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'The child I nearly hit could have been my own'

23 Mar 2012, 13:48

Published: 23 Mar 2012 13:48 GMT+01:00

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The other week, I almost hit a kid with our car.

A boy stepped out onto the icy crosswalk from behind an (illegally parked) car. He was probably about nine years old, no doubt was late for school and in another world that did not include neighbourhood traffic.

This happened as I was driving along the narrow, winding streets of our neighbourhood early in the morning, something I try to avoid. Even after warming up the car for ten minutes, a layer of ice had still covered the inside of my windshield.

Note to self: due to the windshield’s curvature, scraping the inside results only in a mess, not visibility. I had finally cleared a reasonably large patch and proceeded, but my range of sight was still less than 100 percent.

It was only thanks to the fact that I was crawling along at the speed of about 10 km/hour that this boy didn’t end up in the hospital – or worse.

When we first moved to Sweden, my husband recommended that I start the process of getting my driver’s licence right away, while I still had free time to work on it.

He seemed to be treating the process with undue seriousness, but what could be so hard about getting a driver’s licence?

A lot, as it turns out.

The adventure began when I first checked out the “English” version of the driver’s education book from the library, which proved to be only marginally helpful.

From this book, I learned the following:

1) American English and British English have little vocabulary in common when it comes to driving terms, and;

2) Without some extra explanations for the foreign-born, a lot is lost in the translation.

This wasn’t working. I moved on to the Swedish version. It was a good choice: longer reading time, but, ironically, much easier to understand.


Now, for the practice test.

My most recent experience with a driver’s test was the renewal of my California licence a few years ago.

The woman at the counter told me then that my driver’s test had expired—I would have to take a written test.

Now, I hadn’t opened a driver’s education book since I was 15, and now I’m… quite a bit older than 15, but I managed to pass that test cold. Again, what could be so difficult?

My Swedish practice test didn’t go as smoothly. In fact, I failed miserably.

Here are some of the many questions I missed:

1. During which months is the risk for crashing into a wild animal the highest?

2. What is the maximum speed limit for a car with a trailer without brakes that weighs less than half the weight of your car? More than half? With brakes?

3. You panic and brake at 110 km/h on an icy road with a car without studded tires. About how far will your car travel until it comes to a stop?

The list goes on—65 questions long, in fact. To this day, I still can’t figure out the answer to that last one.

After the miserable failure of my practice test, I was in denial.

Why did I, with my clean driving record and more than 20 years of experience under my belt, need to spend thousands of kronor and what seemed to be thousands of hours working on a driving test?

Maybe there was some way out of this process. After all, why should the Brits get to exchange their licences and not the North Americans—the Brits drive on the other side of the road, which sounds like a red flag to me.

I did a little research. I could move to Japan first and exchanging my US licence there, but I calculate this as more expensive and time consuming than just taking the course. And, by the way, doesn’t Japan also drive on the left?

There doesn’t seem to be a back door.

But here’s what I do find on Wikipedia during my research:

*Sweden: 2.9 road fatalities per 100,000 per year

*US: 12.3

*UK: 3.6

So maybe the Brits are more deserving of a free pass on the driving test.

But it’s Sweden that really shines here. In fact, it turns out that we’re living in the second safest nation in the world when it comes to cars, following only the Marshall Islands.

They must be doing something right.

This prompts me to calculate the number of people I knew personally who have died in a car crash: three fatal car accidents at my high school, three at the high school where I taught.

That’s an awful lot of parents who have lost their kids.

The research proves to be sobering. Briefly, I contemplate taking the eco-friendly path and just not driving anymore.

I know quite a few adults here in Sweden who don’t drive at all. In contrast, after thirty-five years in the US, I had met only one adult who didn’t have her licence.

She was Swedish.

But my US self tells me I need my licence.

Resigned to my fate, I follow a tip from another American and sign up for one session of driving practice. Why on earth I need to pay someone to watch me drive is beyond me, but I trust her… and she passed her driver’s test on the first try.

I had read up about some of the common driving test pitfalls, so I make a big deal about checking my rear-view mirror, signaling for every turn and yielding to cars coming from the right.

The session ends without incident, and I’m feeling pretty good.

Story continues below…

My driving coach’s assessment? Fail. I speed. All the time.

And that’s entirely true.

I’m not speeding by much— I’m a mother with a station wagon, after all—but more often than not, that speedometer needle hovers over, not under, the limit.

