Saturday, December 11, 2010

Spanish Driver (part 1)

I had procrastinated for several years, but finally I could put it off no longer.  On 24 August I paid 200 euros, the first installment of the fee to a driving school, and the next day I started in on my studies.  I had to get a Spanish license and it wasn’t going to be cheap or easy.  If you ever saw how Spaniards drive, you would wonder that it could be difficult to get a license.  Surely anyone can walk in the door at the local Department of Traffic, pay 10 or 20 euros, and walk out with one.  Not so.

I got my California driver’s license the day I turned 16 and have been driving ever since.  I’ve always loved driving and even thought once, for about five minutes, about becoming a long-distance truck driver.  My father taught me to drive and I think he taught me well.  Once I got the hang of it (after almost throwing him through the front windshield of that beautiful Mercedes which was my training car) he took me up to the mountains so I could have experience on curvy roads.  When it rained he would take me out for a practice and he even had me drive his truck.  He wanted to be sure that I was accustomed to all possible driving conditions before I was turned loose on my own.  He emphasized driving defensively.  You never really know what someone else will do, thus you keep your distance, keep checking what’s behind you, and you don’t take anything for granted.  But he never brought me to Spain.

Here, defensive driving takes on a whole new meaning.  Everyone speeds, everyone tailgates, many pass on two-lane roads when it isn’t safe and take blind curves crossing to the other side of the road.  It seems to be the custom here to pull as far as possible to the left before curving or turning to the right.  No one signals, no one stops at Stop signs, everyone drives in the center or even on the left on the pavement of small two-way roads, and in this area, no one stops for pedestrians unless they are directly in front of the car.  Sometimes I can’t tell which way a one-way street goes because cars are parked in both directions.  For me, this kind of chaos on the road really takes some of the fun out of driving.

Given all this and the cost involved, I was never too anxious to go through the process of getting my Spanish license.  The fact is that I was driving illegally for several years.  My California license was only valid for the first six months of my residence here.  I pretended I didn’t know that and continued to use it together with an international license that actually had no validity at all, although it looked official.  But the time came when I had no choice and so I buckled down, paid up, and got to work.

In Spain you can’t walk into an office of the Department of Traffic and ask to take the written and road tests.  You can only do it through a registered driving school and they cost a lot of money.

In my village there are two schools.  First I went to the smaller of the two to enquire; their fee was 450 euros.  I’ve heard that people usually pay 700 to 1000 euros or more to get a license, so that price seemed reasonable.  It worried me, however, that they were a small outfit with only the one office and had only opened recently.  I’ve heard of schools that collected money from people and then closed down and disappeared, so I worried that although 450 euros was relatively inexpensive, it was very expensive if the money was going to be stolen.

The second school is part of a small local chain and seemed a safer bet, but they wanted 550 euros for the same thing.  So I explained to them that the other school had quoted me 450, and they agreed to the same price.  This would include unlimited time attending classes or studying on the computers in their office, two hours of driving instruction in their car, and three tries at the two exams.  Additional time practicing in the car or more than three tries at the two exams would result in additional fees.

I had been told that the written exam was very difficult with many questions that were meant to trick you rather than find out how much you knew about the rules of the road.  After forty-seven years of driving, I didn’t think I would have much trouble with the road test, especially since I no longer lurch and do, actually, stop at Stop signs.

On the website of the Department of Traffic you can work your way through the practice tests.  But those are only in Spanish and when I tried them, I found that mostly they didn’t make any sense.  I hoped that with a school I could at least study in Catalan, but it turned out that you can study and take the written test in Spanish, Catalan, French, German, or English.  I opted to study and then take the written exam in English, thinking that it would be more comfortable for me and the questions would make sense.

That was what I thought.  Much of the practice test questions didn’t make sense even in English, and it wasn’t clear what the point was of some of the others.

Take, for example:
Who is responsible for a motorcycle passenger not wearing a helmet?
A.  The owner of the motorbike
B.  The riding
C.  The passenger
The correct answer is B. The riding.

