To Drive Is to Learn a Culture: Enter the British Zombies

I will not lie. I thought I knew all there was to know about driving. That is until I started trying to get a British driver’s license.

The dreaded British learners' L-plates.

The dreaded British learners’ L-plates.

I have been driving since the age of 15. That’s 30 years of driving experience. I first learned to drive in the United States. I left the US before I could finally qualify for a driver’s license. But I quickly picked up my driving once I eventually settled in Egypt. At 18, the legal driving age in Egypt, I answered the simple test questions that I was given about signs and I took the 5-minute practical exam, driving around some cones. I passed. Many Egyptians never take that exam. They find someone who knows someone at the police department and get it done automatically; with some money passed under the table, of course.

Since then I have driven in many countries of the world. I have rented cars in the US, Turkey, and many European countries to make transportation easier and more comfortable while on extended holidays. I vividly recall one of the lessons I learned during my driving classes in high school in the US: Follow the speed of other cars on the road. While driving in a foreign country, I have applied this general rule when I am not fully aware of the driving culture in that country. I observe what other drivers do and I imitate them, driving at the general speed of the road and figuring out signs and symbols based on how drivers react to them.

The main part of my 30 years of driving has been in Egypt; Cairo to be more precise. I once explained driving in Cairo to someone by saying, “The main rule of driving in Egypt is knowing that we’re all in this together and we’ll just help each other along the way so that we all eventually arrive at our destination.”

To be honest, that’s not the real main rule. The real main rule is: EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF! Get to your destination using any means possible. There is NO ONE more important than you on that road. Anything you see is simply an obstacle to overcome, go around, or ram into.

The reality is that we have no real rules of driving in Egypt. We have no Egyptian Highway Code that I am aware of. Our driving culture is one of getting onto the road, doing your best to stay on it, and doing your best to get to where you need to get without having too many accidents on the way.

My husband Colin spent a month in Egypt and during that month I tried to teach him the rules of Egyptian driving. Colin has had a British driving license since the age of 17. Nevertheless, teaching him to drive in Cairo was like teaching him to drive from scratch. The result of our little driving escapade was that I discovered that we have 17 Unspoken Rules of Cairo Traffic.

I always thought that if you can drive safely in Cairo you can drive anywhere in the world. That may be true, but they are not going to give you their driver’s license.

My first challenge after I started to semi-settle in the UK was to get used to driving between the lines on the road. I remember being given a drawing of a frog when I was in kindergarten. I was asked to color the frog while staying within the lines. I was not very good at it. I was not very good at staying between the lines on British roads either. It just seemed like a needless, energy-intensive exercise. Why are those lines even there to begin with?? They don’t allow for maximum and efficient use of space!

Once I got driving within the lines down, the rest was easy. I just imitated my husband’s driving and that of everyone else on the road. That meant driving through yellow traffic lights, bursting through roundabouts at full speed, and being generally discourteous to my fellow drivers. Hey. If they are going to yell at me for not doing what they want me to do, I’m going to yell back at them.

Of course, this was British driving. I was driving in a car where the steering wheel is on the wrong side of the car and the cars are on the wrong side of the road. Obviously, that meant I inevitably and instinctively drove on the RIGHT side of the road a couple of times. No biggie.

Despite some little glitches, I was confident about my driving and about my understanding of British driving rules. I had been observing these guys for months. I had all the rules figured out.

So I went ahead and started the process for applying for a British driver’s license.

You miserable bastards!

You first need to apply for a provisional driver’s license that comes some three weeks later in the mail. That allows you to drive with an experienced driver in the passenger’s seat. Of course, I had already been driving in the UK on my international driver’s license (given to me hassle-free from the Egyptian licensing authority).

I then had to study for the theory exam. All I am going to say is that the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority in the UK is sadistic. They have an insane number of rules. It’s absolutely ridiculous. Being the perfectionist that I am I diligently studied every single page of the UK Highway Code. It took two months of studying before I felt confident enough to sit the exam. I passed it easily. If there is one thing I know how to do it is to study.

It just so happens that while I was preparing for the theory exam I read a summary of a study about cultural differences in hazard perception. One portion of the theory exam involves simulated driving environments where you are asked to click on your computer mouse every time you perceive there to be a hazard. The study I read compared hazard perception between Malaysian and British drivers. Both perceived hazards at relatively the same time but the Malaysian drivers had a delayed reaction in comparison. What this meant, the researchers explained, was that Malaysian drivers were more desensitized to hazards, living in a comparatively more hazardous driving environment.

This concept was reflected perfectly during my second practical driving exam. I knew that I was supposed to stop at the line before entering a roundabout. I knew I was supposed to give way to cars driving in the roundabout and approaching from the right. It just so happened that I made a misjudgment and started rolling into the roundabout as a couple of cars were approaching from the right. To be fair, had this not been an exam, I would have floored the gas pedal and made my way easily into the roundabout before those cars. But because this was an exam, I was aware that was not the best way to go about things. But I was already pretty much in the roundabout. In my mind, this is what I would call normal everyday driving. Who hasn’t been in this situation? How do you solve it? You edge your way in and expect the approaching drivers to be considerate and allow you make your way in front of them. And if they don’t? Well, fuck them. We’re all just going to end up crashing into each other and it will all be their fault.

The examiner in the car went mental. “Ohbobbobbob!” he went as he – rather dramatically – slammed his hand into the dashboard to support himself against God knows what. What an idiot, I thought. And out loud I said, “Don’t worry. I got this.”

