7 Steps to Island Driving Mastery

Mastering the ins and outs of driving on an island is no small feat. As a newbie driver moving from the US to the British Virgin Islands, I was required to take the BVI’s written test in order to get a valid driver’s license. Even with a US driver’s license, it’s mandatory (ie. there’s no getting out of it!) if you have been on island for more than three months. And so, chocking it up as all a part of the adventure, I bought the book from the DMV.

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I studied voraciously, having heard that this test was a little on the crazy side (to say the least). I went in confident though – I’ve never flunked a test in my life after all. That is, until now. Yup, I failed. To my complete and total disbelief, I flunked. I may have even cried. I don’t know. What I do know is that in the test, you had to know a lot of arm signals. I was the crazy one in the test room flopping my arms around in all manner of directions, trying to make sense of it all. That may have done me in.

There were also some ridiculous questions I had to know the answers to that didn’t really seem applicable to me in any way. Questions like, “What cc bike is allowed on island?” I mean, really? Questions I considered much more important to actual driving here were strangely missing; questions like, “Is it legal to pass on a curve on a hill?” and “Is it legal to fly through a yellow/red light if no one is coming?” I shouldn’t have failed – I should be the one rewriting that darn test with some serious safety questions! Then we’ll see who passes and who fails.

To me, the real steps to actually getting the hang of driving on my rock were more practical than arm signals. Here are some of my Steps to Island Driving Mastery…

Step 1:

Become comfortable with driving on the lefthand side of the road. Stay hyper-aware of this until it becomes ingrained in your righthand brain.

Step 2:

Memorize where all of the unexpected, unmarked speed bumps are. Remember to slow down accordingly.

Step 3:

Commit to memory where all the car-eating potholes are, especially before they are filled with rain.

Step 4:

Understand that the opposing traffic also knows where all the car-eating potholes are on their side of the road and that they will more than likely swerve into your lane to avoid them. Always be prepared for evasive action.

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Step 5:

Know that the cabs and busses make frequent, un-signaled stops and will let their passengers out into the middle of traffic – not the street or sidewalk side, but right in the middle of the oncoming traffic.

Step 6:

Always be on the watch for the car that suddenly stops in the middle of a busy, two-lane highway to pick up a friend or two. Keep in mind that more often than not, this takes place on a bend in the road with limited visibility.

Step 7:

Mastering the roundabouts will be your greatest achievement – especially the roundabout with the pedestrian walk-through. Yes, you will have to stop in the middle of three lanes of convergent traffic for a pedestrian. It’s going to be okay.

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Though I have rarely witnessed an accident here, I have noticed that nearly every car on island has some amount of damage to it. The cars still run of course (some, barely) but it’s worth noting.

I have to say, with much belated satisfaction, I finally do get it and can now drive around my rock without gripping my steering wheel in a state of near panic. I also did eventually pass the test… seems like THREE times is the charm. That, or they just got tired of seeing me flapping my arms around in their office. No matter. Whatever it takes.
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10 thoughts on “7 Steps to Island Driving Mastery

  1. Wise advice! and, oh so true about the test in the BVI.I took it about 15 years ago. It was also the first test I ever failed. BUT the second time round the ladies in the office helped me pass it. I won’t tell now how –don’t look at my name.Don’t tell anyone. If they knew who I was, no one would ever help me again and I could not drive on this rock. A bad fate for we live in the middle of nowhere here.Since all our fruit bearing trees have withered and saved their energy to stay alive, not to bear fruit,I would have to, car-less, starve to death!

  2. I’m so impressed by any American driving on the wrong side, period – stupidly I hadn’t imagined that Tortola had British style driving roads (duh on me :-)P _ ) ..- good on you for passing that test! Are the hand signals so complex there? We had three I remember from US driving school- left, right turn, and stop- more than that ? On my island my biggest lesson was learning to SLOW DOWN. The limit here is 30 (km/hour) but often people go 50, and the average speed is 40. (again, km,not as perky a speed as you;d imagine) I used to come here and “drive like a local”- ie, very very fast, in the 15 years I vacationed here before making the move- then after I moved here I started hearing the stories of friends or family of friends who died or had disfiguring accidents which were solved by doctors on an island not here, where one is airlifted to,as the local hospital is far too small – and during a storm in hurricane season, for example, that can mean waiting too long. On the happy side of life, I love picking up hitchhikers (population here around 8000, one of safer places to do it, you can not be annonymous here ! the coconut wireless has a police channel) , I’ve learned so much about the island and history and other people from those brief conversations 🙂

  3. Terrific article, Lissa, and oh, so true. I especially enjoyed your 7 steps to driving safely, particularly #4, having just done my weekly town trip yesterday. I probably sat for 5 minutes while 10 cars came into my lane to avoid a pothole in theirs. However, it was my fault. I made the mistake of slowing down just a little, and that’s all it took for the other drivers to take charge and move on down the road…on my side of the road, that is!

  4. Learn how to parallel park or spend the $$ for the public lot. And know that by-standers, especially male, will jump right in to tell you how to do it. I once emptied a whole barber shop while trying to park on the street outside. No fewer than 3 men were trying to tell me–all at the same time–just how much to turn the wheel, when to back up, etc.

  5. And now in the BVI both a written test and a road test is required for new residents with a valid driver’s license from another country! Thank goodness we were able to just take the written test Elissa!!! Great article!

  6. Lissy—– And, here I thought you had a full time chauffer. “Wrong side” driving in those roundabouts takes amazing concentration, with or without pedestrian crossings. Keep flappin’ those arms when you are up for license renewal! Cheers, G.

  7. Question – say you’re in the BVIs for four months but you don’t want to get a BVI driver’s license. Can you just go somewhere else (like the USVI) for a week before the 3-month mark hits and then, upon your return to the BVIs, start fresh with a new 3-month period?

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