How does the consumption of ecstasy affect a driver’s behavior?
One option:  It reduces his/her sensitivity to concentrate
Another option: It reduces his/her ability to concentrate

This next question seemed to me more appropriate for weeding out morons than testing your knowledge of driving laws:
In order to stop the vehicle before an obstacle on the road you need to go at such a speed that the stopping distance is
A.  Greater than the distance from the obstacle
B.  Smaller than the distance to the obstacle
Give me a break (or should that be a brake).

There was an obsession with oil pressure represented by two questions, one the inverse of the other.
Test 11 question 15:
The engine is properly lubricated when the oil pressure is above the minimum value.  How can it be checked?
Correct answer:  Checking to see if the oil pressure gauge is off.

Test 15 question 5:
When oil pressure is below the minimum the engine is not well lubricated.  How can you check it?
Correct answer:  Checking to see if the oil pressure gauge is on.
My friend Don, a car and auto racing enthusiast, said that he hadn’t seen a car with an oil gauge on the dashboard in years.  In any case, I never could get the two straight so I finally memorized that above was “off” and below was “on.”

There was this:
The circumstances that increase the probability of an accident happening are called
A.  Risk markers
B.  Accidentality factors
C.  Risk factors
The correct answer was Risk factors, but who cares?  Does knowing the correct wording make me a better driver?

At least for the 450 euros I would finally solve the mystery of the roundabouts.  In the rest of the world, you have to position yourself in the outside (right) lane of a roundabout in order to exit.  But here, several people who should know told me that the person on the inside (left) lane had priority for exiting.  I thought that was strange on the one hand and dangerous on the other.  After all, the person on the right lane is not required to exit so exiting from the center can cut them off; you are not allowed to do that on a highway.  It turned out that not only were you not to exit from the inside lane, you were supposed to actually stay in the right lane.  As on highways here, the left lane is only for passing.  Thus Test 23 question 15:
On what part of the roundabout on an interurban road must your vehicle go if there are two lanes for the same direction?
The correct answer is: The right-hand lane, or you can go on the left-hand lane if circumstances advise but without cutting off the other vehicles.
There are frightfully few people driving in Spain who know this.

I was told at the school that it wasn’t necessarily important that I understand a question.  If I didn’t understand, I should simply memorize it.  Others have said that they wanted to get their license because once they had it, they could drive however they liked.

On August 24 I paid the first part of my fees and on August 25 I started studying.  I expected it would take me a month to be ready for the written exam, but in fact, it took me nine weeks, going every day, five days a week (holidays excluded), until I could do all 40 of the practice tests with a perfect score or at least not more than one error (there are 30 questions on each test and you are only allowed three errors).  Then I went to take the exam.  I passed on the first try with only one error.  They don’t tell you what you got wrong -- that, evidently, is a State secret maintained by the Spanish Department of Traffic, so I’ll never know.

That left just the driving test.  The original price included two hours of driving lessons.  The lessons begin here in the village but most of the practice is done in Tortosa, half an hour drive away, where the exam is given and where you are expected to know your way around town.  If the examiner says go to Jesus or Roquetes, you have to know how to get there.  And if a street is missing its traffic sign, you should know that too.  Thus you spend one hour of your two-hour lesson driving to Tortosa and back on the highway and learned that I was supposed to downshift through every gear when I needed to slow down or stop.    

I didn’t do brilliantly on my first two-hour lesson.  The clutch and brakes responded to a feather touch – nothing like the response of my old heap.  It took most of the lesson to really get the feel of the school’s much newer car.  So I decided to schedule a second lesson before the exam, to be sure I wouldn’t be clumsy on the important day.  That extra lesson cost an additional 60 euros (30 per hour), but I thought it would be worth it.

Finally I paid up the remaining 250 euros and scheduled the exam for the following week.  I figured it would be a piece of cake, and started thinking about how I might want to celebrate when I passed.  


  1. Okay, Dvora - did you pass yet???

  2. I forgot to title this part one. Part two is coming right up!