The Drivers Licence Saga

We both should have State of Virginia drivers licences. Once you've been here 6 weeks, or maybe 3 months, or some short period of time, you are obliged to get a valid drivers licence. And that means the knowledge test and then a road skills test and lining up at the Department of Motor Vehicles and the whole rigmarole. What a pain. So we both, for a while, took the easy way out. This is the story of our drivers licences and how we eventually did the right thing.

17th January 2004

Yeehah. Finally - a full drivers license. But I was legal all the way. My vehicle insurer decided that they didn't want to renew my insurance because of "unacceptable level of drivers license". So I was forced to do something about it or pay unacceptably high levels of insurance as penalty.

So I stood in line at the DMV on a Saturday morning. When we arrived, the temperature was near freezing and there were about 150 people lined up outside the DMV. Friday has been Lee Jackson Day and DMV didn't open. Monday was Martin Luther King Jr Day and DMV wasn't going to open. So Saturday was the day for everyone to do their business and the DMV was busy. Inside was full, so they kept the door locked and whenever a few people left, they would unlock and let a few more inside. So 150 of us huddled outside in a long line in the cold. An hour and a half later, I made inside to the warmth. Then another hour's wait, then the road skills test. After passing through two intersections, my examiner said "You've had a drivers license before" and I answered "30 years of driving licenses" and then I got depressed by the length of time I've been driving, and he relaxed and enjoyed the ride while I did my best driving ever. Back to the DMV, blinded by the light when they took a photo, and shortly afterwards I had my full license. At long last.

Now I can start some hard negotiating for low cost vehicle insurance.

25th May 2001

Still a learner.

Car has a new engine, so I have transport again. Suddenly I am way too poor to think about a bike. But I've got the car. Still should get the full licence. Watch this space.

18th May 2001

Still a learner.

It's summer. My car died. I started thinking about buying a motorbike and getting my skills back up. I made some inquiries. Can't get a bike licence on a learners license. Must be a full license. What I need to do is do a 3 day training course for bikes. Friday night, all day Saturday, all day Sunday. Then they add motorbikes to my licence. Hmmm. Must get the full licence. Watch this space.

16th February 2001

I was at home, recovering from losing my gallbladder. Anne was pushing me and pushing me and said that while I am sitting about the house just moaning, I may as well do something constructive. She shoved the DMV Learning To Drive booklet under my nose and told me to learn it. I did. I read it through a few times. Then I wrote down the numbers and memorised them. On Thursday, the blood bag was removed and I was free to move around. So the first bit of freedom I got next day, was to be driven to the DMV to apply for a drivers licence.

Last year, Anne went to the DMV and inquired and they gave her a licence on the spot, no tests at all. That's Anne's luck. She always gets the good luck, assumes that it applies to everyone, and gets irritated when I have to go through the regular routines. I suspect that because she went on a Saturday, they just assumed a few things and did a quick and easy job. So I turn up on Friday. It's busy. I remembered all the things I needed to bring with me to prove where I lived and who I was. I waited in line, got to the counter and asked about the licence. The woman wasn't sure whether Australia was a freebie or not. Some other places don't require tests, they just get a new licence automatically. She wasn't sure, so she went and asked Mr Regulations, who said no. Australia wasn't a freebie and I had to go through the full process. I think Anne's luck was that on Saturday, Mr Regulations wasn't available and so she got given the benefit of the doubt. No such bloody luck for me.

I had to go through the full process. The first step was the documentation. I had to show my Social Security Card and show proof of residency. Then I waited in line for a bit, and got to do the written test. I say written, but it's a computerised test. The test is in two parts. First part was on street signs, and you have to get 10 our of 10 right. I took my time. Some were incredibly easy and could have been passed if you had learnt to drive in Tibet, but some were tricky. I passed. Then I had to do the second section, and there's a bit of latitude allowed. You have to get at least 20 right out of 25. I missed a few questions. I missed several questions about kids. What do I know about regulations for kids? Tension mounted and I thought carefully about the questions as my wrong answers mounted. And suddenly it was over without finishing. I had my 20 right, so they didn't bother asking any more. Yay. I passed. I waited in line again, and then they took my photo. And I got my Learners Permit. Not a full licence, just a learners. I have to come back and do the driving test later.

There's two types of learners licences, apparently. One is a vertical arrangement. These licences allow you to drive with someone else with a full licence in the car with you. And then there's the horizontal arrangement where you can drive on your own, and these ones look like a full licence except the word "Learner" stuck somewhere. I got the horizontal one that looks normal, which is very, very handy. For some reason, ever since, people have started asking for ID and this licence satisfies all criteria. It's got a photo and my signature and my current address.

