other putting drivers through a short, easy one – seem to be fundamentally different. The New York State process - although it is, remarkably, one of the US’s toughest driver licensing regimes – seems to be designed to usher any applicant who doesn’t show him or herself manifestly unfit into driver’s licence ownership. The UK test felt more, well, like a test.
The New York Police Department block a bike lane as I
return from my driving test: who couldn't feel pride to
share a licence with such princes of the road?
There remains, for sure, much progress to be made in the UK. Prosecutors are far too ready, for example, to cut charges that should be for causing death by dangerous driving to careless driving. There’s a worrying tendency to attribute contributory negligence to injured cyclists who haven’t, for example, worn a helmet.

But, as I left the driving school to head through the tail end of the rush hour back to the office, it was hard not to contrast the frenzied driving I encountered with the noticeably calmer road behaviour I note when I return to the UK. I was tailgated on narrow streets, jostled by impatient motorists at traffic lights and generally treated with the disrespect that is sadly customary on New York’s streets. The most telling indignity came as I tried to reach the Queens Plaza cycle lane. A police van was parked entirely obstructing it.

Each of these drivers, it occurred to me, had once, presumably, sat in a car with a Department of Motor Vehicles inspector and been told, as I had just been, “you passed”. It was hard not to wish the state took far more care about who got to hear those words and how hard it made for them to hear them.


  1. Not sure if you know, but something to keep in mind given that so many NYC residents have lived in other states before: NY happily trades your out-of-state license for a NY license without requiring any test, except for vision. I have a NY license and have never taken a single formal driving lesson in my life (only informal mentoring by a family member), because I got my first license in another state.

    I didn't take the NY theory test, but from your examples it seems as bad as the one I took. Multiple choices, with all the wrong choices comically obvious. "What's a typical speed limit on a highway?: a) 65 mph; b) 186000 mph, c) 3 mph; d) -3.14 mph; e) all of the above". (OK, I exaggerate. Slightly.)

    1. Anonymous,

      Thanks for the comment.

      I researched the whole issue fairly closely before getting into the expense and hassle of sitting a new driving test. The problem is that, while New York State recognises the driving licences of other states and Canadian provinces, it doesn't recognise any other foreign licences. This has the ironic effect that they don't recognise my rigorous, hard-to-get UK licence but they recognise your far easier-to-get out-of-state licence.

      All the best,


    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Right; what I was trying to say wasn't that you didn't have to take the test, but that we should all be afraid because if you pick a random NYC driver, there is a good chance that like me, he or she has never taken a NY test, but an even easier test from another state of the US.

      PS: Like you, I don't own a car and drive only rarely, and mostly not in the city. So don't be too afraid of me. :-)

    4. Sorry - I get your point now. It's absolutely correct that there are people in New York driving on licences issued under all kind of lax regimes. And, of course, the authorities don't seem to get too angry when people go without a licence altogether.

  2. In Texas, as long as you take a MSF course, there is no test at all to add a motorcycle endorsement to a license.

  3. I would be firmly in favor of replacing the NYC driving test with the UK driving test.

    *And* requiring that drivers retake the test every 10 years.


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