Life from an outsider's perspective…

Driving me insane; the legendary Spanish driving test.

Catch-22, bureacracy, red tape, patience, determination, spanish driving test, learning to drive in Spain

In case you hadn’t realised, this has turned into a 5 or 6 part series on getting your license in Spain.

Today I attempted the final driving exam for the first time (yes in Spanish). I just got back and I failed. This is despite completing over 3600 practise theory questions in Spanish and almost 30 hours of compuslory driving lessons. Before I continue, I feel that I should say that far from being a loser, for 10 years I have never failed anything I have attempted, but I’m not at all suprised I failed this one.

It’s nothing to do with ability to drive a car. Far from it. It’s more like seeing how well you cope with a national bureacracy.

Apart from that, one of the most difficult parts of the whole learning to drive experience (at least here in Tenerife) is that you are never permitted to use the handbrake, neither on hillstarts nor when parking on slopes (the only exception is when you immobilise the vehicle). I soon mastered that and was feathering that clutch from a standstill up 20% inclined slopes! No not 5 % or even 10 %, but a 20% gradient. Let’s see someone in Australia do that without using a handbrake.

Anwyay, over the last several weeks, I thought I’d come to learn all the ‘tricks’, but such is not the case. ‘Tricks’ you say? Yes they try their utmost to trick you in order to justify more expensive lessons (they tell me that the average is 20). Here is what I encountered over the course of my twenty driving lessons:

  • Faded/bent/non-existent “no entrance” signs.
  • Faded road markings
  • Inconsistent road markings
  • Stop signs obscured by tree branches
  • Pedestrians hidden and waiting behind large trash containers
  • Potholes which can’t be driven over at speed

Now they do their best to devise a circuit to ensure that you’ll encounter the most of the above situations. Of course when you naturally make a mistake, your instructor doesn’t hesitate in pointing it out to you. What that does is it makes you look like you aren’t capable of driving a car on your own yet.

If you travel down a street in 3rd gear, they advise you that you need to go slower in second gear to be prepared for obstacles. Go down the exact same street in 2nd gear the next day and they’ll tell you to change into 3rd to save petrol. Yes, you can follow their instruction for as long as you want, but whatever you do, until you’ve accomplished the unofficial ~20 lessons, no matter what you do, you’re generally fucked.

You can instantly fail the exam any number of obvious ways:

  • Failure to turn on your lights in a tunnel
  • Failure to make a ‘second stop’ in an intersection with reduced visibility. 
  • Failure to stop for a pedestrian (even though they may be hidden behind one of those inapporopriately placed rubbish conatiners)
  • If the instructor steps on the secondary pedals (yes, even if by accident)
  • Crossing a continuous line
  • Failure to circulate in the right lane.
  • Mounting a curb (easier than you think here)

The trouble is the minor violations, which the inspectors seem to invent on a whim. My inspector seemed nice enough to begin with, but I think when he could see that I could drive well and grasped the local road rules, he started to make my life difficult. Because after all, no one these days ever passes the spanish driving test first go, lest a foreigner.

At least twice he told me where to turn when I was virtually on top of the intersection. Here were the official reasons for my failure of the driving exam in Santa Cruz de Tenerife:

  • Approaching a T-junction, the clever git purposely told me too late which direction to go (basically when I was already on the line give way line). Now in the narrow, maze-like back streets of Santa Cruz & La Laguna, full of parked cars, you really need to know beforehand to enable you to make the turn….. obviously there was zero time to aim the car where it should be going! Anyway. I did the sharpest left turn you could ever imagine, okay, steering wheel at full left lock, turning ever so slowly while feathering the clutch, missed the car that was conveniently parked on the right with probably an inch to spare, still made the turn pefectly, and yet that was one failure right there. BUT I WAS IN COMPLETE CONTROL GODAMMIT! 
  • Then, travelling down a back street, I come across an obligatory left arrow painted on the floor located JUST before an intersection. All the parked cars in the street ahead were facing away from you so it looked like you could continue but no, no you can’t. But surprise surprise THERE AREN’T ANY “NO ENTRANCE” SIGNS DISPLAYED ANYWHERE! It’s a trick. If you continue straight, you’re instantly suspended. So with a bit of self-doubt, I managed to just make the required uphill left-hand turn, but there was simply NO time to change down into 1st (unless you know the street already) and so I stalled it – once. Second failure. 
  • 3rd and most grave failure was that travelling at a fair speed, the bastard again told me to turn right waaaay too late… I managed to make the turn but invaded the oncoming lane slightly. Even though there were no cars coming, that was the gravest error so far. BUT the catch is, if you continue straight, you haven’t obeyed his orders and they still give you a lesser penalty. So you can’t win. Catch-22
  • 4th and most petty “failure” was that it was raining & the windscreen wipers weren’t going fast enough (I kept changing them between position 1 and 2 according to the conditions). Apparently they should have stayed on position 2…. 
  • Yet another “petty” failure mentioned was that I went through a give way sign ok, gave way alright, there were no cars coming when I turned into the street, and apparently I entered the street turning right a bit too slowly, and by the time I was driving up the road at the velocity limit I had hindered a car which was speeding up behind me. Obstruction of traffic = 5th failure.

