Learning to drive in Germany was expensive and hard, and then I failed the test. In Aotearoa it was kind of the opposite. So do they make it too complicated, or do we make it too easy?
I spent 2022 making my way through Germany’s incredibly rigorous and extremely expensive learner driver programme. After clocking up 40 hours’ driving time, keeping control of a car at 170 km/h on a motorway with no speed limit and parallel parking till my neck could do a full 360-degree turn, I felt like I’d become a decent driver. But two driving test disasters later, I still didn’t have a licence.
Which is how I’ve ended up back home in Aotearoa for the summer, starting over with my learner’s.
Now having studied both Germany and Aotearoa’s road codes, I’ve found some pretty glaring differences between our them, not to mention testing systems and driving styles, starting with how you learn to drive. In Germany, the only way is with a professional instructor. When I told my instructor that Kiwi teenagers are often taught to drive by their parents, he said, “let me guess: lots of screaming?”
I definitely wanted to scream after my most recent German test failure. More than NZ$3,000 out of pocket, still without a licence, I’d have to start over with my learner’s here in Aotearoa, learning another set of rules in the process.
As soon as I sat down for my learner’s test at the AA, it was clear I was in a different country.
In Germany, the theory test, which you sit before you begin your practical lessons, is run in complete silence. In Aotearoa, the test conditions seem to be whatever happens to be going on in the AA at the time.
While trying to concentrate on the 35 questions before me in the New Plymouth AA, I was distracted by another customer telling the staff a very loud story about the time she got food poisoning at a certain sandwich chain.
I managed to pass the test with just one incorrect answer. I still couldn’t tell you whether 80 km/h is the maximum speed you can drive with a trailer or a space saver tyre, but I will never forget exactly how many days that woman spent in hospital with her food poisoning or the number of kilos she lost as a result. (It was the chicken teriyaki that got her.) But, no shade – that same woman had let me back into the queue earlier after I’d gone outside for some water. I’m not sure anyone in Germany has ever let me back into a queue in almost a decade living there.
In Germany it’d taken me three tries to pass the theory test and two goes at the practical component. I could drive, but I still didn’t have a licence. Now here in Aotearoa, I’d passed my learner’s test on the first go and was out driving in traffic a couple of hours later. If I messaged my German instructor to tell him the good news he wouldn’t even believe me. How could it be so easy? Or was the German system too hard?
The main reason I’d struggled with the German theory test is that they ask multiple choice questions with multiple potentially correct answers.
Here’s an actual German test question:
Why might you be unfit to drive after using crystal meth?
- Because you might overestimate your performance
- Because sudden exhaustion can occur
- Because delusions can occur
Who knew that crystal meth can make you feel both A) very clever and B) extremely tired? Anyone who’s taken it (not me), and anyone who’s passed the German driving exam (also not me, at least not the first two times). Turns out all three answers are correct.
Once I got into studying the New Zealand Road Code, I was relieved to rediscover some of the rules I’d remembered from growing up here. That did mean keeping two sets of rules in my head, though – ones to use at home, and others to apply the next time I sit my German driving test. Here are some of the biggest differences.
How each country teaches its newest drivers to handle following and braking distances is indicative of how that nation approaches life in general.
In Germany, this is how you figure out your braking distance at a given speed, in metres:
Braking distance = (speed in km/h / 10) x (speed in km/h / 10)
Not to be confused with your emergency braking distance:
= [(speed in km/h / 10) x (speed in km/h / 10)] / 2
I have no idea how you’re meant to do that calculation while driving 170km/h, but you can’t get your German licence without learning it.
Meanwhile, the New Zealand Road Code recommends applying the two-second rule to ensure you’re keeping enough distance from the car in front of you. That should give you enough time to brake when you need to, at whatever speed you’re travelling. You can use the four-second rule in trickier driving conditions (obviously the three-second rule is reserved for eating food off the floor).
When I first read about the two-second rule, after so many months studying those German equations, I refused to believe it could be so simple. It sounded like “she’ll be right”, but in traffic. How could we make something so tricky, so easy? No, hang on: how could Germans make something so simple, so hard?
