American Driving Tests Are Weird

I finally sat a New York driving test this week, and it was quite the experience.

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A photo of a New York Driver's License with the caption "Please can I have one of these?"
The big question, do I now have one of these?
Illustration: New York DMV

When I started at Jalopnik, people were outraged that I didn’t have a U.S. driver’s license. How could management have hired this fool who doesn’t even know how to drive! While that’s not strictly true, as I have a UK driving license , I came one step closer to being qualified for the job when I sat my New York road test earlier this week.

The last driving test I sat was on December 7th 2011, at 13:40 to be exact. It was back home in the UK and was a 45-minute affair that started with answering questions about the car itself, such as how to check your oil level, and ended with a bay park back at the test center.

In between, I was tasked with reading a distant number plate, traversing the streets of hilly Sheffield in a safe manner, carrying out an emergency stop and completing one of three maneuvers. For me, it was reversing ‘round a corner. It was very organized and sterile and felt like an official exam.

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My experience in NYC was not like that.

A photo of the hills around Sheffield, UK.
This is basically where I sat my first driving test.
Photo: Christopher Furlong (Getty Images)
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Before the test, I was mentally preparing myself for a quick drive round the block, a parallel park, and then a trip home. In and out in half an hour.

That is not what happened.

Instead, I was heading to the test site with two other students who would all take it in turns to sit the test. A test that we were warned we might be waiting as long as three hours to sit.

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Three hours! Three hours cramped into an aging Hyundai Elantra with two other people that were all silently stressing about their impending exam!

As we all climbed into the instructor’s car, nobody said anything. As we headed towards the test site, nobody said anything. The only thing breaking the silence was the salsa music we had on the radio. Honestly, it was a vibe.

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A photo of a 2012 Hyundai Elantra.
I never want to set foot in an old Elantra again.
Photo: Hyundai

The test site was next to a bus depot. And as we pulled up, there was a huge banner from the operator saying something like “good luck on your road test, your next career is waiting for you here.”

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Always nice to have a backup, I guess.

Anyway, we had now reached the queue for a test. It stretched round the block and comprised everything from rusted out sedans plastered in driving school logos to a pristine Acura RDX. This seemed like an ambitious choice.

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We sat in the car, making awkward small talk as we edged closer to the front. Everyone seemed confident, but nobody was looking forward to their date with destiny.

Despite having a slot booked, we were waiting for over an hour before the first participant from our car was sent on her way. As they returned, the second person hopped in.

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A photo of a sign pointing to the New York DMV office.
The New York DMV, where hopes and dreams go to die.
Photo: Angela Weiss (Getty Images)

While awaiting my appointment, I had some time to ponder life’s important questions. Questions like, “Would the blog click better if I passed or failed the test?”

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By the time I’d decided traffic would definitely be better if I’d failed, it was my turn.

We pulled away from the test center, which was nothing more than a spare bit of road round the back of a FedEx warehouse. One stop sign, then another, then a left turn. It wasn’t too bad.

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As we turned onto a hill, I was told it was time to do a three-point turn. This went off without a hitch. More stop signs, left turns and traffic lights followed. Everything seemed to be going smoothly.

Until, it was time to parallel park.

A photo of a subway train driving over a street in The Bronx.
This is basically where I sat my second driving test.
Photo: David Dee Delgado (Getty Images)
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I pulled up alongside a black Honda CRV and ballsed it up. I went through the motions, but panic set in, and I ended up about two feet from the curb. A few extra corrections later, and we were parked. At this point, I thought it was all over.

But we got underway again, made a left and I was asked to park again. This time, I bossed it. Honestly, it was the best parking I’ve done in my decade on the road. Maybe it wasn’t all over?

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Then, we started making our way back to the test center. I parked up and the examiner hopped out. No hint of how I had done.

Naturally, I assumed this meant I’d failed.

I was left shaken. Back in 2011, I’d spotted mistakes on my test but had an extra half hour to show that I was better than that. Here, I was in the exam for no more than ten minutes, probably closer to five.

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How can you judge someone’s ability to drive on such a short amount of time? Especially as it took me several minutes to relax into the swing of things and stop panicking, and I’ve been driving for 10 years!

Before I’d got down about my impending failure, the rest of the students hopped in. We all talked about how we thought we’d done and how we would kill the two hours until the results were posted. For me, I had a date set with the excellent Sparks Brothers documentary.

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While learning the nuances of this electropop duo, I’d consigned myself to failure. I was rehearsing telling my partner that no, we might not be able to rent an RV when we go to Bonneville and Yellowstone later this year.

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As the documentary reached Sparks’ No.1 In Heaven era, I logged on to check on my fate. There it was, “Passed” in green type. Great news!

So it looks like we’ll never know if a failed test would click better than a pass.