I sat the theory driving test recently.  I meant to go through the entire thing last year, but so many things kept coming up, so it was put off and put off.  When I heard about the new “case studies”, I wanted to sit the exam before they were introduced.  When that didn’t happen, I tried to download the updates from the practice software we had from previously.  The updates didn’t install properly, so we were forced to buy the latest software.

What a joke!  It was such a waste of time and money to get the new software.  Maybe the case studies were meant to give young drivers something more to think about than just rote memorisation of facts, but in the end, the questions were no different.  You didn’t even need to read the case studies to answer them.  I only read them for my own amusement.  I thought the makers of the practice exams probably got it wrong since they might not know what the case studies were about. But when I got into that exam room and saw the case study at the end, I nearly burst out laughing.

The other point I found amusing was that they allowed people to take the exam in other languages.  Now, how is that supposed to make the roads safer?  We’ve seen drivers out there blatantly disregarding road signs and signals and we wondered if they were “foreigners” who didn’t understand.  Of course, they could have been natives who blatantly disregard road etiquette, but it does make you wonder.  Furthermore, we saw a story recently about people who make the stupidest excuses to avoid paying fines and some try to pretend they don’t understand the language.  Well, if they made it a requirement that people can only get a UK driving license if they do it in English, maybe they can remove that poor excuse.

Several times now, we have pulled up to hotels looking for a room (because we don’t book ahead when our plans are flexible) only to be told that they were full, or did not have the rooms we were looking for.  As a family of four, we need a family room.  Health and Safety would not allow them to permit kids to stay with their parents unless adequate beds are available.  Furthermore, most places in the UK still charge per person, even children (sometimes with discounts).  However, the chain hotels (mostly US-owned) will charge per room.

I have been pleased, though, that when these hotels are full, they are extremely helpful to the stranded motorists.  The desk clerk will usually do one of two things: refer you to a local B&B that may have vacancies, or more often, they will actually get on the phone and call around for you.  I cannot tell how many times we’ve travelled overnight in the US and stopped at every exit to check the hotels.  So, I am very grateful when these clerks take the hassle out of driving needlessly in search of a bed.

Unlike in the US, you do not have large billboards advertising hotels/motels/B&Bs all over the place.  You have to look out for the brown signs with the beds on them, not knowing what you might get (reminds me of Vermont).  And you might not have these at every exit, so there is a lot of guesswork involved if you do not have your travel plans all worked out.

When we went to Holyhead this weekend, we ran into a wedding party that had booked up several hotels within a five mile radius.  We had set a time limit on driving, so we didn’t want to keep moving.  The hotel receptionist was extremely helpful, calling several places up and even calling back with questions, etc.  Her supervisor even printed up directions to one of the places.  Unfortunately, our daughters came in to use the toilets and wanted to stay.  So, after all that help, which I really appreciated, we ended up taking two rooms at the hotel to comply with Health and Safety regulations.  Unfortunately, it cost more than we wanted to spend.

One of the difficulties of living in a country where they drive on the other side of the road is remembering which way to look for oncoming traffic.  Of course, you look both ways, but when you cross into the middle, you need to know which side to watch.  I am starting to adjust.  However, my problem now is always remembering “the other side of the road”.

When I first came here, I used to remind myself that I have to look the opposite way that I was used to.  I have become adjusted to being a passenger on the left side and seeing cars going down the left side of the road.  However, that reminder still pops into my head, and now it’s gotten to the point where I am looking to the opposite of the opposite and I have to stop and really think it through.  It becomes very frustrating, especially because sometimes you have a very narrow opportunity for crossing the road.  (Though most places have crosswalks, sometimes it’s too far out of your way to cross there.)

I don’t know when I’ll have adjusted enough to just take it for granted that I am looking in the right direction.  Sometimes, I see people, whom I consider natives, who make the same mistakes.  Of course, they might also be foreigners, or they might just be careless/forgetful.

