The last time I took a driver's test was back in the days of Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal. As a teenager then, I took my dad's Opel down to the motor-vehicle office, executed a parallel park, passed an eye test, and that was that. I was licensed for the rest of my days.
Now, some 40 years later, I was about to get tested again. How hard could it be?
I've been on the road for decades, and have logged more than one million kilometres without a crash. I spent some time driving formula cars, and I haven't had a ticket for years. That had to count for something – or did it?
As the day of the test approached, I wondered whether to bone up on the rules of the road but decided against it – I wanted to see whether my experience would see me through. Could I be in for a major come-uppance?
My examiner would be Angelo DiCicco, of Young Drivers of Canada (YDC). He would subject me to what's known as the G2 exit test – the gateway to a full Ontario's driver's licence.
DiCicco explained his driving philosophy, which is based on applying the rules of the road in consistent, disciplined fashion, so that every driver knows what to expect.
"The Highway Traffic Act is a set of social conventions that happen to be the law," he explained. "It's like getting dressed for church. You wear a suit. Someone else goes with khakis. Then there's the guy who shows up in shorts. This isn't what you want."
As DiCicco sees it, experience is a mixed blessing. Years on the road can help you predict risks better than a new driver, but you can also develop bad habits. "Experienced drivers tend to adapt the rules to their preferences," he said. "It can be a problem."
And a lot of experienced drivers break the law almost every day – they push speed limits, roll through stop signs, text-and-drive … the list goes on. Even police officers break the law sometimes. But in a driving test, a legal infraction is a fail. "You can't get a licence when you're breaking the law," DiCicco said. "Unless you're Rob Ford."
As we headed out in DiCicco's new Toyota Corolla, it suddenly dawned on me that passing the G2 might be tougher than expected. From out of nowhere, DiCicco had produced a clipboard with an evaluation form that was packed with hundreds of check boxes.
For the next 45 minutes, we navigated a series of driving environments. First up was Highway 407, a four-lane toll road that runs through the northern reaches of Toronto. I focused on smoothness, lane position and maintaining a safe cushion around the car.
Next we headed into suburban side streets, where I made sure to drive slowly – you never know when a child on a bike might come zooming out of a driveway. Then it was on to a mall parking lot, where I had to put the Toyota into a narrow space. I backed in, explaining that this was the safest strategy. DiCicco nodded in approval.
I was acing the test. Or so I thought.
Back at DiCicco's office, I got the bad news – I'd failed the test. My sins included speeding – I'd done 110 km/h on the 407, where the limit is 100. The fact that every other car was going faster than mine meant nothing because, in a driving test, you have to meet the letter of the law. And when I pulled out of the mall parking lot, I crossed a white line that marked the sidewalk; it didn't matter that the sidewalk was empty, or that the line was set back. I was wrong.
That wasn't all. While making a left turn, I moved from the left into the right to widen the turn and prepare for an upcoming highway ramp. I'd signalled the turn, but it still violated the test standards. And I'd taken my right hand off the wheel several times, which meant I was guilty of one-handed driving.
On the upside, DiCicco noted that my situational awareness and car-control skills were high. But if I was an 18-year-old trying to earn a licence, none of this would have mattered – I'd failed the Ontario G2 exit test.
How many drivers would pass? And how much do the test criteria truly tell us about our ability to drive? I know some exceptional drivers, but I don't think very many of them would manage to get through the G2 curriculum without a few slip-ups. Not long ago, I got to ride around a racetrack with Sebastian Vettel, the four-time world champion of Formula One. He was the Baryshnikov of car control, with skills that few mortals possess.
I asked DiCicco how many experienced drivers, including Vettel, would pass the G2 exit test without knowing the criteria. "Not many," he replied.
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