Essays - Driving over Spaniards

I am the proud holder of a Spanish driver’s license. You cannot imagine how proud. I can't tell how much it cost me – I went into denial once I hit four figures (in pounds). Learning to drive is a wallet-wincing business anywhere, but in Spain even for souls less automobilistically-challenged than myself, it costs a veritable ojo de la cara (lit. an eye off your face). To add humiliation to insolvency, once you have jumped through all hoops, practical, theoretical and bureaucratic, you must announce your first year as a driver with a green L-plate stuck in your rear window. Still, that's all water under the bridge now. The beep-at-me-I'm-an-idiot-sign's in the bin and I can afford to put petrol in the car.

Driving lessons themselves are as expensive as everywhere else in Europe, averaging around 30€ (2008 prices) an hour. Living on the east coast of Malaga I paid 25€. Those In Marbella or Nerja pay up to 35€.. Theory classes cost 30-40€ a month. But what you really need the overdraft for is to fund an endless check-list of taxes, medical charges, matriculation fees, application fees, reapplications fees and exam fees.

The “matricula” (registration fee) was my favourite. This covers materials together with the vast administrative cost involved in punching your name – How do you spell O'Shea? Sorry, the programme won't accept an apostrophe – into the computer. The medical fee was a snip at just 25€ but you're guaranteed to feel more ripped off than an American in a souk. I saw three “doctors” in the space of five minutes. The first one had me read a chart of letters. The second smoked a cigarette while I attempted to keep a ball between two moving lines on a prehistoric computer screen. The third asked me if I had any illnesses or addictions. I said no. They all signed a piece of paper. I was fit to pay.

In Britain you pay a fee each time you take your test. In Spain you pay around 75€ for three goes – but only two per type of test. So if you don’t pass your theory until the second attempt, you only get one bash at the practical. And should you fail a second time to recall the maximum speed of an electric lawn-mower on a dual carriageway in the fog, you must automatically pay a second fee. This has actually gone down. When I took my first tests (yes, that's plural), re-application cost a staggering 160.95 €.


Besides all this, you must wait at least three weeks before you re-take either exam, which means spending even more money on lessons or monthly fees. A new law stipulates that after failing once you must have a minimum of five additional lessons. Quite reasonable, perhaps. But if you fail twice you must have eight more lessons and if you fail three times, twelve more! Nobody seems to have thought about serial-failures. Continue the mathematical sequence for someone (OK, me) who screws up seven times and that makes an additional 139 classes!

In the best possible scenario - say 20 classes and three months of theory, passing both exams first time - getting your driving license in Spain will cost you an average of 931€ (the amount varies greatly from region to region). Most people will screw up at least once or twice, and thus pay considerably more.

Another idiosyncrasy of the Spanish system means that you only get to drive with your instructor. Provisional Licenses don’t exist. Juan, my “ex” (instructor), can't believe that in the UK a seventeen-year old (the minimum age for driving is eighteen here) can slap on an L-plate, strap a parent into the passenger seat and be let loose on the roads. I can see his point. - at the beginning. Once you get the hang of things, not being allowed to practice with an experienced driver becomes extremely frustrating, and expensive. Not that the driving schools are complaining.

It can also lead to a patient-psychiatrist-like dependency. I loved Juan. I hated him. He made my day. He made me cry. Every time I took that sharp bend onto the too-short slip-road, ready to join the early morning motorway madness into Malaga, I needed his assurance, his approval. When I ran over that chap's foot pulling out of a car park during exam number three, I looked to him for forgiveness and understanding. And it was from Juan I picked up that cute / annoying Malagueñan habit of referring to everyone between nine months and ninety as niño ( boy) or niña ( girl). There were two main variations: the affectionately chiding “Ay nña”, meaning, “What are we going to do with you, you useless little thing, you?” And the plainly exasperated, “Pero qué haces, niña?” More of a, “What the f___ are you doing, you idiot?”

