Safe driving emphasised before learners are even on the road

In his quest for a driving licence, The National's Kareem Shaheen discovers that a mistake in the learners' compound can have severe consequences.

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It was the most embarrassing moment ever, and it deserved the dressing down I received. I was happily going through the motions of the latest driving lesson, this one a drive around a two-way course in the Emirates Driving Company (EDC) compound.

I was alone in the car. Having completed my area-three lessons, I had to take the corresponding tower lessons, where you have to repeat the activity alone in the car with the guidance of an instructor in the school's control towers. It was disconcerting not to have a fail buffer, but it was also good not to have my hand held. But it only took those few moments I had alone in the car to become a stereotypical UAE-based driver. It was shocking - and surreal.

The course was filled with learner drivers, all trying to park in different ways, an elaborate hive mind. There were also numerous stop signs, usually near the parking spots, that compelled the drivers to take it easy in the vicinity. I got a couple of reprimands from the ephemeral voice on the radio for not making a complete stop near the, well, "Stop" signs. I didn't see a reason to do that because there were no cars pulling out of the car parks, but I figured I'd follow the rules anyway.

I drove around the course, quite bored. It was rather monotonous, and the accelerator was mysteriously disconnected, basically killing the only challenging aspect of driving in a big square. Then I arrived near a few parking spots that were occupied. A student driver was attempting to back out from a 90-degree parking spot as I approached. I didn't think it over too much and just swerved around the back of the car as it was leaving the bay, probably the way many Abu Dhabi drivers would have done.

All hell broke loose. The tower radioed over that I had to stop immediately. I was lectured for what felt like an hour about safe driving and why I shouldn't have risked crashing into another student's car. I closed my eyes and hoped it would all go away. Stop signs and reckless driving - two strikes. Eventually an instructor joined me in the car to tell me what I had done wrong. As it turned out I had also accidentally been enrolled in the tower class before I took all of the regular classes.

So it wasn't completely my fault. After a few more parking exercises, I was ready to look ahead. As the driving lessons series draws to a close, I still have a lot ahead of me. If I could do the lessons full time, I probably would be done by now, but as it is, I'm juggling it with a lot of other things. I quizzed my instructor on the lessons. I have still to do areas four and five, which will introduce me to driving in what is a miniature town inside the EDC compound, with roundabouts, traffic lights, two-way streets and road signs, and, crucially, other people. It is a shame you can't really train to drive on a proper highway though.

There is also the parking test that I'll have to do, which doesn't appear to be particularly complicated, except perhaps at my skill level. After that I get three shots at passing and getting my licence, the instructor told me. Three shots, that's it? Apparently yes, then, if I fail, I have to go back for area-six training, which involves driving around near the school, in Musaffah. I'm not sure how I feel about driving in the area, which has many large trucks on its roads. At any rate, he told me after that I had five more shots at passing, and after that it would be close to impossible to get a licence, he said.

Now that I knew there was a finite number of attempts, I worried. I could completely mess this thing up, I thought. I conveyed my fears to the instructor. Don't worry, he said, only those who are really terrible drivers fail that often. I hope I won't prove him right.