It’s taken almost a year for me to get to this point.  And I’m not even driving.  It’s so appropriate that I bring up this topic today because the people of Samoa are about to experience what I’ve experienced this past year.  Only, they will all experience it collectively and will have to adjust in a shorter time period.

The people in Samoa have to make the switch from right-hand driving to left-hand driving in one day – today.  They will have a two-day holiday to get people adjusted.  Some critics are complaining about the lack of preparation, with the roads (not to mention the people) not being ready for the change, and the resultant increase in car crashes.  I really feel for them.  I can’t imagine what would happen if the UK were to ever decide to switch like that.  Since Samoa is many hours ahead of us, I wonder how things went over there today.

My kids love going on the buses, especially the double-deckers.  They enjoy sitting on top at the very front and watching the roads and the scenery from there.  They imagine all kinds of adventures up there.  And, it’s thrilling when we go under low bridges or hit some tree branches.

It’s nice to think that public transportation in England is available, even in the remotest parts.  However, it is not always very economical.  Unfortunately, it has become even more expensive, as public transportation has become privatised. 

There was this romantic notion that I could just hop on a bus and go anywhere and I could give up driving over here. We’ve discovered that this idealised notion is extremely impractical.  Both from the financial perspective, as well as the time aspect.  We’ve had to rely on buses, whether we’re in a rush or relaxed, but it’s definitely a lot more fun when we’re relaxed.  But, even so, the cost of taking the bus for a family of four may outweigh its benefits.

We discovered that today.  We’ve used the buses before to travel to Tunbridge Wells, but we didn’t recall that it was that expensive.  We thought it might be a little more than if we had decided to drive and pay for parking.  But, because the kids enjoy the buses, the extra cost wouldn’t be too bad.  Well, it was too late to jump off after we’d boarded and found out the cost was more than five times what we expected.  Yikes! And double yikes!

Not only that, but we had to wait around for a while after we had run our errands, for our bus to take us home.  After all, it’s a tiny village, so the bus only stops in the village once an hour, if necessary.  Even when you factor in the hassle of driving in town, I don’t think the bus was worth the cost today.

It’s the second time we’ve had to look for a car.  As my readers know, our car went kaput! a couple weeks ago.  Considering the difficulty we had in finding a car, I thought it best to share some of our experience so that others can commiserate and beware.

First and foremost to American drivers: if you do not drive a manual, you’d best learn. Unfortunately for me, I’m too old a dog to learn a new trick.  Not that I even have a UK license yet.  I can’t even do that as I’m waiting for other things.  The fact that I have to lose my passport for three weeks has prevented me from starting this process – I have had to keep it handy for other purposes.  But, back to the point, automatic cars are hard to come by, unless you’re willing to pay for it.  We have too tight a budget.  In fact, one dealer told us that for the price we had in mind, we would have to find a very old car and/or a large car.

Our last car was not big by American standards (1.6L), but in the UK, it is moderately large.  It was not as fuel efficient as the majority of small cars on the road, but it served us well.  The problem was that we put a lot more miles on it than we had expected to.  It must be all those winding roads.  For a car used to a quiet, gentle existence, it was like doing 6-months hard labour in its dotage.  We had paid 350 GBP for the car – it was well worth it. 

Even before the dealer had put in his two-pence worth about our budget, we could see that we would not get what we wanted.  We wanted a more fuel-efficient car that was reliable and had enough space for the four of us to get from point A to point B.  Anything remotely resembling that was a manual.  Of the automatics, they were of the 2L models or bigger.  That’s not to say that we didn’t find any smaller, fuel-efficient cars under 500 GBP (our limit).  They were either snatched up before we had a chance to view them, or they were not worth the price.