Like the Waka Kotahi-endorsed saying, “top of the T goes before me”, the 2-second rule is kind of adorable, but more importantly: it works.
No overtaking the fast lane
On the German motorway, or autobahn, if you’re driving in one of the slower lanes, you’re not allowed to drive faster than the car in the next fastest lane. That’s how they maintain a slow lane for those who need it (in many cases, the slow lane is still going about 120 km/h). Meanwhile in New Zealand, we drive as fast or slow as we like in whatever lane we happen to be in. You can even pass on the left if someone’s really holding you up.
In practice, of course, nothing is like in the rule book. The first time my German instructor took me on the no-holds-barred autobahn, I sat gritting my teeth in the middle lane, refusing to go faster than 150km/h. Not only did someone tailgate me at that speed, but a driver in the fast lane pulled up next to me, goading me to pass them on the inside lane. Rather than getting mad, my instructor was chuffed: he said I needed to learn to deal with all kinds of distractions, and the best way to manage this situation was to pull out into the fast lane at the next opportunity and accelerate to 170km/h to keep up with the other traffic. Did I really want a German licence? Who even knew anymore.
Tricky speed limit signs
Driving around Taranaki these past weeks, I’ve learnt that I actually think in German while I drive. Turns out I read all the speed signs aloud in German, too. It’s annoying for everyone else in the car, but something I learnt to do in Berlin because the speed limits are constantly changing there, sometimes even depending on the time of day – for example a 50km zone can be reduced to 30km between certain hours to cut down on noise. That’s one of my biggest struggles driving in Germany: managing to read the tiny time zones on the speed signs before I’ve passed them.
Look out for cyclists
If I never get that elusive German licence, at least I can cycle. Berlin is covered in a network of cycle paths that car drivers there tend to respect. Our local council even used the lack of commuter traffic during Covid to justify making a number of streets bike-first, where cars have to slow down and keep behind cyclists, who are allowed to take up the whole lane. Berlin is a great place to be a cyclist and that, combined with excellent public transport, is how I’ve managed to make it to my thirties without a driver’s licence.
But streets filled with cyclists also means having to look out for them as a driver whenever you’re about to turn a corner. I’ve stopped for dozens of cyclists during my lessons in Berlin, whereas in Ngāmotu I’ve only had one cyclist come anywhere near me in almost a month of driving. After a while you can forget to look out for them which, as a cyclist myself, is terrifying.
In Aotearoa, we use the flush median for extra space when we’re turning into another street. That’s something I had to unlearn in Germany and now relearn back here at home, because in Germany, those same diagonal striped road markings are a no-go zone. There, they treat those stripy spaces like traffic islands, or use them to fill in some space when two lanes merge. If I veer into one of those in Germany, I’m staring down another very expensive failure.
We all know Aotearoa is the jaywalking capital of the world. But in Germany, jaywalking is considered a traffic infraction. If you get caught wandering in traffic in Germany, you’ll have to pay a fine (technically the same is true in New Zealand). However in Germany, if you have a driver’s licence, you’ll get some demerit points to go with it
There’s not a lot Aotearoa and Germany agree on when it comes to driving, except for one quirk: even though we drive on opposite sides of the road, somehow, inexplicably, we all give way to the right.
Oh, and the fact that, as soon as you actually get out on the road, you’ll find plenty of drivers making their own rules.
A couple of hours after getting my learner’s licence, I drove my partner to the supermarket for the first time ever, a simple, but long-awaited milestone. Just as I pulled out of New World, two cars cruised out in front of me, cutting me off as they switched across two lanes with nary an indicator in sight. A less experienced me would have panicked, but then I remembered I’d once been tailgated at 150km/h. I could handle this.
A couple of weeks after I got my learner’s, my partner found someone’s driver’s licence lying on the footpath. But it wasn’t just any driver’s licence. Like a huge slap in the face, it was a German licence, just lying there in the rain, begging to be taken to a good home.
When I get back to Germany, it’ll cost me about $1,000 to have another crack at sitting my licence, once I’ve paid for a couple of lessons and the test costs. So it’s lucky the owner of that licence looked nothing like me, or I would have had to think very seriously about keeping it.