The learners permit expires in 2005. All I need to do to move from a learners licence to a full license is do the road skills test. Watch this space.

24th January 2001

So almost a year later, and inertia has set in. I hadn't done anything about a drivers licence. Never been stopped by a policeman, rarely had to show a drivers licence as ID and the few times I did, the Australian once sufficed. Until late one night, when I'm driving home from a visit to an ISP to do some work on an email server.

I'm happily driving home, and the roads are almost empty. And when the night is clear and quiet, and I'm enjoying myself, my speed drops a bit. I was well within the speed limit. I noticed a car that suddenly starting tailgating me. I ignored it. So it put flashing blue lights on. Oops. Police car. I pulled to the side of the road and waited with my hands in plain sight. A nice young policeman comes over and tells me that one of my headlights is dead. I didn't know that. It must have just died. He was driving the other way, spotted that I only had one headlight and turned around and followed me then stopped me. He wants my drivers licence. I give him the Australian one and he looks at it. I explain I haven't had time to get the Virginia licence yet. "How long have you been here?" he asks. I say a few months. He explains that I should have a licence by now. Then he says he'll go and check some records, and as he's heading back to his car, he asks if I own the car and if it's registered in my name. I say yes and he walks away, and I think "That's it. I'm gone a million now." The registration records will show I've been here 2 years. He's gone a long time. I wonder what to tell him. Oh well, I'm probably going to get fined and have to walk home anyway, so I may as well tell the truth rather than try and weasel out of it. I didn't get the chance.

He comes back, and he's irritated and bad-tempered but he's holding his temper back. He tells me that he's going to be generous. He could give me a ticket for both the broken light and not having a valid drivers licence. But he's going to be generous and give me a chance to correct the situation. I better get the light fixed tomorrow and I better get my licence ASAP. He warned me that I am on record now, so the next time I'm stopped without a licence, I'll be in deep trouble. I grovelled and thanked him and I was really grateful. He could have written a ticket for both things, but he let me off.

I feel sorry for the police. Every time they stop someone, they might get shot at, they might get involved in a chase or an argument, but they can be sure of one thing: they will get lied to. It must really sour them on human nature.

So I drove home carefully, cringing every time I saw another police car. Next morning, I went over to Merchants to get a new headlight. They put a new headlight in and tested it and the other one blew. So two new headlights and the car was legal again. As for me, I got caught up in other events. After the headlights, I went to see the specialist and discover that I had to have my gallbladder removed. So I left the licence thing a bit until after the operation.

8th March 2000

There has been some urgency and some progress on the drivers licence front.

Earlier this week, I discovered that the car was unregistered. I noticed on Monday morning that other cars have little date stickers on the number plate. Mine was out of date. I asked questions and found that I should have had the registration notice mailed me to me. But the address was Bronwyn's old address. So I didn't get the registration notice. I went to the DMV yesterday and did an address change then tried to register the car. Not so fast. There was a stop notice on Anne's car. What's a stop notice? The woman couldn't explain it, but it appears to be a computer trigger that pops up when I try to do anything, and it won't let me register any of our cars until something is satisfied. Last year, August, some government department decided to do an insurance check on Anne's car. Random selection, mail a form out and demand that we show up and prove insurance. It went to the old address so I never saw it. So yesterday she demanded that I prove the car was insured at that date or I couldn't register my car. I rushed home, got the insurance papers from last year, came back and showed them. That was fine. But there were a few little fees to deal with first. Bugger. I explained the address thing and the moving from Australia and the woman showed no interest at all. After filling requirements and paying money, she let me register my car and I got the proper little stickers for the number plate. She did note that I didn't have a drivers licence, that was on the computer, and she gave us both till next week to get a licence or there would be another stop notice put on both cars. Ooops. There was only one thing left to do to get the car legal, and that was to get the inspection sticker.

I had been a month overdue for the rego, and I was also a month overdue for the inspection sticker. More bloody money. I dropped the car at an auto shop so they could check a few things and organise the inspection. The first problem they found was that the oil pressure switch had died. I had no oil in the engine. When the oil pressure switch died, it took the warning oil light with it, which is why I didn't notice it. They fixed that, added oil and took it to the inspection station and it failed. The muffler was riddled with holes. They installed a new muffler and took the car back to the inspection shop and it passed this time. So now the car has the inspection sticker, and everything is legal and finalised. Next year, all the forms will be delivered to the right place and I will have plenty of warning, and I'll know what I have to do to keep the car registered and legal.