We mainly searched the Friday Ads, until someone put us onto Ad Trader.  Seeing that cheap economical cars were selling like hot cakes, we had to act fast.  We had nearly settled onto a Proton for dirt cheap until we figured that we had to get an MOT very soon, as well as tax.  That brought it up to our budget and we were somewhat sceptical about the reliability as well as the availability of parts, should the inevitable happen.  On the same day, a new ad appeared on the Ad Trader site; we went over the next day to look at it.  It was a Renault Clio, with MOT and tax.  It was over our limit, but we managed to get them to reduce it a bit, so that we were only over by 50 GBP.

We had been renting a car for the past week – a newer Ford Mondeo that has been well-used with 180K miles on it.  It was powerful, smooth and had a blessedly cool air conditioner (great for the heat wave we just passed), but it ate a lot of juice.  We were desperate to get a car so that we would not have to rent it for another week.  Though we do miss the air conditioner – we were spoiled in the US.

Americans have traditionally scorned French automakers, but we just brought the Clio home and it is performing well.  In fact, it has more miles on it than our last car did when we bought it, yet it rides fairly smoothly.  So, this American will have to reserve judgment for later.  We have always owned Japanese cars, so this is a first for us.

Though road construction is, by far, less extensive over here than it was in the US, we do have occasional road closures due to the road work.  Having been used to seeing the signs for construction in the US and understanding exactly what they mean, I find that the warning signs in the UK are very ambiguous.

Granted, some road work can be longer than the one-day jobs and signs forewarn drivers of this.  However, the ambiguity exists when there are the one-day jobs.  I refer to the signs that state: “road closed ahead”.  It might not be so ambiguous had it not been placed on a corner of a junction and the driver needs to determine to which road the sign refers.  There is no mention of the road name nor the distance.  In the US, they usually tell you how far ahead so you can plan whether or not to proceed forward.  However, if you do not know the distance, much less the road, you cannot plan ahead.  One time we saw this sign, it referred to neither the road we were on nor the turning where the sign was posted.  Instead, it referred to the street at the next junction.

To further the confusion, we sometimes find “diversion” signs out of the blue.  Driving further, we discover the road is closed, blocked off by a truck, with no sign of any work going on beyond the truck.  Other times, we have followed diversion signs that are so inadequately placed that you do not realise you have missed a turning until you go miles and miles at a stretch without seeing another “diversion” sign.  Another time, we followed our own instincts for direction and discovered that follow-up “diversion” signs were placed where we can only see them after we had already made the correct turn. The diversion took us over several miles and diverted us onto another “A” road, rather than just around the road block.

It’s extremely frustrating and it also makes me wonder if the British use the same tactics as the Americans in making diversions.  For example, we had recently moved into the town where we last lived when we encountered road work on a bridge.  We followed the “detour” signs, which took us at least 10 miles out of our way.  The work continued for about two months, at which time, we became familiar with the layout of the neighbourhoods and discovered that we could bypass this same road work by turning the opposite way and going into the town a distance of half a mile.  So far, no road has had to be closed for that length of time here.

Moving to another country is always full of stress.  One of the biggest hassles is the actual transport of personal property.  It would be great if you could just pack your suitcases and go.  But, for most of us, we are moving our entire lives.  Finding the right moving company will determine whether the move is a “piece of cake” or a living nightmare.

Let me start by saying that ours was closer to the nightmare.  Because of that, we decided to cool off before we go into some nasty tirade against the movers.  After all, we want to sound objective.  That is why I’ve decided that now is the time to discuss international moving.  I may actually have several blogs to write about regarding this.

We’ve had no experience with international moves until now.  We did not do our research as we should have, because we were not aware of all the pitfalls.  We looked for international moving companies and only one was persistent enough to get our business.  But let me warn my colleagues out there that they should beware of IntlMove.  I don’t know how many of you have ever used them, but they definitely belong to the “rogue” category.

From what I can gather on the internet, IntlMove was doing very well until 2008.  If you look on their website and see all the testimonials, they were all dated from December 2007 and beyond.  If you want to find complaints, most occurred last year.  What went wrong?  I don’t know but I will share some of our experiences here and write some advice on subsequent blogs.

