The Cost of Learning to Drive

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“Of course you have to learn to drive, who will drop off and pick up your kids at places?” my father once said to me.

Rarely has a parent ever hit upon such a foolproof strategy for making their children want to remain driving virgins. At 18, not only was the picking up and dropping off of children the farthest priority from my mind, my melodramatic teen environmentalism led me to cast driving as something done by people were at least a little complicit with great evil. More importantly, I also dreaded the prospect of becoming a carbon copy of my parents.

Fast forward five years, and I finally (albeit grudgingly) submitted to the necessity of learning to drive.  What’s changed? Not a lot—I still don’t foresee myself driving much in a city like Singapore. But the grown-up realism of a potential emergency calls, with greater and greater urgency: What if I had to take someone to the hospital; what if I had to be in a place after midnight, after trains stopped running; what if I had to send a drunk friend home; what if what if what if? Five years of nagging has finally rubbed off on me.

Unlike in the U.S., the road to a driver’s license in Singapore is complicated. The legal driving age begins at 18, where aspiring drivers must pass the Basic Theory Test, covering topics such as traffic signs, signals, traffic rules, and road conduct. Thankfully, I passed this back in the day when I was an 18-year-old making half-hearted steps towards qualifying before putting that on hold. To pass you need to get 45 out of 50 multiple-choice questions correct, but it’s one of the easier tests I’ve ever taken. At 18 and with no real will to drive, though, I still managed to fail the first time.

Cost of registering for an account with the Driving Centre where I took my test: $5.35

Cost of taking and retaking the test: $6 x 2 = $12

Cost of official Basic Theory Test handbook: $3.20

The second step after passing the Basic Theory Test is getting a Provisional Driving License, which student drivers need to get behind the wheel. While you do have to turn up to the Traffic Police Headquarters (on the second floor of the driving centre in a far-flung part of Singapore), there’s nothing to it besides bringing some form of ID along with you and waiting. Issue of the PDL is pretty much instantaneous, even with an eye test involved. PDLs cost $25 at first application and upon each subsequent renewal (they expire every six months).

Cost of Provisional Driving License: $25

In Singapore, there are two classes of license for motor cars, one for manual cars with clutch pedals and another for automated cars. While most cars these days are automated, I opted to learn to drive a manual car for the simple reason that the driving instructor I found has a manual car. I couldn’t just learn to drive on my parents’ car because, in Singapore, you have to be taught by a qualified driving instructor who can give lessons either privately or through an accredited driving centre. During my aborted attempt to learn to drive the first time around when I was 18 (then in an automated car), my driving instructor threw a fit because I was apparently “not driving in a straight line” and opened the car door periodically to show me what he meant, shrieking with terror when I took my eyes off the road to have a look at that strip of pavement he’d been gesturing towards.

This time, my instructor is Mr. P, a circumspect old man with the disarming habit of playing Chinese radio and sending text messages during our lessons. I’ve got no complaints though—he gives his lesson in a housing estate on the subway line where I live and where I go to work. He’s also amiable and patient (no shrieking about the straight line), and seems to know everyone we drive past during lessons. I have lessons for an hour twice a week now, and he’s promised to up the frequency soon.

Cost of first-time registration fee as Mr. P’s student: $50

Cost of actual driving lessons: $28 per hour x 2 times a week x it’s been a month now = $224

But the ordeal isn’t over yet: quite apart from the fact of having to register for a driving test and actually pass it, Singapore requires you to pass not just one theory test, but two. The Final Theory Test focuses on the actual mechanics of driving, as well as safe driving practices, and is more difficult than the basic. Desperate to pass on the first time this time, I spent the final three days before the test in an absolute frenzy of practice questions. “When in doubt,” my friend advised me, “Always opt for the safest option.” It was starting to feel as though the safest option was to stay at home and not drive.

I passed on the first try.

Cost of re-registering for an account with the Driving Centre to take the test, because my account expired sometime in the last five years: $5.35

Cost of taking the test: $6

Cost of an official Final Theory Test handbook: $3.70

I still have at least a month’s worth of driving lessons more to go, at a higher frequency than twice a week now I’ve passed my Final Theory Test. It costs another $20 to register for a practical exam. The latter is a cost that’s repeatable if I don’t pass on the first try, which is extremely possible.

Cost of more driving lessons: Let’s chuck another $420 at this (15 hour-long sessions)

Cost of registering for a practical exam: $20 at least

Estimated total costs = $774.60

Personally, I think it’s an unconscionable amount of money to spend, made possible by the fact that my parents let me hold off on paying them rent for these few months. I justify this to myself by pointing to the fact that they were so keen on my learning to drive in the first place.

For drivers in Singapore, the costs don’t just stop there: the requirement to bid for a Certificate of Entitlement when buying a car means that the costs of having a car in Singapore is the highest in the world. Additionally, Singapore’s aggressive road gantry system takes an expansive definition of what constitutes a “city centre” in exacting road tolls around high-traffic areas.

Despite perennial—and legitimate—grumbles about increasingly frequent train breakdowns, Singapore’s public transport system is one of the most reliable in the world. It is clean, safe, and relatively reasonably-priced (although this last is not a universal opinion, and it’s possible that London has just broken me forever). As a childless young professional in her 20s, I’d probably be very happy not owning a car for some time yet, although that may be a moot point since I definitely can’t afford one right now. I also live in a pretty central location, which makes getting around by public transport a joy rather than a chore.

Why then learn to drive? Don’t get me wrong—I’m still concerned about the environmental impact of car use and angry about the way cars seem to function as a mindless status symbol in a materialist, consumerist society. Neither am I at all keen, for the time being, to create a new generation of silently seething teenagers in the backseat. As always, the answer comes down to some combination of it being a genuinely useful skill and “making my parents happy.”

I don’t know that I believe in the freedom provided by road trips promised by so many American writers, sadly unattainable in an island nation that stretches 42 kilometres from east to west. But over the month or so that I’ve been learning to drive, I’ve come to genuinely enjoy my lessons. I take my lessons in Queenstown, the oldest public housing estate in Singapore. Beyond the windshield, that stolid, socialized architecture hearkening back to 1960s. Behind the wheel, a not particularly bright student driver at that point on the learning curve where every minute on the road enforces absolute concentration still, with the early-morning sun falling on the tarmac and the pavements blanketed with yellow petals from Flame of the Forest trees. I guess this will do for now.


Li Sian lives in Singapore, which is officially the world’s most expensive city. Follow her on Twitter here.



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