Thursday, August 05, 2004


The Spanish driver's license (actual size). Posted by Hello

There are few things in life as difficult or intimidating as getting a Spanish driver’s license. It is a process akin to trying to solve Fermat’s last theorem while sitting on death row in a Texas prison. If you don’t believe me, just ask anyone who has been through it.

For purposes of comparison, let me describe the process by which I obtained my driver’s license in the US. I sauntered into the Pennsylvania Department of Motor Vehicles facility two days after my sixteenth birthday. I took a short multiple choice exam in which a perfect score was guaranteed by simply choosing the most conservative answer to each question. I then proceeded to the behind-the-wheel exam, which entailed a ten minute drive through an empty “driving course” (i.e., a parking lot with lines painted to simulate a real street) and concluded with the ever-difficult maneuver of pulling up to a curb. A hearty handshake and quick photograph later, I walked out with a warm driver’s license tucked into my wallet; secure in the knowledge that the State government deemed me fit to propel a 3,000 pound hunk of mechanized metal wherever and whenever I pleased. The entire process took forty-five minutes and cost me $30.

With this benchmark in mind, let’s turn out attention to the finer points of obtaining a driver’s license in Spain; a process that I naively assumed could be completed within the four month grace period that Spanish authorities allowed me to continue driving on my US license.

First, you must join a driving school. This is required whether you are a first time driver or, like me, had been driving in another country for nearly twenty years. The reason is that you’ll need their car. Spanish authorities require that examinees take the behind-the-wheel portion of the driving exam in a car that has a second brake, accelerator and clutch on the passenger side. I don’t know about you, but there’s no vehicle fitting this description parked in my garage. Fortunately, for a fee of multiple hundreds of Euros, any driving school will be pleased to lend you its car…and will toss in a study guide and some lessons (both theoretical and practical) to boot.

Once you’ve enrolled in a driving school, you must then get a medical and eye exam. There’s a cottage industry in Spain for doctors – some of whom may have even received their medical degrees from non-Caribbean countries – who specialize in medical exams for prospective drivers. They advertise as much on their front doors. With regard to my own exam, the doctor certified me as fit because I was able to open the door to his office, and as having good eyesight because I was able to grasp the doorknob without first feeling around for it with my fingertips.

Now begins the really fun part. The written portion of the Spanish driving exam consists of forty multiple choice questions; at least thirty-six of which must be answered correctly in order to pass. The scope of its questions goes well beyond the standard rules of the road. Questions pertaining to automobile mechanics, first aid, and technical specifications for vehicles ranging from scooters to quads to automobiles to delivery trucks are not only fair game, but are fairly common. Little wonder that the study guide I received from the driving school was over two hundred pages long, and densely packed with facts, definitions, formulae and statistics; all of which had to be memorized…and memorized well!

And to make matters worse, each multiple choice question has at least two possible answers that you would swear – on your grandmother’s life – must be correct. Having taken both the State of Illinois Bar exam and the Spanish written driver’s exam, I can say with certainty that I walked out of the former feeling much more confident that I had passed. But don’t take my word for it. Here are some authentic exam questions taken from and translated into English for your infotainment:

You are driving an automobile on a road that has more than one lane for certain directions of traffic. What is the maximum speed that you are permitted to drive?

(a) 100 kilometers per hour, but only in the direction that has more than one lane.
(b) 90 kilometers per hour, in both directions.
(c) 100 kilometers per hour, in both directions.

You are driving on a road that has two directions of traffic and three lanes separated by discontinuous, longitudinal lines. When can you use the center lane?

(a) Only for making a left-hand turn.
(b) For passing, making a turn or making a U-turn.
(c) For passing or for making a left-hand turn.

Do you see what I mean? The term “hair-splitting” comes immediately to mind, doesn’t it? Imagine answering forty questions like these while seated at an uncomfortable, government-issued desk.

With this background in mind, perhaps you won’t laugh quite so heartily when I tell you that I – after four months (FOUR MONTHS!) of diligent study and memorization – nonetheless failed the damn thing on my first try. I did, however, squeak by with a passing score on the second try. Countless others have not been so fortunate.

Once the written is exam is passed, a prospective driver’s period of relaxation and self-satisfaction is short-lived. That’s because the final hurdle to be cleared is arguably the most unnerving.

The behind-the-wheel exam is, quite frankly, terrifying to most examinees. The friendly, familiar figure of your driving school instructor is seated reassuringly in the passenger seat. But lurking in the bowels of the backseat, with jaundiced eyes and wolf-like fangs, is the brooding, seething specter of the government examiner; his venomous pen poised to record every tiny error on his evaluation form. He is an intimidating figure that utters no sounds, except to bark two- and three-word orders which must be followed with exacting precision.

