The Dale Earnhardts and Me

American license no more. Diel sadly parts with an old friend. Source: Photo: Jacques-Alain Finkeltroc

Many Americans drive illegally in Estonia with what they believe to be valid licenses, and the issue resurfaced this week in the tabloids after an expat writer was pulled over on his way back from the Robbie Williams concert. A rush to judgment ensued, but the full story may not be so simple, as another expat, US-born former ERR News correspondent Scott Diel, found in an account originally published here two years ago this week.  


What can be caused by drugs? (a) Intoxication. (b) Addiction. (c) Permanent improvement of physical and mental qualities.

It may be urban legend, but it’s said the first person to be busted for driving illegally in Estonia on a US driver’s license was an American priest. He was given a citation, fined 1,200 euros, and sent on his way. Walking.

Thanks to that priest, or at least his legend, more Americans are now aware that their American licenses are not valid after they’ve been a legal resident of Estonia longer than 12 months.

(According to the Estonian police, the offense is a misdemeanor and offending drivers are prohibited from driving further. The maximum penalty is 1,200 euros, “but it always depends on the circumstances and statements given during the proceeding.” Which makes you wonder about that priest.)

Those who wait longer than 12 months are required to attend an Estonian driving school. This, until July 1 of this year, meant several hundred euros for a theory course and 21 academic hours (45-minute units) behind the wheel with an instructor — a rather imposing sentence for experienced drivers. 

But on July 1, 2011, the law changed. A non-EU license, though still not valid for driving, now relieves you of 21-hours beginning with “Here’s how to adjust the mirrors.” The experienced American driver may now take a three-hour driving theory course and spend two hours behind the wheel. 

It is certainly arrogant to admit, but there is no doubt still a question on foreigners’ minds: What could Estonian driving school possibly teach me? How to drive like the outlaw maniac in a Hollywood action film?

I decided to take advantage of the mercy of the new law and find out. I would put away my jingoism and embrace the reasonableness of the new law. I would get an Estonian license. 

Instruction for solving. At the time of solving the correctness of all the proposed answers has to be considered...

My attempts to find a driving school in Tallinn were rebuffed by indifferent, sleepy-eyed drones: “We don’t know about the new law…,” “We haven’t developed the course yet…,” or simply “No.” But most just never bothered to answer the phone or return my emails. Finally, I found a kind soul willing to take my money. 

“I’ve taught foreigners before,” he said. And he had.

While in front of me at a chalkboard or next to me in the passenger seat, he explained the difference between a line and a lane. He explained why a right-hand turn into the left-hand lane is legal. That there is no blind spot in your side-view mirrors if properly adjusted. When backing up, it’s better to face forward and use your mirrors. Park the car in neutral. And, if only for me, I should more aggressively enter unregulated intersections with the right of way under the right-hand rule. 

Five hours of instruction later, I still felt the American defensive driving approach allowed for fewer accidents, and I was not convinced local laws were ideal for unencumbered traffic flow. But the instructor had made perfect sense in the local context, and he’d not once asked me to drive like Starsky and Hutch.

Diploma in hand, I was ready to enter the system. 


Which of the following damage to property is indemnified on the basis of the Motor Third Party Liability Insurance Act? (a) Damages caused by damage or destruction of the thing


The English-language exam questions may not have been authored by Borat, but it’s clear he consulted on the job. 

Some are nonsensical at worst and confusing at best. I even encountered two people who told me they’d offered to rewrite the questions at no charge to the Estonian government. 

“The Maanteeamet [Road Administration] told me that they were ‘happy with the questions as they are,’” said a native English speaker (a writer) who passed the exam and then offered to correct the questions. A driving instructor I spoke with said he had also offered to rewrite the questions using actual English, but was told by the Maanteeamet that it was forbidden as it would entail them divulging classified information. 

What must be considered when doing farm work? (a) Muddy roads... 

Indeed. Secrets.

Somewhat surprising in the e-state, an appointment for the written exam must be booked well in advance. When the day arrives, one is ushered into a room with about 20 other students, who all sit in front of computer terminals.

