The Doctor took his New York State roadtest today. After driving around the test area for three minutes, performing a three point turn and parallel parking, he was informed that he had passed. Bar a last-minute panic yesterday, when we realised that he had to turn up accompanied by a New York licensed driver, the whole thing was relatively painless. (He solved this particular problem by hiring a driving instructor to take him to the test. The guy turned up in a crappy old car, which he had forgotten to fill up with gas, and charged $100 for the pleasure.)
Even so, I could tell he was worried about it beforehand, because he kept muttering about it and even talked about getting a lesson. Although an excellent driver, I think he (like me) probably remembers with terror the UK driving test (both of us passed on our third attempt). But, I reassured him, it will be a travesty if you fail, when we are surrounded by some of most piss-poor drivers I've ever seen......
Because the kind of driving that, at home, you might point out and comment on (ahem, politely of course) as being truly appalling, is pretty normal here. And not by the usual culprits of delivery men (or white van men, as we might call them in London) or boy racers. Here the offender is more likely to be a glamorous mommy with large sunglasses and a huge SUV, or a suburban Dad taking his kids to the beach.
For example, it seems de rigueur to talk on your mobile while at the wheel, despite it being illegal. It's usually nice to have a cup of coffee in the other hand while you chat. The Doctor swears he passed a woman the other day who was doing the crossword.
Cutting corners when turning into junctions is also a Long Island speciality - particularly delightful if you are waiting at the lights on the other side of the road and come within inches of the bonnet of another car (usually one which already has a telltale dent in the side).
People drive badly whatever the weather. Tropical downpour? Pah. Just keep going at the speed you're at (which is always more than the incredibly conservative speed limit), ignore lake-like puddles and imminent danger of aqua-planing. Thunderstorm on the expressway? No problem, just act like you are the only car on the road, tailgating other vehicles before cutting across two lanes to an exit.
The major roads terrify me. To get from one end of Long Island to the other, you can take the Long Island Expressway, which is equivalent to a big four lane motorway, but is rammed with enormous trucks driven by truckers who have missed their calling as Formula One competitors. It is also home to some of the most aggressive driving I've seen outside of Palermo. Go in the fast lane, and you'll be honked if you aren't travelling at about three times the speed limit. Stay in the slow lane, and you run the risk that your lane will turn into an exit with no warning whatsoever.
If you can't face the L.I.E, you can take one of several State Parkways. These were built in the 1930s, supposedly for scenic leisure motoring through the countryside at the weekend. Trucks are banned, and they are usually surrounded by dense greenery on both sides. Sounds nice, eh? But no. Because they were built for much slower speeds, the entry and exit ramps are terrifyingly short. There is virtually no run-in, so you might well have to stop, and then join traffic travelling at at least 60mph when a space becomes available. And if you're on the road already, and travelling in the slow lane, a car may well appear seemingly out of nowhere to your right.
Even getting onto a parkway is also a major problem, as they are badly signposted and it's often not clear where the turning is. Only last week, a whole Long Island family was wiped out when a woman turned the wrong way onto a parkway in Upstate New York. A terrible tragedy, and although there are rumours she was feeling unwell, it gives me the sobering thought that it could have happened to anybody. Amazingly, she managed to drive for two miles the wrong way before the crash.
Fortunately the small residential roads I normally drive on are pretty slow, due to the number of 'All Way Stop' signs that stud them. These occur not only when there is a cross roads, but for example when two minor sideroads meet a major one. All cars must come to a stop. Everyone then sits in their car trying to gauge the expression on the other drivers' faces and working out who is going to go first. (The rule is apparently priority to the right, but no-one actually seems to obey that). Eventually one driver makes a tentative attempt to go, and everyone else follows suit. Approximately three minutes later, you are all on your way again.
But perhaps it's not surprising if all you need to get a licence is a three minute roadtest - plus the fiver hour compulsory theory session, which, The Doctor reports, consists mainly of watching ancient videos of guests on Oprah confessing their past drunk driving or speeding habits. The spotty 17-year-olds who made up the rest of the audience yawned their way through it.
Suddenly, I'm all grateful for the rigours of the UK test, the 'mirror, signal, manouevre' mantra and others rammed into my brain by my driving instructor, the fact that I know how to negotiate a roundabout. I just wish that everyone here had been through it too.