Sunday, December 30, 2012

The highs and lows of driving in Florida

Let’s face it, driving a car is a bit like parenting, most people like to think of themselves as pretty good at it, with all the problems in the world being caused by the other people. 

I am not “most people”, however, and must confess that I have never been a great car driver.  (Come to think of it, my parenting skills aren’t perfect either, but that’s another story!). 

Being a non-driver is not good in the US, (unless you are in one of the big northern cities), as the country has largely been built around car travel.  Public transport, such as rail and buses, is minimal and it’s almost impossible to get around without driving.

My driving history

The reasons for my poor driving are historical, to a large degree.  After I passed my test in the UK, aged 18, I hardly drove a car – I had a motorbike for a few years, then had no vehicle at all (living in a big city, there were always plenty of buses and trains to choose from, if I wanted to go somewhere). 

I don’t feel too bad being out on the highway, driving around, but I am non-to-confident with reversing and parking in an enclosed space, you just don’t have those issues with a motorbike generally.

I also found it easier to stay alert on my motorbike, where you are under no doubt how precarious your situation is - if you make one slip, then you can be dead or severely injured.  In the car, seemingly safe in my warm little metal box, I sometimes let my mind wander.

Pulled over by a cop

One time in Florida, a few months back, I approached a junction too fast.  The lights went red at the last moment and then it was too late to stop, so I went through.  There was a police car behind me.  I felt sick in my stomach.  It was such a stupid mistake.

The cop pulled me over further down the road (“What choice did he have?” he later explained).  Ironically, he turned out to be one of the nicest policemen I’ve ever met.  He could have fined me heavily and delayed me getting my Florida license (I was driving on my British one), but instead he issued me with just a warning and a friendly smile.  (Admittedly, my English accent and fawning, penitent manner may also have helped).

Crossing the bridge from Tampa to St Petersburg

Driving in Florida

My British license covered me legally for driving in Florida for a time, but I had to get a Florida one at some point.  The other problem is that the insurance costs are extortionate, if you drive on a foreign license. 

Taking the driving test

Things went well to start with.  College educated and a fan of learning generally, the written part of the test was a sail through for me.  I swatted up on the rules, regulations, road signs, procedures, and scored close to full marks.  The only question I remember was not knowing was how long the minimum legal tow bar length was.  (It seemed like a very obscure question to me, but I guess there are a lot of people towing caravans, boats, etc. in Florida!)

Next was my road test.  I really didn’t know what to expect.  The British driving test is notoriously difficult – the driving part takes place out on the highway and safety considerations are paramount.  The Florida version is on a dinky little off-road mock-up and it is generally more concerned with skill at maneuvering the car – easier for many people, but not so much me.    

The first test I took was not good.  My examiner was a grumpy bugger, which is normal by British standards, but more unusual in the US.  His spikiness didn’t do much to help my nerves.  But in the end, it was my maneuvering and reversing skills that undid me.  I have failed a driving test before, when I was eighteen, but failing at forty-seven feels a lot more embarrassing!

Anyway, I practiced my reversing and parking for a few weeks and made another attempt.  I didn’t relish meeting my grumpy examiner friend again, but was overjoyed to find that I’d been allotted a rather affable chap this time.  I passed with a virtually perfect score and the wonders of modern laser printing meant that I was given my license ID card straightaway.