Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Testing, testing!

In 1997, after I'd been a French resident for one year, I was no longer eligible for auto insurance with my international driver's license.  If I wanted to maintain my covereage, I had to get my French driver's licence.

And I was nervous.

 Everyone had a story.  Failed attempts, outrageous amounts of money spent, conspiracy theories. From what I could understand, given my fledgling language proficiency, I was screwed.

There are two tests to pass in order to obtain your French driver's licence.  The first is a written test, called Le Code de la Route.  The second is the driving test, called Le Permis de Conduire.  To take both tests, you must be a student of l'auto école, or driving school.

The problems began when I enrolled.  The school's administrator wanted me to surrender my New York State driver's licence.  I politely refused.  So she said we'd have to consider me a new driver, in that case, and I wouldn't be able to drive for the next two years without being accompanied by a licensed driver.  Grrrr.  My husband took over the conversation at that point, much of which I couldn't follow, and in the end he convinced her that my fifteen years driving experience -- documented by the date on my NY licence -- should exempt me from the status of jeune conductrice.

I was required to attend twenty hours of classroom instruction at l'auto école.  During our sessions, the instructor taught us the rules of the road by projecting a series of images on a screen.  Each image was a photograph, shot out a windshield, from the vantage point of the driver.  Based on what we observed in the photo, we had to answer the question.  Incidentally, the actual written test was in this same format:  75 multiple choice questions, each based on photographs projected in the test gallery.  Test takers had thirty seconds to respond by pressing the button corresponding to their answer choice on a handheld voting device, before the next photograph/question was shown.

Here's an example.  Based on this photo, we can tell the driver is merging onto an auto-route (the car is doing 80 kph and accelerating, since the rpm needle is reaching 2.5).  There is a bifurcation (junction where two auto-routes [41 and 1] cross) coming up, as indicated by the large blue sign.  The engine is cool (gauge on the right) and the gas tank is three-quarters full (gauge on the left).  It isn't raining, so the maximum speed limit for this road is 130 kmp.  (If it were raining, the max speed would be 110.)

The test question could have been anything, but in just thirty seconds you would have to appraise all the clues in this photo and choose the correct answer, before the image changed.  If you missed more than 6 out of 75 questions, you failed.

Somehow, I was one of less that half that passed the day I took le code de la route.  I don't have any French friends, including my husband, who passed the first time they took it.

Next hurdle: the driving test.  The number of hours you must practice driving with an instructor before you're eligible to take the test depends on your level of expertise.  Since I'd been driving for a long time, I was only obligated to practice maneuvers with an instructor for a total of 8 hours.  Thank goodness, because they charged a lot per hour.  Of course, I was still nervous because although I'd been a licensed driver since I was sixteen, I'd only driven automatic cars.  The stick shift was a challenge, especially when attempting three point turns, parallel parking, and stopping and starting on hills.  (I love the message on this bumper:  Calages Fréquents -- Frequent Stalls.)

Nonetheless, I nailed the test and now have my French driver's licence for life.  That's right.  No expiration date, no need to renew or update (unless I change my name, etc.).  But guess how much it cost?

.......hold on to your hat......

When all was said and done, and I'd paid for driving school, driving lessons with the instructors, fees to take the tests, and photo for the licence, the cost was right around $500 USD.

Thank goodness I'll have it for life!

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