Today I had the pleasure of renewing my North Carolina driver's license. And I say that, of course, with total sarcasm. After waiting for over an hour while only one DMV employee processed a room full of people, it took me all of five minutes to renew my license.
Getting or renewing a driver's license in the US is a totally diffrerent experience than getting a driving license in the UK. The first time I drove, I had just turned 15. I passed a written test that exempted me from the classroom portion of Driver's Ed, so all I had to do was complete 5-10 hours of driving with an instructor in order to get my learner's permit. That allowed me to drive, supervised, until I was 16, when I got my full driver's license. It's been nearly 15 years since then, but I can vaguely remember having to do a "road test" with a DMV employee in order to get my license. This road test consisted of pulling out of the DMV parking lot, driving down the block, reversing backwards, and parking in an empty parking lot nearby. I then drove back to the DMV, where I took a brief vision test and a road signs test. And that was all it took to prove my competency on the road. Every five or so years since then, I have had to renew my license, which has consisted of the vision test and an abreviated version of the road signs test. And we're talking basic road signs that any five-year-old could identify (stop, yield, speed limit, school zone, etc.), not the less common, but just as important, ones a driver might encounter. They make it ridiculously easy to get and keep your license in the US, I suppose partly because there is no alternative to driving in many places.
In the UK, on the other hand, you have to do a lot more to prove that you can responsibly operate a vehicle. That doesn't mean that there aren't any nutcases on the road, but at least the process does weed out a few of the extreme cases. For starters, the minimum driving age is 17, and the government is apparently thinking of increasing that to 18. I think 18 (or even the current age of 17) is much more sensible. The difference between a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old is pretty dramatic, and when I think back to what I was like when I was 15, I really had no business behind the wheel. And I was pretty responsible. Imagine some of the 15-year-olds out there! Anyway, back to the subject at hand. I got my UK driving license over two years ago and before I even took the written test I took at least 20 hours of lessons with a private instructor. Then I took the test, which was probably the easiest part of the whole process. A couple of months later, after I had had a few more lessons, I took the driving (or "road") test. This was a 35-minute test in which the examiner scrutinized my every move. Luckily, I passed with only a couple of minor offenses, but apparently it's not uncommon to fail your driving test at least once. Some people fail several times before they finally pass. But once you have your driving license, you don't have to renew it until you're 70 (unless, of course, you get too many points or lose it).
So, nearly two weeks after my license had expired (which the DMV employee didn't even question today), I am now licensed to drive again in North Carolina. I have been driving legally with my UK license in the meantime (my UK license allows me to drive in the US for up to a year, I think), but at least it will be another five or eight years before I'll have to prove once again that I can identify a railroad crossing sign or a stoplight.