Route to German roads can be rough Americans seeking driver's licenses pay dearly in time, money

April 08, 1996|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BERLIN -- If you're a newly arrived Italian who learned to drive in the demolition derbies of rush-hour Rome, you'll have no problem getting a German driver's license.

Likewise if you're a British citizen trained to drive on the left, or a rural Frenchman whose greatest highway challenge up to now has been swerving around baguette-laden bicycles. Just fill out a few forms, pay a few deutsche marks and pick up your German license. No tests required.

But if you're an American? Well, just ask David Solomon, a veteran of 20 years behind the wheel on the rough-and-tumble roads of Boston.

Mr. Solomon, who came to Berlin in late 1993, studied hundreds of test questions, sat through an all-day first-aid course, and took hours of driving lessons from two instructors. He failed two written tests and three road tests before finally getting his license last month -- 11 months and $1,400 after he began.

"I got more nervous every time I took the test," he said. "The whole process made me nervous."

For other Americans, nervousness often gives way to anger, and for three years the American Chamber of Commerce in Germany has battled against the seeming injustice, which took effect in April 1993.

Why should Americans have to spend so much time and money, the chamber asks, when a far smoother route is offered to drivers from other countries -- not only European Union states, but such places as Australia and Japan?

But there may at last be hope for exasperated Americans, thanks to the chamber's persistence.

Fighting its battle literally state by state, the group recently secured an agreement from German authorities that drivers with licenses from Alabama, Delaware and Missouri will now only have to take the written test, and not the road test.

Kansas and Arizona drivers will soon be exempted from both tests, while pending action by Arkansas, Michigan and Wisconsin could clear the way for their expatriated drivers as well.

(Utah, which long ago worked out a separate peace on its own, was previously the only state whose drivers were exempt from the tests.)

All this would mean that, before long, drivers from nine states will be off the hook from a process requiring weeks and costing anywhere from $400 to $2,000, according to Kim David Eger, the chamber's manager of trade and investment policy.

It used to be easy

It used to be cheap and easy. Americans simply traded in their valid U.S. license for a German one. But when the member nations of the European Union standardized their license requirements in early 1993, "a side effect was that a lot of countries which had previously swapped licenses suddenly received scrutiny from German bureaucrats," Mr. Eger said.

The bureaucrats were alarmed by the relative chaos of the U.S. system. Not only was there no nationally standardized driver's license, there were 50 sets of state standards, varying in everything from minimum age to the required number of hours of on-road lessons. And most fell short of the new European standards.

German officials also discovered that virtually none of the states allowed German citizens to swap their license for an American one.

From then on, Americans had to go through the same arduous process that teen-age Germans did -- a strict and expensive battery of tests and lessons.

Even if Germans living in the United States had to take tests as well, that hardly made the treatment equitable. As Mr. Eger said, "The costs were worlds apart."

The requirements seem all the more puzzling because Americans are allowed to drive for up to a year in Germany on their U.S. licenses. After that, however, they're subject to fines of up to $7,000.

So, they've thrown themselves into the bureaucratic gauntlet by the thousands, providing a tidy income for the private driving schools found all over the country.

The case of Mr. Solomon shows how bad it can get.

Costs add up

There was the required eye test ($8), the full-day first-aid course ($26), and the required official translation of his U.S. license ($35). Then he had to sign up at a driving school, which would sell him a study kit for the written test and would have to certify him for readiness to take the road test. He shelled out another $200.

He then failed the written test twice before passing, which happens more often than you might think. You're only allowed a few wrong answers out of 30 questions, and not only does the test ask picky questions about height and weight limits of trucks, for example, but it also delves into matters of auto mechanics and physics.

After passing the written test, Mr. Solomon began his driving lessons. They generally cost about 1 deutsche mark (about 70 cents) per minute and most schools require at least two hours of instruction before deeming you ready to take the road test.

The greatest indignity

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