Another reason I would like to write about this now is because we might have to consider returning to the US.  If we do, we will not be using IntlMove.  I hope that some of my colleagues might be able to give me advice on companies they have used and trusted.

One of the most frustrating things about IntlMove is that there is no personal service.  Everything is done via email.  The representative does call you up, but once you’ve agreed to go with them, they will not discuss anything on the phone.  They claim that email provides a “paper trail” against “he said/she said” issues.  Fair enough, but that didn’t help us in the end.  They contract with other moving companies to pick up your goods and deliver them.  Once they have it in their hands, you are at their mercy.  They tried to hold our shipment hostage, demanding more money, claiming that we went over our weight limit and that the moving company had to do additional packaging.  I will admit that we went over the weight limit.  We know because we personally weighed everything and overestimated.  But we did not go over by the amount they claimed.  We, however, cannot prove our point on that score because they used their own scales.  But we had proof that there was no additional packaging, attested to by the moving company that delivered the goods.  But they ignored our complaints, denying that anyone had any knowledge of this.

We’ve already reported them to the BBB and the FMC.  We have still to contact the Bureau of Enforcement.  We’ve also reported them to MovingScams.com, a forum for people making moves.  Unfortunately, there are still people being scammed by IntlMove right now.

It is funny that I had expounded on the lack of potholes earlier in my British experience.  I did mention that there were a few potholes to be found after our winter storm, but it was nothing in comparison to the US.  The potholes we have experienced were mostly off on the sides of the roads and in parking areas in the Ashdown Forest.

But now, it appears that some council areas in the UK are full of potholes.  Yet, these councils refuse to have the holes filled in.  In fact, they are using them as speed deterrents.  Can you imagine that?  Of course, residents are angry because of the dangers to cars and their passengers.  Not to mention the number of accidents that would occur as people swerve to and fro to dodge these potholes.  As I mentioned before, if we were to have potholes in those narrow country lanes where high hedges and winding roads obscure your view of oncoming traffic, we would be in serious trouble.

Had I spoken too soon?  Are there many potholes out there that I am not aware of?  Perhaps we are just fortunate to live in an area where the councils believe in providing good roads.

I know many readers of this blog find their way here via search engines and often arrive at the small series of posts about acquiring a UK driving license. In order to keep the information complete and up to date, I’d like to add a note about the upcoming price changes I saw mentioned in last Friday’s Daily Telegraph newspaper.

From April 1st 2009, the fee for the theory test will rise to GBP 31 (from GBP 30), and the fee for the practical section of the test will rise to GBP 62 (from GBP 56.60).

As always, be sure to check the DSA web site for  the definitive answer to driving test related questions.

We were almost in an accident today. Why? Because the other driver decided to go around a parked truck without even stopping to assess the safety of the move. He came around the bend, found the truck in his way and decided he wanted to get around, not even bothering to take into account that we were approaching on the opposite side. We had barely enough time to react and both cars were forced to stop before he could squeeze through, with us backing up a bit.

With the stringent driving test in this country, I am surprised to find so many reckless drivers. Is it because they are so used to the cramped conditions that they feel somewhat complacent about safety? So often, people disregard the right-of-way rules that exist and insist on getting through first. We are always on the defense while we are driving. Though that should always be the case when driving, some people out there only know about being on the offense. Which necessitates us being more vigilant.

The roads in Britain are narrow, even without comparing them to the US. Because it is an old country, with construction already complete in most areas, these roads cannot be widened any further. They are rendered even more narrow when there are parked cars on the side. It can be very dangerous because the leftover space cannot always accommodate two vehicles. Usually, one side will give way to the other to avoid an accident. The person will signal for the other to proceed in such cases. But when one decides he will take the right-of-way without considering anyone else, he is asking for an accident to happen.