Recently I was reading a blog post called "The Immigrant Driver" by fellow American-expat-in-New-Zealand, Eby. It was about American immigrants and driving on the other side of the road, a topic I haven't written about.
So, this is how I got my New Zealand driver licence.
When I first came to New Zealand in September 1995, Nigel let me have a go at driving. It was incredibly nerve-wracking, not the least because the car he had at the time was a manual: Not only did I have to sit on the other side of the car to drive on the other side of the road, I also had to shift using my left hand.
When I returned to the US, there were many things to be sorted out, but one thing I ran out of time for was renewing my driver’s licence, which would expire the following January. So I arrived back in New Zealand on November 2 with less than two months of legal driving.
Foreigners can drive in New Zealand for up to 12 consecutive months using their home country’s licence—as long as it’s valid. There was so much to adjust to at the time that, quite frankly, the idea of adding on driving kind of terrified me. So, I didn’t.
In fact, the thing I’m least proud of is that I kept putting off getting my licence. We went to the US in 1997 and I tried to renew my licence then, but it had been too long and I’d have to re-sit the exam and have a behind-the-wheel test; we just didn’t have the time for that. This would’ve mattered because that 12-month period re-sets every time the foreigner leaves and re-enters the country (and, at the time, I wasn’t yet a permanent resident of New Zealand).
So, more time passed. Finally, in early 1999, I decided to do something about it. My motivator (after having had the Road Code for years) was that the government was changing the rules for driving licences, and I wanted to go through the older, easier system. And, I was simply ready. So, in March 1999, I made an appointment for the theory exam (written and oral) for a learner’s permit.
I made a bunch of flashcards with what I thought were likely questions. I studied them and studied them and studied them some more—more than anything I’d ever studied since university, some 15 years earlier. There were times I was so nervous I felt sick, but I kept at it.
On Thursday, March 25, I passed the theory exam and became a Learner (even though I’d been licensed in Illinois for 20 years). I immediately booked my test for the practical license exam (on road) right then. At the time, someone who was 25 or older could skip a Restricted Licence and go immediately for a Full Licence, which is what I planned.
In the meantime, Nigel was encouraging, but I didn’t like practising driving with him because to me it was like having my father in the passenger seat, or maybe it was his searching for a non-existent brake on the passenger side (I’m joking about the brake part).
About a month later, I was back. When the examiner and I were going to the car, he said to me, "You've been driving for years!" I said yes, and that I'd let my US licence expire. He inspected the car, and soon we were away. Basically, I did a fifteen-minute drive in a big loop—no manoeuvres at all, no parallel parking, so three-point turnabout, or backing around corners, or hill starts, or anything—things I was expecting and in some cases had practiced for. Nigel said later that he would’ve assumed I knew how to do all those manoeuvres, and what he was really interested in was whether I could competently and confidently handle the car on the left side of the road.
So, Friday, April 23, 1999—nearly three and a half years after I arrived, I finally got my New Zealand licence. Had I taken care of this while my US licence was still valid, or within the year of it expiring, I only would’ve needed to swap it for a New Zealand licence. That embarrasses me still, even though I didn’t know that at the time.
A short time later, I got my “lifetime” paper licence in the mail, something the government later took away, replacing them with licences people had to renew every ten years (they also required that drivers carry their licence with them when driving).
In 1999, we went back to the US on holiday and rented a car while we were in Chicago. I did all the driving—the first time in nearly four years that I’d driven in the US. We survived.
It would be another four years, roughly, before we got a second car and I started driving regularly. Now, I don’t think twice about it—but I still don’t want to drive Nigel anywhere.
The sign at the top of this post was outside Wai-o-Tapu thermal reserve near Rotorua. Similar signs, and directional arrows painted on the road to show which way traffic goes in which lane, are at many tourist areas (and some not-so-tourist areas, too). Fortunately, I don’t need those reminders.
The thing is, after all these years driving in New Zealand, I’m not sure how I’d handle driving on the right side of the road again because for me it would be, well, wrong. Life’s weird like that.
See also my earlier post with video, Driving in New Zealand.