After years of US driving, I’ve come to see the number on the sign post not as a limit but as a general recommendation, as if the rulebook says, “Just stay reasonably close to the number on the sign and we won’t bother you.”

My driving coach does not share this view. Speeding, I am informed, is a traffic violation, one that warrants immediate failure of my test. Maybe I do need a little more practice.

I spend the next few weeks trying to never speed, which, like everything else in the process, turns out to be harder than I expected. My internal gauge of speed has to be reset, this takes some serious concentration.

A few months later, I’m finally ready for the test, just in time for the one-year expiration of my American licence.

But in addition to earning my licence, it turns out that a year of preparing for the test has changed me as a driver.

The other week, on that chilly morning in my car, I was not going anywhere near the 30km/hour speed limit, and as I approached the crosswalk, my foot dutifully hovered over the brake. It was the difference between a close call and hitting a child, and this made the whole driver’s licence process feel worthwhile.

As a parent, I am grateful to live in a nation where the streets are safer, and I can’t help thinking that the driver’s licence process is a part of that.

On one hand, there’s something very un-Swedish about the high cost of getting a licence, making money a gate-keeper in a society that disdains classism.

Still, raising the bar for the privilege of steering two tons of metal down streets full of kids now seems like an obvious move.

Because that kid absent-mindedly crossing the street could have easily been my own.

Rebecca Ahlfeldt is an American ex-pat writer, translator and editor currently based in Stockholm.

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Your comments about this article

14:58 March 23, 2012 by Satch
Very nicely put with a poignant context. I agree with you. I have become a "better" driver after going through the motions of getting a Swedish license.

I still see the speed limit more as a suggestion (and my observation is that most Swedes that I share the roads with do, too) but I am so much more aware of pedestrian crossings and other things I never paid much attention to before as a driver of many years in the US.
16:19 March 23, 2012 by eppie
This is completely different than my own experience. It maybe because the writer is from the US, one of the few developed countries in the world where people actually drive worse than in Sweden.

I have always wanted to ask driving schools in Sweden if they teach that you should use your mirrors and signals when you turn. In practice 90% of the Swedes doesn't do this.

I myself am from mainland Western Europe and I am shocked by the utter disrespect for other shown by Swedish car drivers. They are like horses with blinders.

The reason there are so few deaths among drivers is first because there is so much space for such a small amount of people, and second because Swedes generally drive very slow…..the only point of self-knowledge they luckily have (I wish they would also understand they shouldn't use their phones while driving).
16:19 March 23, 2012 by joshr
Comment removed by The Local for breach of our terms.
18:52 March 23, 2012 by SuperTulle
@Joshr: Considering the current gas prices, that seems like a very expensive thing to do.

What I wonder is how she managed to get frost on the INSIDE of her car. The only time this has happened to me was when I was a kid and my sister and I had forgotten to scrape the snow of our shoes, making the inside of the car very humid, and then the heater broke.
19:12 March 23, 2012 by Opinionfool
Had you hit the child whose fault would it be?

"A boy stepped out onto the icy crosswalk from behind an (illegally parked) car. He was probably about nine years old, no doubt was late for school and in another world that did not include neighbourhood traffic."

Looks to me like the kid owes you one. He's not paying attention to what is going on around him. If anyone needs to pass a test it's him.

The figures for deaths/100K make interesting reading. I've driven in all three countries. And quite understand why the US ones are so high. Spongy suspension, sloppy steering all make for a disconnection between the driver and the vehilce. The same make and model of car in Britain and Sweden feel completely different. Everything is tighter and there is better mechanical feedback thorugh the wheel and the pedals. If I drove a US model in Sweden I would not feel ice and snow under the tyres. Whereas in UK and Sweden I do because things are stiffer giving another feedback channel.

The different figures may also have to do with the different attitude to driving in the three countries. I will admit that when in the UK I used to drive at (aka more than the posted limit) even in built up areas. But there no one is permitted to drive alone without having passed the driving test. The US idea of a driver permit for young teens does not exist in the UK. young drivers who recently passed their tests are the most likely to be involved in serious road traffic accidents. But things may be changing (for the better) as the test is more stringent now with the introduction of a theory test which involves simulated observation exercises; too late a reaction and you fail (too early also brings a fail -- though personally I look further down the road than most people while also looking close by and into the middle distance).

UK children may also be more road conscious than their US counterparts. The UK government has spent millions in road saftery advertising campaigns; including one that had Darth Vader as the star, well Keith Prowse who was the actor in the suit but this time he was dressed as the "Green Cross Code Man" a sort of super hero who instructed children how to cross the road safely --- which the boy Rebecca Ahlfeldt almost hit would have benefitted from heeding as the first action is "find a safe place to cross well away from parked vehicles".