The exam lasts for thirty minutes and takes place in live traffic. Drivers can expect to face such delights as city streets, winding alleys, roundabouts, construction zones, hills, and the universally-despised parallel parking maneuver. If you’re unlucky (and many are), the latter two will be co-mingled.

The expectations of all parties are clear. Passing the exam hinges on the driver’s ability to demonstrate – for the first, and most likely the last, time in his life – a half hour of flawless, law-abiding driving. Many drivers crack under the pressure and flee from the car in tears. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, and spoken with others who’ve seen it as well.

When the exam ends, the examiner will scribble something on his pad, hand the sheet to the driving instructor, and leave without a word. The instructor will hold the sheet tightly to his vest until the examiner is safely out of sight. Spanish rules mandate that drivers be informed whether they passed or failed only after the examiner has left the scene. Apparently, not all examinees have been gracious losers in the past.

With this background in mind, perhaps you won’t laugh quite so heartily when I tell you that I – after eighteen years (EIGHTEEN YEARS!) of driving experience – nonetheless failed the damn thing on my first try. It had something to do with me passing a bus, although to this day I contend that the bus was begging to be passed. I did, however, squeak by with a passing score on the second try. Countless others have not been so fortunate.

Having jumped through these expensive and time-consuming hoops, I am now the proud owner of a 23 centimeter long piece of tri-folded, non-laminated, pink cardboard with my photo stapled onto it. I am expected to carry this in my pocket at all times.

You would think that Spain, having implemented a screening process as arduous as the one described above, would be rewarded with a peerless population of safe, competent drivers. Not so. I’ve seen drivers here park their cars in intersections, pass three cars in a row in no passing zones, and – most unbelievable of all – drive in reverse around a roundabout.

Just think about that last example for a minute. Why on earth would someone drive in reverse around a roundabout? If he missed his turn-off, all he’d need to do is make another lap. That’s why they are called ROUNDabouts.

I don’t recall these kinds of things happening in Pennsylvania. Then again, Pennsylvania doesn’t have roundabouts.


At 8:41 PM, Anonymous eric said...


You're scaring me! I am in a similar situation right now. I got my MD driver's license in 1988 and I really can't understand why the Spanish government would make me go through all THAT to prove I could drive--especially in a country where no one respects any of the driving rules.

By the way, I have also passed a bar exam (NY State) and am petrified to take this drivers' exam. Would you happen to know whether Spanish would "convalidar" an International Driver's License, hence bypassing the beaurocracy?

At 10:59 PM, Blogger Sal DeTraglia said...

Eric dude:

Welcome to hell. This driving exam petrifies the natives as well.

It's no coincidence that this is the longest essay on my 150+ essay blog. Lotsa built-up aggression. And I should mention that everything I state was true. It really was a miserable six months.

But it's great when you finally pass the damn thing. You'll be walking with some serious swagger. I drank an entire bottle of cava that night.

All I can say is, study your ass off for the written part. When you walk into the exam room, ask the proctor for the extranjero version. There are two versions: one in "normal" (i.e., convoluted) Spanish, and another in more basic Spanish for morons like me. The latter's questions are no easier, but the wording is more clear and easy to understand.

Beyond that, its a roll of the dice. Some tests are easy and some are not. My first written exam had a bunch of toughies. After failing that, my second exam (for which I was no more prepared) only had a few toughies.

As for the behind the wheel, just take a few dry runs with the instructor to get a feel for the common pitfalls. But in this regard, your 17 years of experience will serve you well. I feel bad for the true behind-the-wheel virgins. I actually saw some of them in tears when the finished their exam...knowing that they had failed it.

As for the "convalidar" question...nice try. Don't you think I would've done it if I could've? No my'll need to run the guantlet just like the rest of us poor bastards.

Hey, if you have ten minutes and a small burst of energy, write me at the email address above and let me know what a NY lawyer is doing here in Spain. I'm also from NY originally (Utica).

Good luck.


At 1:13 PM, Anonymous Andy James said...

Thanks for the essay - i know it was a couple of years ago you wrote this, but it is so true. I am an australian in bilbao and will take the practical test next week - i first got my licence in 1989 in oz. It has taken me 5 months to get this far, and has made me, a grown man, quite miserable for most of this time - I mean I done all this so long ago, and have to do it again because of beaurocracy. I can drive fine, but still am extremely nervous about the practical test, in case i make some silly tiny mistake that no one cares about in the real world. Hopefully all over soon.


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