In Spain more people die on the roads than in any other EU country except Portugal, but if road sense were measured by the size of the rulebook then the Spanish would be the safest drivers in the world. The Manual de Normas de Circulación y Seguridad Vial (MNCSV) is three times as thick as the Highway Code, with almost three times as many rules (629, to be exact). First aid, vehicle maintenance and loads all get their own lengthy chapters.

You learn how to tell the difference between five different types of hemorrhage, why brakes with “pastillas”(don't ask me) are safer than those with “discos” (ditto), that you should never pour sulphuric acid into the battery (!) and that if you're transporting beams on your longer-than-five-metre-lorry these may only protrude three metres behind. Useful stuff. And there is masses of it. And you must learn it.

The video-aided explanations given in class do help, but the only way to pass this leviathan is by rote learning, and doing literally hundreds of practice tests. The exam itself consists of forty multiple-choice questions. You are allowed just four faltas (compared with five mistakes out of thirty-five in the UK test). Many questions are designed to trip you up, and as Juan says, most people fail because they misread or fail to comprehend the trickier questions. Pity the poor immigrant. I prided myself on getting to grips with terms like “brazo de acoplamiento”, “regulador de tensión” and “retrocatadriópticos”. If that sounds too tortuous, practice papers and tests are available in English.

I started my driving lessons almost at the same time as the theory classes. Everyone seemed amazed that I should wish to sit at the wheel before perfecting my knowledge of the hidden workings of the internal combustion engine. This is not the norm. You memorise the rule book, forget it overnight, start driving and then realise you didn't really understand right of way after all.

Driving lessons are much the same as anywhere else. Cars have dual controls, modified clutches, large “autoescuela” signs on top, and annoy all other drivers who have long forgotten they were once novices. One difference is that although you pay for one hour you are forced to sit in the back for a second hour. Theoretically this maximises the time you cause havoc in the city centre - if you spend twenty minutes driving into the city centre and twenty minutes going back, that leaves very little time for: “Turn right. Turn left. Qué haces niña, this is a taxi lane? Stoooop!”

Actually, you soon realise that the only cars sticking to the rules are those with the autoescuela sign on top. Juan constantly curses and shakes his fist at the idiotas who park on zebra crossings, do illegal U-turns, fail to indicate and beep at autoescuela cars. You never, ever see anyone else indicate when they circle a roundabout. Suddenly, you become the world's number one critic of your partner's / parent's / best friend's driving. “But you didn't ...” “Why didn't you ..?” “Juan says ....” They bide their time, waiting to throw it all back in your face when you “really know how to drive.”

The test itself is a group outing. In the back goes the examiner, who as a standard- issue funcionario (government employee) regards you, if at all, as an obstacle to an early lunch / coffee break / early finish. Beside you sits your instructor. His role, to look straight ahead, make banal conversation with Mr or Ms funcionario, and manifest clue-ridden tics to let you know you're screwing up. Squashed and nervous in the back sits a second, and sometimes third, candidate: It's all rather grim and unjolly. Twenty minutes later – less if you run over a pedestrian's foot - it’s all over and the musical chairs start.

My eighth examiner was a sweetie. I swung a sharp right and had to brake hard to miss the pedestrians on the zebra crossing. “Pull up, where you can,” he said. “Immobilise the car and change places.” I slunk into the back seat, tears barely contained, envisaging more fees, more humiliation and more “Ay, niñas”. But then he leaned across to me: “Alégrete la cara (cheer up),” he said, “Has aprobado” ( You've passed.).

Legal Requirements

If you have a driver’s license from any EU country, it is automatically valid in Spain. Those holding a driver’s license from non-EU countries which do not have a reciprocal agreement with Spain can drive in Spain for six months in one calendar year, but must then obtain a Spanish license. This means, as many US residents have found out, taking the dreaded theory exam.

More information about licenses, road conditions, the Spanish Highway Code and so on can be found at the website of the Dirección General de Trafico http://www.dgt.es Some of it used to be English, and may indeed still be there.

This article first appeared in Living Spain magazine.

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