[Wow. For once a.Rebecca Ahlfeldt item that does not bring on rage and anger at its content.]
08:21 March 24, 2012 by skogsbo
The problem was or is not her licence, the problem is her;

She speeds, she drives in winter when she can't see properly and had not understanding of a cars mechanics in relate to snow & ice.

At least she has fixed that, but not sure its worth writing war and peace above.

The solutions are already there, fit good tyres, drive slower, plan further ahead and don't drive like a tank commander looking through a peep hole!
09:08 March 24, 2012 by cogito
"I am shocked by the utter disrespect for other shown by Swedish car drivers. They are like horses with blinders." (#2)

They walk that way too.
11:52 March 25, 2012 by johan rebel
Very few people run over their own children.
17:02 March 25, 2012 by Opinionfool
@johan rebel

Thankfully true but there are people who run over themselves. Last month (Feb 2012) the Valentica soccer player Ever Banega did it, as did an elderly American woman whose car then did "donuts" on the pavement for 15 minutes. Last year there was a couple in the US who ran themselves over but managed to get in and drive to hospital for treatment. And there was the Aussie woman who, in 2010, actually did it twice --- like Banega she did not set the raking brake before getting of the vehicle.
20:10 March 25, 2012 by calebian22
The Swedish driving test was a snap, expensive and time consuming, but a snap even in crap English (Whatever that English is, it was not written by a Brit or any native speaker for that matter). Obviously this woman drove with her head in her butt in the US too. Did she ever consider population density in large metropolitan areas (Sweden has only three "large" cities) is the reason for lower fatalites rather than immediately assuming that Swedish drivers are superior? Probably not.
11:31 March 26, 2012 by B Slick
This gal should not have a drivers licence!! "warming up my car for TEN MINUTES" and "layer of ice had still covered the INSIDE of my windshield"!! If everyone warmed up their car for ten minutes there would not be a tree alive in all of Sweden. If you have ice on the inside of your windshield then you need to have a car repair person look at the problem as to how your getting dampness on the inside of your car, this is NOT normal! Hello!!
11:59 March 26, 2012 by flintis
@ bslick??

How moisture gets in a car in winter!! open car door, get in with snowy/ wet shoes, snow on clothes etc very normal.
13:38 March 26, 2012 by JulieLou40
"Why did I, with my clean driving record and more than 20 years of experience under my belt, need to spend thousands of kronor and what seemed to be thousands of hours working on a driving test?".

I think you'll find that you should be banned, never mind have to take a Swedish test, if you are moronic enough to drive when you have ice on Your windscreen and admit your visibility is crap!

14:58 March 26, 2012 by skogsbo
it's more the fact that she and her fella both knew she was a bad driver and she sped around, but both were quite happy to do this with their own kids in the car, it was only when she nearly hit someone else she decided to change. Would be great if the Police follow this up as a confession of careless or negligent driving!
16:31 March 26, 2012 by JulieLou40
...And speeding!!
20:39 March 26, 2012 by dizzymoe33
Here in the US your child at 15 1/2 years old can get what is called a Learners Permit to start to drive but an adult age 21 or older has to be in the car at all times and then you turn 16 you can take your written and driving test. The problem now days is that most 16 year olds are too immature to be driving and they need to change the driving age to at least 18 years old. That way the parent(s) are not responsible if there is some type of accident that young adult would have to be held accountable for any accident.

Yes I agree that woman is so stupid not giving more time for her windshield to completely defrost before driving somewhere. But she is from California so what do you expect they can't even drive in the rain down there let alone the snow.
22:38 March 26, 2012 by Garry Jones
Great post. Now think about this......

An American can get off the plane, first time in Europe, rent a car and drive around Sweden.

If that American moves her they are allowed to drive around Sweden and learn the rules of the road from others and experience and then after 12 months they are banned from driving and need a new licence.

In my experience most Americans ignore the 12 month rule and continue driving. This renders their insurance invalid and makes them liable in all accidents, not just those that they cause.

The American who gets off the plane will be unlikely to know about the "rule of the right". In small villages if the street through the villiage is not designated "main road" huvudled then cars coming from a side turning on your right are not going to have a "give way" sign, it's you that has to give way. After 12 months most Americans are likely to have learnt this, but then they need a test. So as they feel more safer after 12 months they tend to feel its unnecessary or they just have not read up enough.