Only one thing left to do and that's get the drivers licences we were told to get. Anne booked us in on Saturday, although you don't need to book. However, before Saturday arrived, she popped in to the local DMV and asked about drivers licences. They gave her one. No written exam, no driving test, just took a photo of her and gave her the licence on the spot. Bugger. How comes she gets it so easy? So Anne is 100% legal.

1st January 2000

Guess what? I still don't have a driver's licence. I've been coping with my Australian licence and some luck. Anne doesn't have her license either. She's doing the same thing. We both keep talking about it, but we don't seem to be able to make the effort to get out there and do the test and get the card.

24th May 1999

We've bought Anne a car. Still no drivers licences for either of us.

[Anne's car]

17th February 1999

Okay, I'm insured. That was an interesting saga. I was quoted $660 yesterday. Today I phoned up determined to do it, and got quoted a different rate. $580. Now I'm not a tough negotiator. I'm a pussycat. But they dropped the rate just like that. But they demanded to know the social security number of everyone in the house where I am living. That included Bronwyn. Bronwyn was very reluctant, because she's been a bad girl and has a few speeding tickets way back in her past and she said that my premium would be increased if I quoted her number. Unhappily, I had to quote her number. They did a check and immediately dropped the premium to $519. What's going on? I have no idea. But I paid by cheque over the phone (and that's another marvelous US invention) and I'm insured. Just like that.

So I take the rental car back and start driving MY little car. It's small and slow and clumsy, but it's mine. As you can probably work out, I have started bonding with it. When I got home tonight, there was another car in the driveway. I call it a car for want of a better term. This HUGE vehicle is parked there. Bronwyn wanted a 4WD vehicle to go surfing with. But the druggies and surfies here will steal the boards on top of cars. So Bronwyn bought this gigantic car that fits a surfboard INSIDE. So there I am, feeling quite happy about my cute little Nissan, and I get home and it's dwarfed by this monster car that can swallow surfboards. It put my vehicle back in perspective quick-smart.

Now that I'm insured, the pressure is off me to get my driver's licence. And you know what that means.

16th February 1999

In my fourth week in the USA, I bought a car. Initially, I thought that when you bought a car, you could take it home and start driving it. Not so. First of all, the registration of the vehicle is all taken care of by the car yard. They extract extra money from you for the registration. And the property tax. But they don't do anything about insurance. So when I drove the car from the car yard to the company's car park, a trip of about 3 minutes, I was actually driving illegally. Driving uninsured is illegal. So before I can start driving my car in earnest, I need to insure the vehicle.

[My car]

This started the telephone ring-around which resulted in toxic option shock. So many companies, so many options, so many confusing options. The end result was that nearly all companies would only insure me if I had a Virginia drivers licence. One company would insure me on an Australian drivers licence, but their rates seemed a little high. Like $400 dearer than the nearest. That's US dollars, too, so that's about $600 Australian dollars extra. Okay, I thought, I'll go and get my drivers licence and then I'll phone around again and get prices again and get the cheapest deal. By the way, once I heard the prices of comprehensive insurance, I quickly forgot the idea. All I went for was the state legal minimum, which is like Australian third party insurance. That averages at about $700 US a year, which is about $1050 Australian a year. Pretty rough. Comprehensive was going to cost me about $1700 Australian a year.

I need a drivers licence. I already have the booklet that has the Virginian driving code, so I study up. Lots of interesting things in it, and most of the people at work don't know the rules either. Most of the people who drive, don't even know the rules. There are rules, but once you get on the road, it's laissez faire. See my rant about Driving In America.

When I reckon I'm ready, I get the address of the nearest Department of Motor Vehicles and I ask for directions. I get reasonable directions. At lunchtime, I go looking. I find the right general direction, but can't find the DMV. It's supposed to be near a busy intersection. Okay, I miss the turnoff to somewhere promising because there's a broken down pickup in the lane and I can't get past it. I end up in a loop around some giant handyman supermarket. I eventually escape from that, and make my way round again, get stuffed around by the broken pickup and the damned tow-truck that are now blocking the turnoff lane that I really think I want. This time I end up in the Post Office car park and there's a mini traffic jam there. Takes a quarter of an hour to get out of there, amidst cursing women and angry men in big pickups. I loop back again, and try again. This time, I reckon I'll ignore the stupid broken down pickup and the ugly, stupid, tobacco-chewing, wildly-gesticulating, hayseed dressed redneck who owns it and the equally weird looking tow-truck driver and I drive past them and over the curb and I get onto the car park area that looks like it might be where I want to go. I can't see a bloody thing that looks a DMV. There's no cars, no movement, it looks like a cluster of funeral homes during an epidemic of good health.