I failed that exam.

During my third practical driving exam I drove through a yellow traffic light. The UK Highway Code clearly states:

You MUST stop behind the white ‘Stop’ line across your side of the road unless the light is green. If the amber light appears you may go on only if you have already crossed the stop line or are so close to it that to stop might cause a collision.

I had been observing my husband and other British drivers. They ALL drive through the yellow lights. Every single one of them. And so, as I reached the absolute last traffic light before the end of my exam, and because it was yellow, and because I wanted this fucking exam to be over, I drove through the yellow light. I failed that exam too. And I discovered for the second time that examiners do not want you to argue with them. “You drove through a red traffic light,” the blind idiot told me. “It was NOT red! It was yellow!” “WHAT DOES AN AMBER LIGHT MEAN??” he yelled back, scaring the heck out of me. “St..oo..op,” I said as I cowered into my seat. And THAT was the end of that conversation.

My first exam was probably my best. At the end of the exam the examiner told me that I was a good driver but that I needed to learn “examination technique”. In that exam and in every subsequent practical driving exam I took, I was constantly marked off, for example, for not doing certain things in the right order.


Let me give you an example. If the examiner tells you to take the next left, you will get marked off if you signal left, look in your mirrors, and then turn. The RIGHT sequence is that you look in your mirrors, signal, and then turn. Can you believe it??

There is also a certain sequence of things they expect you to do when they ask you to reverse the car around a corner, make an emergency stop, park the car and then move off from the side of the road, make a u-turn in the road, etc. You may do each and every one of those things perfectly well. But if you don’t do it the BRITISH way, you get marked off.

I took my fourth practical driving test today. One of the things I got marked off for, the examiner explained at the end of the exam, was not allowing enough distance between me and the car in front of me while stopping at traffic lights. THAT is one of the most ridiculous things I had ever heard. Of course, coming from Egypt, I have always said that I hated drivers that leave gaps between them and the car in front of them. Filling that little gap brings me just that much closer to home when I’m driving in Cairo. I don’t drive that way in the UK. Actually, during my exams, I exaggerated everything to make my examiners happy. I would bob my head every which way so that the examiners could see I was looking at my mirrors. While parking and reversing, I would drive much more slowly than I normally would to do it exactly the way I thought the examiner expected me to. AND I left a little bit of space between me and cars in front of me!


And what is it with their zombie-like attitude? None of my examiners did much to “break the ice”, so to speak. I was nervous going into every single one of my exams. In my first exam I was nervous because I had heard that people often failed this exam, and I felt I needed to prove how good a driver I was. During every subsequent exam, I was nervous because I had completely lost faith in my 30-years-worth of driving experience. Not one of the examiners attempted in any way to alleviate that nervousness before the exam. Heck, I drove through GUNFIRE once in Cairo WITH MY FOUR KIDS IN THE CAR and I was not nervous whereas the British examiners frightened the living daylight out of me.

The examiners all regurgitated the same lines during all four of my exams. They had their exam memorized by heart. They also had their precious sequences memorized and it turns out I wasn’t following some of them.

I had my fourth practical driving exam today. I was not expecting to pass it. When I made my 2nd and 3rd attempts, I thought that I had figured out what it was they were looking for from me. After my 2nd failed attempt, I even paid good money to a driving instructor – together with tons of self-pride (I was NOT going to take a driving lesson at the age of 45, for goodness sake!) – to have someone show me what was expected on these exams. I was a mother who had just taught her eldest daughter how to drive in Cairo and who saw that daughter pass her driving exam and get her Egyptian driver’s license. And I was taking a driving lesson!

Even so, I failed my 3rd exam.

But today – TODAY – I PASSED!

I had a feeling I might actually pass this exam 3/4ths of the way in when the examiner actually started chatting with me about summer holidays. That was a first. It told me that the examiner was comfortable enough in the passenger’s seat to have small talk with me.

In Egypt, we don’t have written-down driving rules and we have absolutely insane traffic. Nevertheless, one is more likely than not to get to one’s destination safely.

In the UK, there are an insane amount of traffic rules. To pass your exam, you need to sit next to a zombie examiner who has his lines memorized by heart and who expects you to go through his sequences otherwise you fail. Also in the UK, one is more likely than not to get to one’s destination safely.

My driving experiences in both countries tell me so much about their cultures.

Egypt is a crazy country. Everything in it is haphazard. You don’t need to drive in Cairo to figure that out.

But more and more I am becoming convinced that the Brits need to loosen up a bit. All joking, sarcasm, and exaggerations aside, I have noticed on several occasions that things need to be done “just so” in the UK for them to be acceptable. It makes me wonder what room there is for creativity and self-growth. Rules are obviously important. But there is such a thing as too many of them. It is fine to teach young people how to do things the “right way”. But it is just as important to acknowledge that there are so many instances when it’s just as important to be able to think creatively and strategically, sometimes in split-second moments.

I have had to develop new instincts in order to finally get a UK driver’s license. I am certain that I am a better driver now for it. I think the process has also given me a glimpse into British culture. It also beat me down, caused me to lose my confidence, and forced me to keep learning and trying to finally get it right.

It’s been tough, Britain, and I’m a better person for it.

But seriously, dump the zombies.



  1. Given that the rate of traffic deaths in Egypt is about 30 times more than in the UK by some measures, I think we can skip the ‘loosening up’ in England, thank you very much

    1. If you are British, Jonathan, your comment gives a prime example of the UK’s need to loosen up. :-p

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