Most people who live in South Africa know that driving on South African roads can be a stressful experience. Even those who don’t own cars, but utilise public transport, know that the road is a stressful place to be. Apart from poor road infrastructure and massive road maintenance issues in both rural and urban areas, driving on South African roads is stressful for two other reasons:
- Congestion – especially if you live in Cape Town or Johannesburg which are the two most congested cities in South Africa; and
- Lack of adherence to the traffic rules – or what Canadians would call “disrepectful driving“. Without pointing fingers, most of us who have used the roads in South Africa know that rules are often bent – sometimes a little; i.e. rolling over a stop sign instead of coming to a full stop before proceeding – and sometims a lot; i.e. blatantly disregardig a red traffic light and driving into uncoming traffic whilst expecting other road users to make way for you.
For those of you who don’t know, Canada has reciprocal license agreements with certain countries. This means that if you immigrate to Canada, you can visit your nearest provincial driver’s licence office and hand in your original national driver’s licence from your country of origin and they will issue you with a Canadian driver’s licence. Unfortunately, Canada does not have a reciprocal license agreement with South Africa, which means that you are legally allowed to use your driver’s licence from you country of origin for your first 90 days in Canada; after which time you have to take a knowledge and road test again in order to obtain a Canadian driver’s licence.
If you fail to complete the knowledge and road tests, you will no longer be allowed to drive in Canada and will be forced to use public transport to get around or you have to sign up for their learner driver programme, which is a two-year programme that prescribes that you are not allowed to drive by yourself. You always have to have a licenced driver with you when you are behind the wheel and you must complete a specific number of driving lessons and must wait at least two years before you can do the road test; unless you can provide reasons why your application should be expedited.
Fortunately, the public transport system in British Columbia is pretty good. See a previous blog post about this. However, as I mentioned in another blog post about buying a car, access to trains and buses depends on where you live and you might still have need of a car for grocery shopping (it is easier to transport groceries with a car – especially when you are buying in bulk), or for long distance travel and sight-seeing. So it is advisable to try and obtain your British Columbia driver’s licence. I found that because we are from South Africa, we value having our own car and being able to get around without having to depend on public transport. In South Africa, you get used to your independence simply because you are not living in a system where you have to adjust to a public transport schedule. Unreliable and unregulated public transport in South Africa, makes it the mode of transport for those who simply cannot afford a car, but not the first choice for anyone who has the means to buy a car.
Most people in Vancouver and the surrounding areas still own cars and use their cars on weekends and for road trips, but they use public transport to travel to and from work. This is the option we have chosen. My husband uses public transport to commute to and from work and I use the car for errands and emergencies. It was an adjustment but hubby seems to be getting used to public transport now. There are some nice benefits to using public transport for your commute; i.e. he doesn’t have to sit in traffic, and he can use his travel time to work, read or listen to podcasts – which is a much nicer way to start and end your day than navigating your way to and from work in the chaos that is Johannesburg peak traffic. The West Coast Express, is particularly nice for getting work done on your commute. The train is quiet and has space to work and is a fast and efficient way to get to work – with less stops between destinations. But again, you have to stay in an area where you have access to the West Coast Express.
Either way, obtaining a British Columbia driver’s licence was a “must-do” on our to-do list and because we did not want to end up in the British Columbia learner driver programme, it was one of our top priorities on the to-do list. We only had 90 days from the day or our arrival in Canada, before we would have to surrender our South African driver’s licences. It is important to keep in mind that you book your knowledge and road test online and that the system generates a test date for you. Oten your test date will be at least a month (sometimes two months) in the future. So it is important to book your test date as soon as possible and then work towards it.
Taking the tests
The knowledge test is an online test that you complete at your nearest ICBC branch, which is the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, but strangely enough also what we would call the “traffic department” back home in South Africa. You book your test date online. Then you download their road user manual to study British Columbia’s road signs and rules for driving. ICBC’s website also offers free practice tests that you can take before you take your knowledge test. The knowledge test is a multiple choice quiz that tests your knowledge of road signs and the rules of the road. You need to get 40 out of 50 questions right to pass. The tricky part is learning all the signs that you have never encountered in South Africa before.
In British Columbia there is a heavy emphasis on responsible and conscientious driving. You are required to drive cautiously and slow, but also to respect other road users and demonstrate kindness, by letting a driver into the lane ahead of you, waiting for pedestrians and cyclists to cross the road before proceeding etc. There is a whole section in the manual on sharing the road safely with other users. And here everyone abides by the rules. You start with zero points on your driving record when they issue your licence and gain points for being convicted of breaking certain traffic laws. Demerit points stay on your record for two years from the offence date. If you collect enough points, you can lose your driver’s licence. “Enough” points is 4 demerit points in a 12-month period. On the ICBC website there is a list of fines and points for B.C. traffic offences. Looking at this list, you realise that you can very easily get to 4 demerits by driving the way people drive in South Africa. Demerits also mean an increase in your insurance premium and of course you are legally obliged to take out insurance with ICBC when you buy a car. No-one can buy a car without taking out insurance, as uninsured vehicles are not allowed on the road.
The road test is a 35 minute test with an examiner. There is a thorough vehicle check and hand signals test before you start driving. After your car has been checked out and deemed safe, you start your road test. The examiner takes you through a pre-set route to test your driving skills — like turning, changing lanes, and parking. The route includes city streets, commercial areas, and highways. You also go through different kinds of intersections: ones without traffic signs, ones with stop signs, and large intersections with traffic lights. Your examiner also asks you during the test to spot and point out potential hazards and to park your car either uphill or downhill.
Once you get back to ICBC’s testing centre, you will know whether the examiner wants to pass or fail you on your driving test by the fact that he/she will either ask that you stop anywhere (fail) or that you back into a parking (pass – if you succeed in parking). After you’ve finished your test, the examiner goes over your test with you and provides you with feedback on what you did well and where you need to improve. If you did not make more than 3 mistakes, you pass the test.
So what is it like to drive in British Columbia?
The most difficult part of driving in B. C., is learning to drive on the left side of the car and the right side of the road as opposed to driving on the right side of the car and the left side of the road. Left turns at intersections are tricky. When wanting to turn right at a or red traffic light, you are allowed to stop and then proceed with caution (i.e. treat it as a yield sign) even though the traffic light might still be red – unless there is a sign indicating that you have to wait for a green arrow before turning. Another thing that is a big part of driving in Canada, is driving in wet and snowy conditions – something we almost never have to think about in South Africa. These were also the most tricky test questions on the knowledge test – knowing what to expect from melted ice on a bridge or how to handle skidding on slippery roads etc. – which actually happens quiet often when driving in snow.
Something to keep an eye out for, is pedestrians that cross the road without checking for oncoming cars, because they always have right of way and cyclists moving into your blind spot from bicycle lanes on the right-hand side of the road. And of course the speed limit, which is 30 km per hour in areas where there are schools or parks, 50 km per hour in the city and main roads, and 80 km per hour on the highway. The lower speed limits end up being a blessing in disguise as you try to get used to driving on the “wrong” side of the road, because you have more time to think before turning or changing lanes.
Mostly, once you start getting used to the weirdness of it all and relearn where all the blind spots around your car are, the driving experience is quite a pleasant one; simply because everyone follows the rules. Roads are well-maintained and on snowy days, the municipality scrapes all the snow from main roads and sidewalks, ensuring safe driving for everyone.