So I do what I do in moments of stress, and I park the car and get out and start walking. I have the street number of the building that I am looking for, but that's no use. Not one single bloody building has a street number displayed anywhere on or near the building. So I walk around and up and down and I locate a chiropractic clinic and a foot and ankle clinic and something religious, and something to do with abortions, and I get almost run over by an attractive woman in a nice car who loses something of her attractiveness when she shouts abuse at me for daring to walk where she wants to drive. And what do you know? I locate the DMV. It's an empty building with a tiny little sign in front that says it's now located elsewhere. Even if I had driven past the damned building, I couldn't have read the sign. Oh well, at least I know.

Back in the car, and head for the general area of the new location. By this time, my lunchtime is well and truly over and I'm getting worried. I know the number and street of the new DMV, but where the hell is that? I know the street reasonably well, because that's where I go for lunch. Greenbrier Parkway is a long street, and on the left is Greenbrier Mall, and on the right is another huge strip mall that spans about 6 blocks. I don't remember any DMV there, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything. I know the street number of my bank because it's written on all the ATM receipts. But once again, not one single bloody building has a street number on it. So I have to judge from my bank. It's on the opposite side and down a bit. I drive around and hunt for it. No chance. I go through the mall and around the loops and backwards and forwards and I can't find the DMV and I can't even find one other reference point like a street number. I give up and go back to the office. There, I get laughed at. And I get directions to the DMV.

Here, it's not enough to have a street address. Because no-one bothers to put street numbers up, except in residential areas, you can't go by maps and addresses. Maps don't show street number ranges like they do so sensibly in Australia. So the numbering scheme is completely useless. You have to get directions from someone who has been there before and can describe the journey. Does this sound familiar to anyone who has read James Clavell's book Shogun? Before longitude was able to be calculated, sea voyages depended on the journals of pilots who had been there and accurately described the passage. Getting around here is just like that. So I get directions to the DMV and head off again. And what do you know, but the directions were stuffed. But they were enough to put me in the general area and let me find the place after only another 15 minutes of searching.

Finding the place is one thing, but passing the driving tests is another. But I didn't even get that far. I filled out the form, waited for my number to come up, and got to the counter. I need documentation. I need either my social security card or a payroll stub with the SSN on it. I need proof of residence, like a phone or electricity bill with my name and address on it. I'm staying with a relative, so what can I do? The answer is simple. My relative must have a Virginia licence that is current and valid. It has to have the current address on it and that has to be the same address as I am applying for. My relative has to come in to the DMV with me, produce this licence, and sign a form to state that I am living there. Without those two bits of documentation, I am still a non-person. I leave.

Okay, I can get the residency thing okay with Bronwyn coming down and signing a form. But the social security card is a bigger problem. My payroll stubs have a dummy number on them. It will take another two paydays before the right number appears. So there's one month to wait for that. It will take two weeks for the application form to arrive and then two weeks for a replacement card to arrive. That's a month too. I can cut that back to 2 weeks by going in to the Department of Social Services and filling in the form on the spot. So whatever I do, it's going to take 2 weeks to get a card. I want to surrender the rental car and start driving MY car NOW.

But wait, I thought, maybe there is a way. I phoned the insurance company that would let me do it on my Australian licence. They confirmed that yes, they would let me do that. And I whittled down the prices and went for the bare minimum cover. And that brought the cost down to $660. And they would do it over the phone from my cheque account. Bummer. I didn't have some of the details with me, and the bank hadn't cleared my pay cheque yet. It might all come together tomorrow, so I left it at that. Tomorrow I will see. I might be able to get my insurance, and that means I can drive my car from then on. Then I can wait the required two weeks and get my social security card, and then get my drivers licence. The pressure is off me.

I also found that maybe there is a way to circumvent the 2 week wait. If I go in to the Department of Social Services and apply for the replacement card, I can request a receipt which will have my name and SSN on it. They claim that the DMV will accept this. I am dubious about any claim by the DSS, so I'll wait and see. I will do this, but I won't expect the DMV to honour it. Right now, my most important task is to insure the car, not get the drivers licence.