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Staying Alive - A Year in Ireland - Part 3

Since moving to Ireland we’ve had experiences that provided us with many fun stories, but getting our Irish Driving License has proved to be very fertile in this area.

The Road Safety Authority or RSA issues the driver licenses in Ireland. A little bit of background is in order before I launch into our (mis-)adventures with the RSA. Several years ago, Ireland had a very high mortality rate from road accidents and launched a “scheme” (plan) to reduce deaths. This included tightening up the drinking and driving laws and the driver license process. In general the measures have been very effective.

The drinking and driving laws in Ireland (as well as most of Europe) are very tight compared to the US. In the US, I could have a little more than a half a bottle of wine with Carol during dinner, and I would be well within the legal limit for driving (about 3 drinks in an hour for my then 220 pounds). In Ireland I would be well over the limit. This is a good thing, but also has some cultural and financial implications.

First, I’ll discuss the cultural implications. Since the new drinking and driving laws, a popular drink in Ireland is now Mid-Strength Guinness that is 2.8% alcohol versus the usual 4.2%. I haven’t done the math, but this probably means someone about my weight can drink a little over a glass per hour (a glass is a half pint), and be legal to drive. Some people in Ireland and throughout the world consider this to be sacrilegious and a desecration to the Irish Culture… As an avid “people watcher” in the pubs, I can attest that this also has other implications. One will regularly see couples at the pub, and it will become very obvious, very quickly, which one is the “designated driver”. It makes for very interesting people watching. Things are not near as funny or as interesting if you are around a bunch of drinkers and not drinking. This is even obvious to a drinking “people watcher”, but appears to not be as obvious to their drinking partner :).

There are ways around the drinking and driving laws but they have financial implications. Our preferred choice is to live near the center of a town or village, but the rents tend to be slightly higher. The other good side effect of living in the town or village is that we are within walking distance of several restaurants in addition to the 5 pubs, the church, and the 3 grocery stores.(part of the reason the price of petrol is not a bother since most weekends the car stays parked). Every now and then, we get tired of the local establishments or want to attend a concert or the theatre, not to mention the pub music sessions in Galway. Of course we like to partake in a pint or two before, during and after these events. There is effectively a €30 tax for doing this. It is about €15 each way via taxi. Fortunately taxis are plentiful and relatively inexpensive. We’ve found ways to reduce the price of the taxi but they are complicated. (drive to my office and park with the bike rack in the back of the car, walk to downtown Galway(about 10 minutes), have fun, take a taxi home, and ride my bike back to the car as a hang over cure the next morning. This has the added benefit of no parking fees :) ).

The other way to reduce driving deaths in Ireland was to tightening the requirements for obtaining a driving license. Several years ago the waiting time for taking the behind-the-wheel driving test was considered way too long. To solve this problem the government at that time, just mailed a drivers license to everyone who was on their second provisional (or learner's) license. It is pretty obvious that this is, and was part of, the driving mortality problem in Ireland, but it is seldom mentioned. It is obvious when one observes the other drivers, since it is pretty clear that many drivers have never learned the rules for round-abouts and other driving situations.

The driving mortality rate has also gone down in proportion with the availability of Motorways, the Irish name for a road that is the equivalent of the Interstate highways in the US. The National Highways are almost all two-lane, narrow, minimal shoulder, and constantly reducing speed for small towns and villages. Several years ago it took over four hours to go from Dublin to Galway. Today with the motorway it is a little over two hours. This has made driving between major cities in Ireland much safer.

A side-effect of the Motorways is that a constant stream of buses now traverse between Galway and Dublin(and other major Irish cities) for about €20 Euro return trip (round trip). The tolls back and forth are about €10 and the distance is about 200 Kilometers each way… and each coach (bus) has free wi-fi.

The other scheme for reducing traffic mortality was to make it significantly harder to get a driving license or to assure that those getting a license were significantly more competent. The new rules (not so new now) put several hurdles in the path to an Irish Driver’s License. For most, the whole driver’s license process took about six-months and our process was a slightly abbreviated.

The process starts with taking the Driver Theory Test (DTT). This involved studying the driver’s manual, scheduling a test and passing the test. The delay from scheduling to taking the test was a few weeks and cost us €45 each. Of course I passed with 100% on the 1st try and Carol passed missing just one question. We did study for a few hours. It is not clear if we would have done near as well without the study time.