I have a mixture of disappointment, condemnation, rage, etc. What can I say? I’m completely over the system & it’s enough to make me give up. If I fail the next exam the total cost will be something like 1500 smegging Euros for the 3rd attemp. In all honesty it has been a total waste of money, but I’m too determined to give up now.

Unlike England, in Spain, there are no provisional licences so before you pass your test, the only person you can drive with is your instructor.Assuming you have undertaken your practical and theory training, you will then be faced with your exam fee. In Spain, you pay for three goes at a time, but only two per type of test. Therefore if you don’t pass your theory until the second time, you only have one attempt at the practical and should you fail the theory test twice, you have to pay a second fee of about 161‚¬.Whatever happens, if you fail you will have to wait about three weeks before taking the exam again. Three more practical exams are compuslory before you attempt the practical exam again.The highway codes are also very different. The Spanish version is the most in-depth in Europe and has three times as many rules as in England. There are also in-depth sections to be studied on first-aid, vehicle maintenance and vehicle loads.The theory exam consists of forty multiple choice questions and you are allowed just four wrong answers. This is similar to that in the UK. It is a published fact that most people sitting the exam in Spain, fail, due to mis-reading or failing to comprehend the lengthy questions.The actual practical exam can be described as a strange affair. In Spain it is a group excursion. Your instructor sits in the passenger seat and the examiner sits in the back, often with several other candidates. After 20 minutes the candidates will swap places and someone else has a go. You will then be informed of a pass or fail.


6 Responses to “Driving me insane; the legendary Spanish driving test.”

  1. Aha! Now I understand why I’ve seen so many driving instrutor’s cars full of people. I assumed that lessons were being treated as a family day out. Must be incredibly distracting and add to the stress.

    I also now understand why so many Canarios don’t seem to know a) what to do on a roundabout b) what their indicator is for c) that pedestrian crossings are not parking zones d) that when joining the motorway, you give way and e) that you do not stop in the middle of a junction to take a phone call…I could go on.

    If the instructors concentrated on teaching people how to be competent road users instead of on the bureaucracy of the test you’d be better off financially and the roads would be a lot safer!

    Good luck and nil bastardi carborundum

  2. Well I’m pleased to say that I finally passed! :-)

    I’ve waited two weeks, and the interim paperwork should be at the driving school this week.

    They told me that the real plastic license arrives in the main but takes 1-3 months!

    After having been through it, I think it’s more like a rite of initiation than anything else…

  3. Hi, I am a driving instructor in the Thame area. One of my pupils isn’t very good understanding English. I would like to know if there is anywhere that i can get a CD rom with the hazard perception and Theory test questions in Spanish?

  4. Today I am a mental and emotional wreck – and physical come ot think of it – having failed my driving test here in Alcala for the fourth time. After 74 classes, yes, you don´t need your eyes examined, 74, this time I didn´t make it out of the exam centre. I was failed for not yielding as I should have, both of us trying to get out of the exam centre. My exam lasted less than 10 seconds, 30 yards and I never got over 10kph. I just don´t know what to do next. Your post is great, makes me feel I´m not the mad one at last.

  5. I am reading this and feel really sorry for you but am at a loss as to how the majority of people in Spain pass their tests in the first place. The silly ******* can`t bloomin drive! to name but a few old men in white vans driving in campo land at 20km per hr smoking cigars, silly teenagers with peas for brains who don´t see beyond their windscreen (whilst going at hairraising speeds!), middle aged women looking glazed and indicating right when they turn left …. the list goes on. Ahhhh feel better now – sorry Dr Leslie!!

  6. I know this thread is incredibly old, but I am in Valencia and in the midst of getting my license. I’m forty freaking three…I’ve been driving since I was 14 (yes with my Dad because he was cool about it). I can drive a stick like a champ. I’m sickened by the time and money I’m having to spend simply because the US and Spain never bothered to sign a piece of paper and yet the English and Japanese (who drive on the other side of the road) can simply exchange their license for a Spanish one without a test. Everything you’ve said in your article is dead on, and makes me feel a little better about the whole thing. I guess misery loves company. If anyone out there is about to do this, take a deep breath, and try to keep a sense of humor about it.

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