Friday, July 25, 2008

The driving test.

I've been really neglecting my blog lately and I am sorry. I have been meaning to share the story of how my Japanese drivers license went. I have been very nervous about getting my Japanese license ever since I read and heard horror stories about people failing the test multiple times. With those stories in mind, I made a vow to learn as much as I possibly could about the ins and outs of the Japanese driving test.

In preparation for the test, I read the Japanese official driving hand book and took a practice driving course lesson over the weekend. According to the driving instructor I was the best student he's ever had but I was unable to accept the fact that I could pass the test on my first try even with that kind of assurance. When the test day finally came I was a nervous wreck. I just wanted to take the test and get it over with and was prepared to take it at least a couple times that day if necessary. The best thing going for me was that Yuko was with me for moral support and although she couldn't be with me for any of the tests, she made me feel a little more comfortable. Yuko really cares about me and has taken half days at work just to spend time with me or to help me take care of important things I may have trouble doing on my own. For that I am really grateful I have a girlfriend like her.

First I was called up to get my eyes examined after I paid about 2,400 yen (24 dollars) for the written/driving tests. After the eye test, I was sent to a room by myself to take the written test. I breezed through the written test portion with 100 percent. There were 10 true or false questions in the written test and they all seemed to be very common sense questions, especially if you had access to the official driving handbook like I did. Plus, it also helped that I have been driving for almost a year in Japan and subconsciously memorized the driving laws.

After I passed the written test with flying colors and a compliment from the officer that graded me, I was sent back to the payment counter to pay for the rental of the test vehicle. Since it is a closed course and Japan (where you pay out the nose for every thing) I was only allowed to use official cars supplied by the driving center. I had to hand over another 1,600 yen for the rental. Eventually a police woman (very rare because most officials are men) came up and held out a box for me to choose my course version. There were three possible choices, "A" being the one I happened to study the most, and C being the most complicated. To my relief I pulled the "A" ball but even with all the good things going for me, my sprits still were pretty low.

I took the test with two other foreigners, one Korean woman and a woman from Sri Lanka. The course its self is comprised of three key points, the 90 degree turn, S-turn, and a series of turns where you are expected to break early and coast through.
Before I get into the details of the driving portion of the test, I would like to share some main points that are looked at during the test:
  • It is expected you brake at least three times before you come to a complete stop or enter a turn. I suppose this is to prove you have full control of the car and are able to navigate turns without coming in too fast. Of course the coasting through turns rule doesn't apply to the 90 degree and S-turn portions where you can come to a full stop if needed. (I could have coasted through both but took it safe and braked a few times but never stopped)
  • It is also expected that you check your mirrors in a certain order when entering new lanes and turning. The general rule is look over your shoulder then your side mirror and back before turning left or right.
  • The final point is checking your mirror for oncoming traffic and cycles before exiting your vehicle. This also means after checking the mirror for cars when you open your door look out before actually stepping out.
My biggest piece of advice for anybody reading my blog that may be taking the test is to fork out the 6,000 or so yen for an hour practice lesson. It is expensive and it does seem like a big waste of time and money but I think its the main reason why many people fail so many times. You are expected to MEMORIZE every course variation and the rules that go with them. The lesson will help show you when and where to brake and how to approach certain areas. People come into the test thinking they are still in their home country or something and expect the test to be a piece of cake since they have been driving for years. Despite what the driving officials may say, the test isn't a test of your actual driving skill, it is a test of your ability to follow directions on a closed course for the most part as most of what you do isn't practical in daily driving on real Japanese roads. Japanese drivers are pretty bad and really aggressive drivers. Driving on Japanese public streets is just as bad as driving on a California freeway where everybody speeds and tailgates ...

Now onto the meat of today's story. I was first up on the course and was allowed one unmonitored warm-up run. The warm-up run really shook all the bad habits out of me and got my head straight. I was very pleased I was able to do it or I may have failed on my first try due to how rigid and nervous I was. About 2/3s through the course the test official told me I took the wrong road on the course and to circle back and do it again. I was pretty heart broken because I thought I was doing pretty good despite being ultra nervous. So I proceeded as the official instructed me and eventually finished the course feeling absolutely worn out and sad. As the second driver was preparing to start the course the test official slid her head out the window and told me she made a mistake and wouldn't dock me any points for that portion of the course. I was a little relieved but still unsure how I would be graded and what crucial points I may have overlooked like braking and mirror checks.

After all the tests were complete, I was sent back up to the waiting room where I sat nervously for about 40 minutes thinking the worst. Yuko kept assuring me I did fine and not to worry but I am such a pessimist, I almost didn't notice her talking to me. After what felt like an eternity, I was called up to the counter to find out about my test results. The officer pulled out a map of the course and showed me that I made two mistakes: the first one being that I stopped at the end of the S-turn and was too cautious exiting onto the main road but commended me on my safety. The second mistake was due to how rigid and nervous I was, I apparently veered to the right or left whenever I looked over my shoulder.

After getting the bad news I felt like I was going to faint. But to my surprise, with a warm and friendly grin she said I passed and commended me on how well I did on the course. She was also impressed I had a commercial drivers licence, which really helped me a lot in getting all my bad driving habits I had out of me before I came to Japan (Thank you FedEx Express.) So I lost twenty points out of 100 giving me an 80% on the driving test where passing was 70%. So I really just lost points for veering to the side, I really don't accept being too cautious as a valid reason point deduction but apparently I was supposed to go through the S-turn without stopping at the end.

After hearing the good news, I was sent once more to the pay counter to pay for my drivers license which was another 1,650 yen. So after all the preparation and tests, I ended up investing about 15,350 yen (150 dollars) into my Japanese drivers license. I am a little annoyed at how much money I had to give to the Japanese government just to prove I could drive, even though through every step of the process every official that looked over my paperwork was shocked I had to take the test because of the driving experience I already had. Seeing as how much drivers in Japan get taxed and penalized just for the privilege of driving, you'd think they'd give a break on how much you had to pay for the test... Oh well, one more experience I had in Japan. At least I can say I am in the small percentage of people who passed the Japanese driving test and interview on the first try.

Getting a license in Japan is a long and tedious process. If I lived in a more urban area where mass transportation was reliable enough to use on a daily basis, I would have gladly chosen not to drive at all. Unfortunately, I live and work in the countryside of Japan where even trains and busses don't go. At least now I can drive in Japan and will never have to take the driving test ever again. Hallelujah!

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