The exam I received, unfortunately, was not one from the book of exams sold in Estonian bookstores. But Borat’s imprint was unmistakable. 

After completing the exam, I reviewed the questions I’d missed and thought I’d found a clear case of mistranslation.

“Excuse me,” I beckoned the proctor. “I think there’s a mistake with this question. It is counted wrong, but I believe I got it right.”

“But you passed,” she replied.

I acknowledged that, but said I was worried about the next guy who takes the test. 

“Do you want to see the supervisor?” she asked, a bit put off that I’d press the issue.

“I just thought you’d like to know that there may be a problem with the test.”

“You passed,” she repeated. She, too, it appeared, was happy with the questions the way they were.

How should you behave when you are driving with high beams and a wild animal suddenly appears? (“Pull over, get out your firearm” is not one of the choices.)

I wanted the long-haired dude. Of all the driving examiners assembled around their Toyotas for the pre-exam smoke, the longhair looked like the one you might want to hang out with, a regular guy without sadistic hobbies, someone who didn’t stay up nights devising elaborate new ways to fail you. 

The others looked threatening. Late 50s. Chain smokers. Grumpy countenances. The almost disenfranchised. The Soviet Lost Generation.

The examiners and their system used to be known for creativity and flexibility. Some years ago, an American friend of mine who showed up to take the driving exam on a snowy day was asked if he really felt like driving. He didn’t. Neither did the examiner, and he was passed without driving. In 2009, another friend somehow charmed his way through the process without taking a single exam — his American license was simply exchanged, no questions asked.

But times have changed, and things are no longer so easy. There are cameras in the exam cars, and with unemployment in Estonia at 13.3 percent, fewer state employees are likely up for bending the rules. 

Alas, I did not get the long-haired dude. 

The examiner took me to the Õismäe roundabouts. Within 15 minutes I had failed.

“He surely wanted to fail you right away,” a driving instructor I consulted told me later. She said the Õismäe roundabouts are known for a high number of traffic accidents: paint on the roads is worn away, traffic signs are missing, and the streets are as if the Luftwaffe had bombed them.

She also told me that the failure rate for first-time test takers is 50 percent. Although I was driving in Õismäe on streets I’d never seen before, I cannot cry unfair. I was legitimately failed.

What are the characteristics of a good driver? (b) They use every opportunity for overtaking, shaking off other vehicles and showing their superiority. (c) They drive temperamentally in order to prove their abilities.

“It looks like the next time available is October,” said the lady at Tallinn DMV after I’d returned to book my second attempt at the driving exam. It was early August and she was doing her best to help me. But such was the demand to take the driving exam. 

“Well,” she added after some time. “I did have someone cancel for next Monday. Or is that too soon?”

What can cause visual hallucinations? (a) Tiredness. (b) Driving at night. (c) Driving at dusk. 

I still wanted the long-haired dude, but it just wasn’t in the cards.

Though his hair was closely cropped, the examiner could not have been kinder. He gave me a civilized route, on streets I had seen before. A couple of roundabouts, but nothing complicated. Just civilized driving. 

“What’s your assessment?” he asked me at the end.

Normaalne.” I answered, employing the Estonian word which means more like “as it should be.”

“There was one place where the settlement ended where you could have driven 90.” 

“Where?” I hadn’t seen it at all.

“The sign was on the left side of the road with bushes around it.” He seemed to sympathize and added that the road there was terrible and wasn’t fit for 90.

“Was that my only mistake?” 

“Maybe you were 25 centimeters from the curb, instead of 20.”

“So I failed?” 

He clicked a box on his open laptop and slapped the return key. “No, you pass. Pick up your license in a week.” 

“A week?” I protested.

“But this is the e-state,” he said. “You’re in the system already, and you can drive with another ID.”

I suppressed the urge to celebrate. After all, I was a 46-year-old who’d had a license since he was 14. It should have been no big deal. But having driven illegally for almost 20 years, I felt a great deal of relief. “Thanks,” I said to the examiner. He couldn’t have known how much I meant it.

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