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After 20 Years, Could I Still Pass a Driving Exam? logo 2018-01-09 Evan Williams

Driving (1 of 1)-2.jpg

Driving (1 of 1)-2.jpg

I'm a good driver, right? At least, that's what we all want to think. And I think my driving record says I am too. No tickets since the 1990s, no at-fault accidents, I must be good, right? But it's been 20 years since I took driver education, and in some cases, practice makes complacent, not perfect. That's why I'm sitting here, in the parking lot of my local Access Nova Scotia – Nova Scotia's DMV – about to take my driving test for the second time. And the results surprised me.

I won't make you wait for the results. I failed. Badly. Two automatic fails, and 175 points worth of deductions out of an allowable 45. My instructor said that his students would never get such a bad score, but that he expected worse from me. My pride might be irreparably damaged, but it was time to learn.

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My instructor's name is Colin Robar. He's been a driving instructor for 10 years with Young Drivers of Canada. I'm not sure I qualify as a young driver anymore, but he's happy to put me through my paces.

Before I get in the car, I take a practice test for every province. I do pass for every province, even if I don't know what the graduated licensing rules are across the country. There are some surprising differences between the provinces though. Passing a slow car or bike in NS, you need to honk your horn – although that likely hasn't been followed since the 1970s. Do the same pass in BC and you don't need to honk. A flashing green in much of the country means a protected left turn. In BC, it tells you there's a pedestrian light control. Taking that left turn could end very poorly

Those are old rules, so they're more well known. But there are also newer rules. Rules you might miss if you haven't kept up over the years. No cell phones, move over for emergency vehicles, school zone speed limits, and other changes to the act. Failing to keep up with the changes can put you in a dangerous spot.

Feeling confident, it's back to the car for the real test. Colin walks me through how the test will go. He won't give me any hints about where I'm going or what I'm doing wrong. The only feedback I'll get is his frantic scribbling or the embarrassing realization that he's just used that extra brake pedal. It's a 12 km route that takes about 25 minutes to complete. A far cry from the two kilometre, five minute test I had to take to get my licence.

After the first few minutes, I'm gaining confidence. I know how to drive, after all, I've been doing it forever. No rolling stops, I'm using my signal, I'm not speeding. Easy. Then I pass a parked car and Colin starts scribbling. I want to get defensive, but there's no point and no time. He doesn't stop writing until I've re-parked the car at the end of the test. Really, it's a few minutes after that before he's done.

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The damage is that I've gotten an automatic fail for two different things and amassed a huge 175 deduction points. The first failure was something that nearly all of us do. When the speed limit raised from 50 to 60, I accelerated with traffic. Which means I was nearly at 60 km/h before I actually got to the sign. Speeding is a fail.

The second was more interesting. Colin tells me that two years ago, it would have just been a deduction, but that the testing has gotten tougher in the last few years. The car we're using is Colin's Honda CR-Z. It's a small hatch, and visibility out the back isn't great. So when I reverse into the parking space, I use the side windows and mirrors and the backup camera. What I don't do is actually turn around and look out the back window. That's a bad habit, something I don't do normally, but I did it this time. And I deserve the fail. More information is always better, so use those windows. Even if there is a camera, check both.

It's a similar story with the deductions. Habits that have either come from poor instruction when I was 16, or from "Do you signal when pulling out of a perpendicular space like at the mall?" Miss it and you're looking at 10 points. One-handed steer coming out of the space? That's a no-no too.

Simple things like passing a parked car are where my deductions really added up, and where extra attentiveness can really improve safety. I had to cross the virtual centerline to pass a parked car. That's two lane changes. Twice I have to signal, and twice I have to check blind spots. I did none of them.

How about a right turn lane? I moved into the lane as soon as it opened. Did I signal? Yes. Did I check mirrors? Yes. Did I check my blind spot? No. Why would I? It's a new lane, there couldn't be anything there.

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That's the root of experienced driver complacency. We build habits based on experience. I see the cars around me and there has never been a car in that spot in thousands of interactions in the past. The other road user would have to be breaking a rule in order to be there. There shouldn't be a car there, but that's not the same as there couldn't be a car there.

Of course there could be a car there. Impatient drivers cut on to the shoulder all the time. The driver of the parked car could have decided to pull out directly into me. Passing a car on the highway, another car could pass on the right, the car behind you could thread the needle between you, or the car you're passing could have sped up. Would the collisions have been my fault? Maybe not, but that's not the point. The point is to avoid it altogether.

At the end of the day, I probably wouldn't have gotten a ticket for any of my deductions. But changing my habits to eliminate them would make me safer on the road, and improve my defensive driving. And that's what really matters.

Colin tells me that testing has gotten tougher in the last few years, at least in this province. Cars keep getting safer, but drivers are largely getting worse. More distraction, more technology to rely on, and easy passes in the past all contribute. To help combat that, and create a future generation of better drivers, the test has changed to drive out bad habits and drive in care and attention. Just a few years ago, my score would have been higher. More importantly, after just a few minutes of re-education, my score could have been near perfect.

Car control is the easy part. Learning the habits that make you safer on the road is the hard part. But help is out there. Young Drivers, as well as most other driver education companies, offer classes to teach all skill levels. From the 16-year old (or even 66-year old) who got their learner permit this morning to the driver who has been behind the wheel for 20, 30, or even 70 years and realises that it's never too late to make themselves safer on the road. If you think you might need the lesson, you probably do. If you don't think you need the lesson, you probably do. Education has come a long way since the horrific crash videos of the past.

I drive Colin to lunch after the test is done. Pulling out of the parking lot, my head snaps back and I think I've broken the car. Nope. A quick look at Colin shows the hint of a smile. I didn't quite roll it, but I didn't stop long enough to be full and complete. He finally got me with that dreaded extra brake pedal.



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