The Washington Post
Sunday, DECEMBER 15, 1996

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Commentary and Opinion

  A McLean Driver Hits the Skids in Sweden
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If you meet a Swedish driver on the road, get out of the way, especially if you're an elk—and I don't mean the kind that congregate in lodges.

Since I've moved with my family to Stockholm (my husband took a job here), I have found myself yearning for the good old days of innocent driving along the streets of McLean, where my roughest test was whether to stop at the yellow light. Now my biggest challenge is passing the Swedish driving test or, to be more accurate, the Swedish driving tests.

In addition to taking a difficult written exam on driving theory and a road test, in Sweden applicants for a driver's license must take the Swedish Slippery Driving Test, hereafter referred to as the SSDT.

On a racetrack on the outskirts of Stockholm, would-be drivers are required to get behind the wheel of a small Japanese car with a manual transmission. Then, for two hours, they alternately must speed and stop on the track that, depending on the season, is either icy or soaked in rain and oil. A tester sits in a 20 foot-high control tower 'overlooking the track, yelling his commands in Swedish through a radio that has the audio quality normally associated with fast-food drive-through windows.

Not long ago, my husband and I went together to take the SSDT, because he speaks fluent Swedish, and I was going to need a translator. That the tester's commands were going to have to be translated before I was supposed to obey them instantly wasn't going to make the SSDT any easier for me. The Swedes also have a no-refund policy on driving tests —fail any one of their test battery, and you have to start all over again and pay for the privilege of doing so. I was spending $125 on a driving manual, $300 on a preparatory course, $30 on an eye test, $125 on the written test and $160 for the road test The SSDT was going to be another $130. So the pressure was on.

The first challenge of the test was to brake precisely as I passed two small yellow markers on the sides of the track. The voice on the radio exhorted me to hold my speed to exactly 70 kilometers (45 mph) before the crucial moment if I didn't stop at exactly the right spot I'd flunk.

I got through that test okay and through the next four speed-and-stop trials. But then came the elk—in McLean, they'd call them moose.

"Lars," the name attached to the voice on the radio, instructed me to imagine that the blue markers on the track were actually elk. In Sweden, the real thing always has the right of way.

I mowed down my first fake elk, as my car skidded on the water-slicked track. Lars was concerned enough to come down from his tower and have my husband explain to me that braking is like "stepping on eggshells."

 

Let's just say I broke enough eggs to make quite a few omelets that day.

But the test wasn't over yet I still had to take the ultimate challenge —handling the Mazda in really, really bad slippery conditions. Silly me, I thought I had been doing that for two hours already.

All the other driving applicants that afternoon —eight of us in four cars — were Swedish teenagers. They thought this part of the test was great. So did my husband, who reverted to the mind-set of a 16-year-old.

I was so frightened that I couldn't keep the car at the required speed. When it was my husband's turn, I asked to get out of the car, but his look shamed me into staying. As I said a silent prayer, he gunned the car, then slammed on the brakes when he passed the magic markers. After we had skidded and spun out of control for what seemed like minutes, we came to a screeching halt. My husband grinned. Lars grinned. I staggered out of the car, glad to be alive. Finally, the SSDT was over.

When we turned in our cars, Lars was there to distribute the passing slips. He skipped me, though my husband got one.

So now I have to decide what to do. I can drive illegally and risk a $2,000 fine. I can try to pass the Swedish driving tests — again. That probably will cost almost as much as a ticket for driving without a license.

Or I can go to England. If I can learn to drive on the wrong side of the road, maybe I can pass that country's driving test, which is much easier than Sweden's. The Swedes, you see, as fellow members of the European Union, honor British driving licenses.

So I'm learning the words to “God Save the Queen.” I think that's only fair, considering that the queen is going to save the bacon of this Virginia driver.

   

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