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With more than 100 signs to memorize and Germany’s odd right-of-way rules, taking the U.S. Army Europe driving test can be a daunting ordeal for newcomers to Germany.

With more than 100 signs to memorize and Germany’s odd right-of-way rules, taking the U.S. Army Europe driving test can be a daunting ordeal for newcomers to Germany. (Raymond T. Conway / S&S)

With more than 100 signs to memorize and Germany’s odd right-of-way rules, taking the U.S. Army Europe driving test can be a daunting ordeal for newcomers to Germany.

With more than 100 signs to memorize and Germany’s odd right-of-way rules, taking the U.S. Army Europe driving test can be a daunting ordeal for newcomers to Germany. (Raymond T. Conway / S&S)

Pfc. Tasha Craft takes the test for a U.S. Army Europe driver’s license in Darmstadt, Germany, last week.

Pfc. Tasha Craft takes the test for a U.S. Army Europe driver’s license in Darmstadt, Germany, last week. (Raymond T. Conway / S&S)

Meet the Mariotts and the Tanners, two couples recently arrived in Germany. Both ready, one recent afternoon in Heidelberg, to take the test they hoped would allow them to do something they’d been enjoying at home since age 16: drive.

Two couples, one test. If statistics held, three of the four would go home smiling.

But the fourth would be a licenseless failure.

The Mariotts, both 25, needed their U.S. Army Europe licenses as soon as possible so that Jacquelyn, who is seven months pregnant, could get to doctor appointments. They had studied their driver’s handbook and examination manual for Germany together, poring over the right-of-way rules, and together attended the mandatory pre-test class. But with different results.

“She gets it,” Sgt. Nick Mariott said of wife Jacquelyn. “I had to read it seven or eight times.”

Both passed, first try.

In a lobby near the testing room of the 26th Area Support Group, Dwayne Tanner, 37, relaxed after passing his test. The USAREUR computer specialist had taken a similar test many years before on a previous tour, when his job took him all over Germany.

You might think he’d get all the answers right. But you would be wrong. This time, Tanner said, there were more trick questions. “The true or false questions — they used to all be true,” he said.

His 29-year-old wife was one of the last to finish, emerging glumly from the testing room with red-rimmed eyes. Well? Tanner asked.

“Flunked,” she said, before stalking off to the restroom.

Each year at U.S. Army posts in Germany, thousands of Americans sit down for the lengthy test that will determine whether they can grasp Germany’s driving rules and hit the road. And each year, at least a quarter — and up to nearly a half of them — fail, depending on the post.

Do more men than women fail, or vice-versa? What about officers versus enlisted? Older versus younger? Authorities say they’ve noticed only one trend.

“It’s just a question of: are you prepared or are you not prepared?” said German driving instructor Juergen Maier in Heidelberg. “If you didn’t study, you will flunk, and that’s a fact.”

The test, which is about to become slightly shorter if not less daunting, is a rite of passage for the majority of military members and their spouses assigned to Germany. Passing the exam on Europe’s many road signs and right-of-way rules allows them to get a USAREUR license.

According to USAREUR, last month there were 246,000 USAREUR-licensed drivers — soldiers, other military members, Department of Defense civilians and family members. The license is good for five years.

Lt. Col Mark Landers, commander of the 233rd Base Support Battalion based in Darmstadt, said being licensed to drive in Germany is vital for numerous military missions. But he said, learning the German rules of the road is the most important thing for American drivers.

“We want all the soldiers to be safe on the roads,” he said. “And we owe it to the Germans. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it can be very dangerous.”

The test and class is provided by German driving instructors. According to Wef Lagenbeck, chief of driver testing for the 233rd BSB and a driving instructor for 34 years, it is not what it used to be.

From 1992 to 2000, he said, instructors based a four-hour class — twice as long as the current one — on slides and discussion.

Then the German government distributed a film with a German police officer discussing the driving dos and don’ts. It’s been required viewing ever since.

“The movie is wrong, unfortunately, in many parts,” Lagenbeck lamented. “I’ve sent [the German government] letters that they should change mistakes in the movie. Actually not too much happens.”

Lagenbeck also says the test is graded too easily. “If you miss 10 [out of more than 100 questions], you still get a license,” he said. “Convenience versus safety,” he said. “Those things don’t fit together.”

And what would really be a good idea, he said, is a road test.

Since 1992 at Darmstadt, he said, the failure rate has fluctuated between 20 percent and 29 percent, and usually hovers near 25 percent.

That makes it one of the most successful testing centers in Germany. In a quick sample of the last year’s statistics, Hanau’s 414th Base Support Battalion had a 45 percent failure rate; Wiesbaden’s 221st BSB recorded a 41 percent failure rate; and Mannheim’s 293rd BSB had a failure rate of 42 percent. Heidelberg had one of the best rate of BSBs sampled: 24.5 percent failed.

Many Americans report that the right-of-way questions are the most difficult to understand. Most agree, though, that the signs, which require memorization only, are not usually a problem unless the test takers are just not motivated to pass.

“What do you say when someone fails 32 signs out of 50?” driving instructor Bend Gemba at Darmstadt said. “What do you say?”

Spc. Echo Tanner has twice passed her sign test. But last week in Heidelberg, the military policewoman had failed the main test for the second time — with 16 wrong answers. Now, according to the rules, Tanner can’t take the test again for two weeks.

“I can’t give up because the [military occupational specialty] I have has to have a license,” she said.

Her platoon sergeant was understanding the first time she failed, she said, when she was still jet-lagged and slept through the class. She wasn’t sure what she was going to tell him this time.

One theory she was working on: “It just means I can learn my route better.”

USAREUR drivers tied to 6,041 accidents

Germany’s accident rates are higher than in the United States because there are more cars in less space, narrower streets and no speed limits on some stretches of autobahns, according to a U.S. Army Europe car insurance pamphlet.

There are no reliable statistics on whether Americans are involved in more car collisions than Germans.

Last year, 6,041 accidents involving cars registered to USAREUR drivers were reported both on and off bases in Germany, according to USAREUR spokesman Bob Purtiman.

— Nancy Montgomery

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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