Eye tests are not done by the RSA so we next needed to schedule and have an eye exam. The going rate for an RSA eye test is €25 (Are you counting?). Now we needed a Driver’s license photo … yes the RSA does NOT do license photos, so we had them take for €6. (Are you still counting?). We were then ready to apply for learner’s permit. The application needs to be accompanied by €15. (For those who have lost count this is now €91). The learner’s permit enabled us to drive with a licensed (by the RSA) driver, but not on the motorways … only the dangerous roads. A learner is required to display a “big L” decal on the front and the back of the vehicle they are driving.

The L(Loser) decal

Of course the requirement to have an Irish licensed driver with us didn’t keep us from driving … it doesn’t keep non-licensed Irish drivers from driving either. Theoretically, our US driver license was good for a year or until we got our learner’s permit depending on whom you ask. If the Garda (police) pulled us over there was no way to check if we had been in Ireland for over a year, so this was not an issue.

Now we are getting to the expensive and time-consuming part of the process, we had to take 12 lessons from a certified instructor. We got a two-for deal using our car and our petrol for about €300 each. This is 12 hours of lessons with an instructor after driving over a half million miles, admittedly on the other side of the road. This part of the process was far more pleasant and more of a learning experience than my first impression. Our instructor Rob was patient with me, and I think I became a better driver at the end of the process, partially because he tuned my driving to the different realities of Irish Driving.

Gratuitous Illegal Parking is Rampant

48 mph - two lanes

More Narrow Roads

Drive on the Left Reminder

Irish Driving does have a different set of realities than US driving. The primary difference being that you can’t just drive in your own lane and not pay attention to the on-coming traffic … The on-coming traffic may be a bus or truck and the two of you will NOT always fit on the road together. This requires you to be looking down the road for on-coming traffic and at the same time looking for “cubby holes” on the side of the road where you can hide from buses and trucks when necessary. This is also true in villages where people are constantly illegally parked and there is only room for one car on a two-lane street. Additionally, if you are making a legal left turn (the easy turn when you are the other side of the road), you may not have the room to proceed after making the turn, and if the road is busy you will likely clog traffic or worse; force yourself to reverse around a corner … in traffic.

Usually, one needs to wait 6 months from the start of taking the 12 lessons until they can take the behind-the-wheel driving test. This was the only time we received credit for having previously been a licensed driver, and we had this requirement waved. Of course we had to take a “leap of trust” and send our CA driver’s licenses in the mail to the RSA along with a letter from the CA DMV saying our driving record was “clean”. Of course this didn’t keep us from driving.

We next had to take the behind-the-wheel driving test. This is a 40-45 minute driving test in traffic and about 50% of applicants fail. In the US one basically passes the driving test (if they have to take it), if they can drive with the testing officer for 20 minutes without committing any major driving infractions (something that would get you a ticket or make an accident your fault). Of course with the roads in Ireland, there are many more places to commit a driving infraction but you are also tested on “driving philosophy” … consistently shift gears at 3500 rpm instead of 2500 rpm and you fail … Consistently stopping at a stop light without using the hand-brake and you fail (yes, it is called a hand-brake here, and not an emergency brake or a parking brake). In other words you don’t have to do anything illegal to fail the test.

You sign up for the behind-the-wheel driving test on-line, and the delay is several weeks and the price is €85. After passing the test you receive a certificate certifying you as a “competent driver”. Of course after passing the test you need some more photos for €6 and €55 for the Driver’s License. For those who have not been keeping track (or lost track) this is a grand total of €537 each, plus dozens of hours and dozens of liters of petrol.

So given this narrative you might ask “Why?”. If I were to say that we just wanted to do the “right thing” and/or fit in here in Ireland … that statement would be a stretch (if not a lie). It all comes down to money. Our “ex-pat” car insurance policy is about €1350 per year. The ex-pat insurance, probably (I hope) would have covered us whether we had obtained our Irish Drivers License or not. Now that we have our Irish licenses, we are about to change to an Irish insurance policy that is €300-400 per year. So the answer to “why” is: €1000 per year. We will recoup the price of both our licenses in about 1 year from just the insurance savings.

This is the last of my blogs on our observations on life in Ireland after a year. Let me know if you have any other areas you would like me to explore.

See You in the Pub!

Jet Lag Jack

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