It’s mid-July, school’s out (or almost!), and my walk into town over the past few weeks has often involved passing slightly worried teenagers fresh out of exams, consulting each other on how much detail they went into when discussing the Bay of Pigs in question three. At the time, I smiled fondly and gazed back through distinctly rose-coloured spectacles to the hot summers of GCSE and A-level exams: that sense of youthful camaraderie, flopped in the sun reading prompt cards and attempting to remember dates and details, the cool breeze in the hall as we sat at our hair-trigger collapsible exam desks…
And then, on Friday, I actually had to do an exam. The view, both of the current moment, and in hindsight, somewhat shifted.
This summer, I am learning how to drive. (Watch out, the Ryedale Festival: I seem to have managed to get a roundabout-rules analogy into one of my Schubert talks.) The lessons are going rather well, actually: there are no more damaged cars, dead bodies or maimed pedestrians in Suffolk than there were when I started, and I’ve had my first instruction on bay and parallel parking without any mishaps. But of course, the practical test is the second test you must pass to be let loose onto Britain’s road network. First of all there’s the theory.
For anyone who hasn’t had the delight of going through this procedure, the theory test is in two parts. In the first part, you are presented with 50 multiple choice questions about all things Highway Code. This includes basic first aid, maintaining your vehicle, what the law says about helmets for horse-riders, how cyclists should behave on the road and at crossings (basically, not how they actually do, as long-serving London pedestrians such as myself know all too well), stopping distances, road signs, parking restrictions… the works.
To obtain this wealth of information requires you to read and memorise a lot of material which, as far as I can tell from my driving friends, almost everyone forgets most of immediately after they leave the test. You have almost an hour in which to answer these questions. So I have diligently spent the last few weeks doing test questions, learning the weight restrictions on towing trailers, trying to differentiate between the various types of crossing (puffin, pelican, zebra and toucan – though if the crossing is for pedestrians and cyclists, but uses a small panel by the roadside and not an overhead light, I can only assume it must be a tuffin. Or possibly a poucan) and so on.
The second part of the test is even more fun: hazard perception. You are shown a series of videos from the perspective of a driver. (A driver with no mirrors, peripheral vision or sense of how fast they’re going but hey, I guess that makes it simpler?) Whenever you see a potential hazard, you have to click. If the hazard goes from being possible into actual, you click again. The computer measures your reaction time to determine if you’re paranoid to the point of emotional wreck, cool calm and collected in the face of potential danger, or so laid back you’re a vehicular sadomasochist in the making.
It’s been a long time since I’ve done an exam. I mean, basically my undergraduate degree was the last time I had to write things under exam conditions, and the thing about a humanities course is that you can keep writing to fill out flimsy explanations, and try to make your argument stronger if you’re struggling to come up with good points. It might not improve your mark, but you at least feel in the exam as if you are doing something. But not here: here, you choose A, B, C or D, click away as fast as you can at the suicidal pedestrians leaping out from behind parked cars, and just hope you’ve done enough.
I’ll be honest: I was a pacing, nervous wreck by the time I set off for the test centre in the middle of the afternoon. I sat in front of the computer with a sweaty hand on the mouse, reading through the questions and forcing myself to double-check them all to make sure I hadn’t misread them and clicked something stupid. I had funny little flashbacks to revising in a sort of stupor of fear for Physics A-level, frantically trying to commit details of electromagnetism to memory and trying to remember whether it was the Left-Hand or Right-Hand Rule that was going to save me in induction calculations. Lazing in the sun and revising? Not likely. More like sitting in the library and wondering how badly I was going to mess it up.
But apparently older me has one crucial quality that school-aged me had not yet mastered: fatalism. I clicked my way through those multiple-choice questions on Friday, checked them, looked hard at the few I was worried about. Was staring at them in fear going to make me any more likely to know the answer? Nope. Then so be it: on to the video clips. Only one shot at each of these, obviously. Could I do any better than I could actually do that day, at that moment? Well, no. Then no point wasting adrenalin on it.
Would I do A-levels again, remembering as I now do what those stressful months were actually like? Not on your nelly. But at least there’s one bit of good news: I passed the driving theory test.