In reality I agree they are more safer after 12 months and perhaps Sweden should refuse them the right to drive here when they come as tourists.

As the law stands, I understand the frustration but I feel more should be done to catch these Americans out.

Check this out for a rule of the right.


Route 70 (Rikvägen 70) from Enköping to Mora has "huvudled" status for 230km. Five metres after traffic lights in Mora this huvudled status ends. This is where the photo is taken. Anything coming from the right at this main junction in the town centre can pull right out in front of you. It's a "semi" one-way street to the right, only buses can turn in to it. Everything else comes out of it. Until a few years ago the cars coming from the right had to give way (yield), but now (huvudled status removed) the cars that are intending to go straight ahead (all off them) have to stop dead in their tracks. How a tourist can understand this is beyond me. There are scores of small crashes here every summer and winter in our tourist seasons.

The planning behind this is because the town's buses come from the right after pulling out of the bus station. Bus drivers complained that they could be stuck for minutes trying to waiting to out making them late. So the added danger is that its usually a bus that will smash into the side of cars that have ignored the "yield to right" rule.
09:07 March 27, 2012 by B Slick

Getting into your car with wet/snowy feet can cause some dampness on the inside of your cars windshield but NOT a layer of ICE. Again, when you enter your car on a cold winter morning the inside of the windshield should never be covered with a thick layer of ice that you need to scrap off.
11:25 March 27, 2012 by markusd
I don't see what any of the problems she stated have to do with getting a Swedish driver's license. Speeding, illegal parking and driving around while looking through a hole in the ice on your windshield are illegal in both the U.S. and Sweden.

Regarding driving here in Sweden, it seems to me that the two main things someone coming from the U.S. needs to learn is how to navigate the 2-lane roundabouts and the yield to right rule. Following that, they need to learn that the yield to right rule means nothing to a large number of local drivers. In small unmarked residential intersections, It's safer to just yield to both directions since many people don't even bother to slow down as they go through.
11:44 March 27, 2012 by skogsbo
markusd, I agree. She was probably a poor driver in the US too.

Damp in cars; it can build up in winter, especially if you only do short journeys, then snow/ice can build up in footwells. All easily solved. Kicking your feet before getting in helps, but if the foot wells are wet, put a newspaper in under the mat for a few hours, then throw it out after it has absorbed the damp. Easy.

Running the air con in winter lowers the humidity and it should be ran a few times in winter anyway, to keep it ticking over.
13:40 March 27, 2012 by eppie

Indeed, and they also bike like that. Of course with biking and walking it is more of their own problem. But when in Stockholm center even bus drivers and lorry drivers behave like this it becomes criminal.
01:30 March 28, 2012 by newswede
I've had my US license for 20+yrs. I heard how hard it was to get a Swedish drivers license and it put me off from even trying for one. After about seven years I decided to go for it even though I don't really need one. I didn't sign up for any expensive courses, only ordered the book and read it - I guess many don't take the time to do so. I did purchase 20 online tests, of which I took 10.

Guess what? Every test question is in the book.

So after the mandatory "ice test" and "risk assessment" class, the theory test (computer) and a 20 minute driving test, my license came in the mail the next day.

I'm not trying to say how great I am for passing it with pretty much minimal effort and for minimal cost. I'd just like to tell prospective drivers put off (from all the horror stories) to give it a shot. I can't believe it took me so long.
11:52 March 29, 2012 by J Jack
Love the picture .. 'STOP those GUMS'.

I have a New Zealand license and everyone just gets out of the way .. not really .. but having been living and driving in the UK, US and Europe, I know that the worst drivers I have encountered except the Spanish (and texting Americans) are the Swedes. Sorry but it's true. They have a false sense of security and no respect for the laws often driving while on their phones with kids in the car and even texting on freeways.
19:26 March 30, 2012 by tadchem
Q: "You panic and brake at 110 km/h on an icy road with a car without studded tires. About how far will your car travel until it comes to a stop?"

A: All the way to the scene of the crash.
20:32 March 30, 2012 by gh2008
"a near miss"? that is more like "a near hit" as George Carlin put it.
23:24 March 30, 2012 by ChocOwl
Here's an important question: is it OK to mix British and American English in the one text?

neighbourhood, licence...go UK!

crosswalk, signaling....go US!
14:00 April 16, 2012 by jasonpat
Car accidents are the most worring thing in the transport world specially in the winters so always drive carefully other wise it will become a criminal offense.


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