VIENNA — It can be cheaper, easier and faster to fly to the United States to get a driver's license than it is to get one in Austria.
I found that out when my New York State driver's license expired and I applied for one here.
Under the Austrian system, applicants must undergo a rigid oral exam followed by a road test. But before that, they must study hundreds of pages of information on traffic safety and road signs, technical aspects of the automobile and details such as the mandated distance between a stop sign and a corner.
It is also necessary to memorize mathematical formulas to calculate the distance one needs to stop at different speeds.
One question on the oral test asks the candidate to calculate the speed at which he would crash into an obstruction from a certain distance.
Another question: "What is most strained if the car is started without the choke?"
Many applicants answer with what they think is the obvious, "The engine." That's wrong. The answer: "The environment."
It's not yet compulsory to take lessons at a driving school, which can run to the equivalent of $1,000 if you flunk the first time, and many do. Statistics show that 30% of driving school graduates flunk the first time. About 50% of those who take the exam without driving-school training fail the first tests.
Alfred Stratil of the Traffic Ministry said a law is in the works to make some driving school lessons obligatory.
Austria has 267 driving schools, 58 in Vienna alone. Theory courses and driving lessons cost as much as 5,000 shillings (about $416) and they last a minimum of about 10 weeks. The exam itself costs 1,000 shillings (about $80).
If you flunk, you start over again at the driving school--and you pay again.
A round-trip air ticket to the United States can be bought for about 10,000 shillings ($832). For foreign residents with driver's licenses from home, all that is required is to have the license officially translated.
My New York license expired while I was getting settled in Vienna and I couldn't get it translated. In order to drive, I had to take Austria's tests.
Few Had Passed
The day I took my tests, only one of five candidates from one driving school passed.
As the last of our group to be examined, I settled behind the wheel as the dimmest 10 minutes of twilight settled over the city. The examiner sat in the back seat and complained about the "inexcusable" bad driving of the candidates before me.
At one point in the road test, I stopped for a man and child who had just crossed the street and were getting into a car. I thought I was abiding by an Austrian legal concept that assumes other drivers and pedestrians will obey traffic regulations, but maintains that children, the aged and the handicapped cannot be expected to do so.
Annoyed, the examiner asked why I stopped. I said that if there was an accident with the child, I would be blamed.
Better Luck Next Time
"A father will be able to hold the child," the inspector said. I told him I had five younger sisters and knew from experience that a children often do pull away from their elders.
After one short stretch of driving on a main street, the rest of my test was on empty back streets with no traffic lights and no stop signs.
Everything seemed to go fine, but when we returned to the parking lot, the instructor had flunked me. He said I needed more practice and should take more lessons.
I had driven for four years in New York state and during my lessons in Vienna, my driving instructor was fully confident I would pass.
"If you fail, I'll turn in my teaching license," she had told me one day as I practiced driving.