(A dedication to Saudi Women Drivers)
Two worlds cannot possibly communicate: Driving in the United Kingdom and driving in Lebanon! In spite of the strict driving rules and driving tests in the UK, I bet that few skilled UK drivers are capable of driving in Lebanon! 😉 On the other hand, not a single Lebanese driver who is extremely skilled in conditions of extreme dangerous driving can ever pass a UK test without taking many driving lessons and failing few tests at the start.
Lebanon has right-hand drive traffic, and roundabouts are very rare. Nevertheless, when encountered, whether driving right, ahead, third exit or fourth exit, all options are a real nightmare and a catastrophe waiting to happen.
After having recently failed 3 driving tests in the UK; where I have recently settled, I almost started convincing myself of the possibility of a no-driving-life. This has not been an easy thought.
Well, I have been driving for 30 years. I have a Lebanese driving license and got a United Arab Emirates license when I was living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). While living in Saudi Arabia I did not need any license, simply because women are not allowed to drive! I first learnt to drive in Lebanon; one of my friends volunteered to teach me, and was so kind to give me some four hours of his time. I took my Lebanese driving test, where I was asked about road signs which I knew well, then asked to start the car, drive forward in a straight line for a few meters, then drive backwards in a straight line for another few meters, and I was told I passed! So, with my license in hand, that was it! That was 30 years ago! I think and hope that this is more reliable nowadays! I then bought a “mini” car and decided that I can start driving to work. It took half an hour to reach the office, and for a week, my knees not for a minute stopped wobbling during that half an hour. I later managed to overcome my fear. That was the start of my driving experience! Living through the Lebanese war; although there were only few roundabouts to worry about, there were no traffic lights in action, and it was a rat race in the street- survival of the fittest! After a while I was very confident, and managed to survive the dangers of the road during the war. It was a surrealistic scene and experience of driving with bombs falling all around, while I had a sandwich in one hand, a can of coke on the side, and then a cigarette after finishing the sandwich, while driving to my university to attend class as usual in spite of the deadly shelling.
In Saudi Arabia, because I am a woman, I was only able to drive off-road in the desert, where no one can see me driving and detain me or my husband for allowing me to drive! I enjoyed driving my husband’s four wheel drive, and liked the adventure of driving over rocky and sandy terrains. The roads in Saudi Arabia are only for the men, and the driving is dangerous- similar to Lebanese driving in a way. Had there been a driving test for women, I am certain that they would be as capable as the men drivers, and more cautious and safe drivers on the road- had they been given the chance.
UAE is renowned for being strict on driving tests. It was in the mid eighties; I applied for a test and failed. Then I had to use the services of a driving school which at the time I thought was wonderful. There was no traffic code to study, only traffic signs. It was not easy passing the test. There was one specific examiner that everyone dreaded; I still remember his name- “Mahdi”. Almost everyone failed with him- and I got him every time! Mahdi was also my examiner at the fourth attempt, but it seemed that my driving improved when making the fourth attempt. After one year of trying, I passed my UAE test. In the UAE, there are roundabouts, and that did scare me. I used to study the routes to avoid as much as possible using the roundabouts. When I thought that passing a driving test in the United Arab Emirates is difficult, I had no idea what awaited me in the United Kingdom!
Settling in the UK, I had to take a driving test to qualify for a UK driving licence. I have been issued a provisional licence which makes it legal for me to drive provided I am accompanied by an adult who has held a full driving licence for more than 3 years. I was not aware how difficult it is to drive in the UK, let alone passing a driving test! I was terrified of driving on the left, and kept unconsciously drifting towards the right hand lane! I was always looking for my gear box and the manual brake using the wrong hand! Thus, I decided that using a manual gear box was out of the question. I registered with a local instructor and took more than 40 hours of driving lessons on an automatic car! Martin had quite a hard time breaking 30-year-old bad driving habits!
Taking my first test, I was confident and thought that I will certainly pass. Nonetheless, it was a fail! Although other factors were OK however, I failed because I didn’t look at my blind spot. A silly comment came to my mind: “In Lebanon everyone uses the horn at all times- who needs to look behind one’s shoulder when you can hear what’s coming, and motorcycles and cyclists always use the pavement to be safe!”
With my shaken confidence and gasping for breath, the second test was a disgrace! In my anxiety, I was confusing the acceleration with the brakes, the signals with the windshield wiper, and did not stop apologising to the examiner for the many stupid mistakes I was making. The roundabouts felt like unachievable hurdles, where in my panic I was asking permission to stop where there is no place to stop! Consequently, and with a lot of confidence, I earnestly asked the examiner to fail me… I thought that was the end of driving in the UK for me!
Then again, I challenged myself. I thought that I will not let my anxiety defeat me. The next day, I drove very skilfully using my provisional driving license, escorted by my patient husband; who had his license since ages, to our family doctor. I explained the situation and requested an anti anxiety pill! The doctor laughed and soothed my worry explaining that he himself had one anti-anxiety pill on his driving test day! Then other friends told me they did so too!
On the day of the third test, I was equipped with my precious pill, and was relaxed and confident. I overcame my psychological obstacles and was driving very well- too well that I was over speeding- so, I failed! When I lamented my misfortune to one of my Lebanese friends who has been driving for 40 years, he said: “I only passed my test from the eighth time, and I have been driving all my life!” He has been living in England for fifteen years and life without a driving license especially with a family is not an easy thing anywhere, let alone in London.
After failing the the third attempt, I promised myself that taking the fourth test is going to be my last whether I pass or not. The fourth test was booked and taken. The miracle happened! With my thorough study of the Traffic Code and the accompanying DVD, and thanks to the Youtube videos that illustrated how to drive around roundabouts, and with having a “calmed mind”, I finally managed to pass my fourth practical driving test.
Perseverance paid at last!
I take this opportunity to salute the Saudi Woman in her efforts to stop discrimination against women, and look forward to the day when women can drive their own cars, or even school buses and military vehicles. Why not? It is another way of serving the community and the country. Perseverance will eventually pay in the end.
By Randa Saab Smith