By Prudent Ndiho
When most immigrants arrive in the United States, many things are new to them. Everything from the language to the new weather conditions is a challenge. One aspect of life that is new to many immigrants and is absolutely crucial to living in the U.S. – driving. By “driving,” I do not mean just sitting in a car and driving it to a specific location, but rather knowing the rules of the road and obeying them. I mean understanding what the law requires of all drivers living in the United States. Because the rules of driving in the United States differ greatly from the rules of driving in other countries – Burundi, for instance, where I come from – most immigrants must learn everything about driving anew when they get here. And of course some come not knowing how to drive yet at all.
There are not many road signs or traffic lights in some African countries. But with all the highways and city streets here, America has to have road signs and traffic lights to guide all the drivers. There are no highways where I am from. That is why many people have to learn everything from scratch. They have to forget all they know about driving, whether or not they were driving in their home countries. They are in an unfamiliar nation, and they have to familiarize themselves with all the rules of the nation.
The first thing everyone who wants to drive a car in the United States must do is take a written test. The Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV) provides a guidebook for the test. It is already hard enough to learn the language – now we must read a guidebook to driving in English! It used to be a bigger struggle for many people to get a permit because of the language, but now if you go to www.maine.gov/sos/bmv/licenses/motoristhandbook.html and click on the Google Translate button in the upper right corner, you can get the study guide in your language. The written test itself is available in Arabic, French, Somali, or Spanish, as well as English.
After successfully passing a written test and earning a permit, next comes the road test. The permit is not a license – it’s just the first step to getting a license to drive. It takes some people just one try to pass the road test, but for others they may need three, four, five, or six times. The key to passing a road test is not just practicing driving, but also paying attention to the signs, and how people drive here – even before you start to think about actually getting a driver’s license.
In my first years in the U.S., my means of transportation was a bicycle. But I couldn’t go far with a bicycle. Just to the store, to the gym, to visit some friends who lived close by my apartment. The time that I spent riding my bicycle was not wasted. I was paying attention to road signs and reading all the signals – like the arrows that they draw on the road to indicate where to turn. Even when walking, I would watch how people drive, and read all the signs beside the traffic lights, like the one that says, “No Turn On Red,” and more. When I got rides from friends, I focused on how they drove because I knew that one day I would be driving as well.
So, I have advice for people who want to know how to drive in the U.S. Again, I am not talking about just turning the steering wheel, and pressing on the brake and gas pedals, but really knowing the system of driving in the U.S. My advice is to pay attention to what is happening in the streets, read the signs you see all around. Walk in the streets and pay attention to what is written on the road. And when you are in the car with another person who probably has been driving for a long time, watch how he or she is driving. Familiarize yourself with the meaning of road signs such as “Yield” and others which are in the guidebook for the written test. And do all this before even thinking about driving a car. That is how I did it – and it did not take me long before I was driving like I grew up in the United States.