Grand Auto Envy

Driving in New York again this past summer after a three-year interval was…interesting.

I got my driver’s license at the age of 17, and then took my high school’s Driver’s Ed class. To get the reduced auto insurance premiums, of course. My Japanese friends, colleagues, and students are always shocked to hear that US high school even offer driving courses, since in Japan most people go to driving classes at a designed “driving school” (which charges upwards of 250,000 yen, or about US $3000, for a full course…which allows you to skip the actual driving test when applying for the license).

A road you'll never see in Japan...

But anyway, I always thought of myself as a safe driver. Never got a speeding ticket back home (parked in a fire lane at a shopping mall once and got a ticket for $50. Which lets you know roughly how long ago this incident occurred.)


However, the last time I actually owned a car was August 1991. Between then and last year (2009), I had only rental care driving experiences, all in the US. Still, I figured that I was pretty good. So when my wife bought a car last January here in Japan and asked me to take the driver’s test, I thought, “How hard can it be? I already know how to drive.”

It took me three tries. And even then I had to pay extra for a “Drivers’ Safety Course” in order to pass. (Basically, the trainer was an ex-traffic cop who told me exactly what to do in order to pass the closed circuit driving test. It worked.)

So I got a Japanese driver’s license last August. Good thing, too, because my New York license expired two months prior to our trip to the US in August this year. I had to rent a car using an “International Driver’s License,” and the car company insisted on copying my passport since I was technically using an overseas license. Not an entirely welcome experience, being treated like a foreigner in my own hometown.

Anyway…I told you that story to tell you this…

Now that I have the experience of failing, then passing, a ridiculously difficult driving test in a foreign language, and now that I have a toddler in the back seat and a “Baby on Board” sign in the rear windshield, I am a safe driver. I don’t break the speed limit (it’s called a “limit” for a reason). At 40 kph (about 25 mph) in town, it may seem a tad slow to many Americans who are used to about 65 kph (40 mph). But the roads here are narrow.

Where I live in particular, many roads are roughly the width of a typical ping-pong table, with telephone poles jutting out from both sides, a single white line on the road surface demarking where pedestrians are supposed to walk (which they studiously ignore), rain water gutters on both sides, students and business workers riding bicycles both direction while texting on cell phones, and car traffic both ways, despite the fact that only one car at a time can even fit onto what is considered a typical city street.

In short, it’s a challenge. You get to know the dimensions of your car, is a better way of putting it, probably.

So, why, I wonder, do Japanese drivers routinely attempt to imitate Jose Canseco, one-time Oakland A’s and Red Sox outfielder who once got arrested for exceeding 60 mph in a 30 zone? (In their defense, I doubt most Japanese have a loaded handgun on the back seat. Probably.)

Whenever I drive with my daughter to the nearby “parents-kids center,” I go up an incline around a 45 curve, which goes past a firehouse and the oldest elementary school in the city and frequently has cars parked on both sides of the road (parents waiting for their kids). So why do drivers tailgate me so closely I can barely see the front grille on their car? Despite the fact that from traffic light to traffic light it takes less than a minute to drive, and there is no way that doing 60 in a 40 will get them to wherever they’re going much faster anyway.

Maybe I’m being too logical about this, but speeding on a city street when your destination is less than 5 km away hardly seems worth the 30 seconds you might save. When motorbikes pass me (on the wrong side), they wind up mere inches ahead of me at the next red light. Is it really that worth it, to risk a speeding ticket, not to mention rear-ending me with my daughter in the back seat?

Call me an old fuddy-duddy, but I’m not going to flirt with a traffic ticket for speeding in a foreign country. Not with a baby in the back. Not after all that BS I had to put up with to get this driver’s license.

On the other hand, after driving a tiny Toyota Passo on the narrow roads of central Japan, driving a rental Ford behemoth (they claimed it was an “economy-size”) on the mammoth-size highways of the US was a piece of cake. I even enjoyed the totally unnecessary mechanically adjustable driver’s seat (funny how American cars are so taken with these useless “options,” instead of more financially and environmentally useful tidbits such as, say, more than 25 miles per gallon…our Passo averages 17 kilometers a liter, or about 55 to 60 miles a gallon. In the city.)

How my daughter reacts to being in the baby car seat more than about 15 minutes in a row in a whole ‘nother story. I’ll have to leave the tale of the baby escape artist to a later post.

About MThomas

Long ago, I gave up my high school dreams of becoming the next Carl Sagan and instead wound up working (in order) at McDonald's, a '60s-themed restaurant, a video rental store, a used bookstore, a computer seller, Kinko's, a Jewish newspaper company, and an HR firm. I eventually became a teacher of intercultural communication in Kyoto, where I vainly attempt to apply quantum mechanics to language teaching, practice martial arts and Zen Buddhism, and always keep one eye on the sky. And yes, I know my profile photo's backward. I just think it looks better this way.
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1 Response to Grand Auto Envy

  1. sixmats says:

    I’m a speeder, but on the wider roads.

    The Sendai driver’s test was a piece of cake. I took two lessons and passed the first time.


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