Having taken lessons in Scotland aged 18 and again at 24, I failed on a total of four occasions and promptly gave up, until signing up again to learn in Dubai earlier this year.
Many, many thousands of dirhams later — I’ll tell you how much at the end — I’ve finally been allowed onto the roads, after passing on my second attempt.
But as I’m finding out, the learning process continues long after you’re able to legally drive. Passing and becoming a good driver on this country’s often wild roads are two different things.
For fellow beginners, here are a couple of humble tips that I can offer.
Get the basics right
At the very start of my first road exam, in the driving school car park in Al Quoz, the RTA examiner asked me to switch the car on.
And I had no idea. That was after 18 two-hour lessons over three months.
As daft as it sounds, the car had always been running when I got in. This keyless vehicle had a start button.
Floundering, I figured out I had to put the car in standby by pushing the ignition once, then pressing down the brake again and the ignition button again to start the engine.
It was a bad start to a bad first test, and I went on to make other mistakes and received a fail.
Early on in your lessons, ask if you can pop open the bonnet and see the engine. Make sure you understand the fundamentals of the car too.
Rules of the road
I spent weeks chipping away at 10 hours of online video classes for the mandatory theory course, which is sat before you ever get into a car.
And I could answer most of the questions correctly, passing the first time around. But I didn’t really understand the roads — at all.
Take your time to understand with your instructor which lane to use on a roundabout and who has right of way in any given situation.
When you start your driving classes, it is assumed that you understand how the road system works and instructors tend to skip over the obvious.
Master the lane change – and take your lessons at rush hour
Squeezing between fast-moving SUVs and construction trucks to change lanes doesn’t come naturally.
Your inclination is to cautiously hang back. That’s one of the main mistakes examiners look for and fail students for.
Being cautious is a virtue but slowing down and nervously hovering into the next lane? It’s even more dangerous.
I booked all of my later lessons at rush hour and tackled the problem head-on, switching lanes in aggressive traffic until it clicked. Eventually, I tackled Al Khail Road, Mohamed bin Zayed Road and Emirates Road, all during rush hour.
Learn how to drive, not just learn how to pass
Some instructors spend a lot of time telling you what to expect in the test and how to pass it.
You’re there to learn how to drive.
Don’t be afraid to ask to go over the basics again and again, and ask why you’re being taught certain things. I did four night-time driving classes instead of the mandatory one, which helps to get used to hazards.
When it came to the high-speed motorway lessons, normally done before your first test, I asked for two instead of one.
By the time you sit your test, the examiner will see a calm and confident student behind the wheel.
Check your blind spot
It’s the cause of many accidents, including fatal ones. Last year, 22 motorbike riders died and 253 were hurt on Dubai’s roads.
And they can often be found hovering around your blind spots. A quick shoulder check can make the difference between life and death.
And finally, you can’t do much to avoid bad or aggressive drivers – they’re everywhere – but you can stick to the rules and keep yourself safe.
How much does it cost to learn?
For a total beginner, you’ll need 20 hours of lessons as mandatory, which are packaged into two-hour lessons. If you have a licence from back home, you can do an automatic switch from some countries, while others, such as India and Pakistan, require five or 10 hours of lessons and a test to be sat.
The main driving schools such as Emirates Driving Institute (EDI), Belhasa Driving Centre and Galadari, charge about Dh4,500 to Dh5,500 for a course, once fees and various permits are added in.
You have to pay more for extra lessons, and if you fail you’re required to do four hours of learning before sitting the test again.
Most of the schools offer fast-track courses in luxury vehicles. I paid about Dh22,500 for EDI’s all-inclusive platinum course — far, far more than I ever planned to.
Towards the end, the RTA brought in new costs for luxury courses only meaning you must pay Dh1,100 for each test, and I took two tests to pass.
It’s an extremely expensive way to learn.
What’s the pass rate?
According to instructors, the RTA road test pass rate is just under 50 per cent, or precisely 46 per cent when I asked.
For the gold/platinum courses that the schools offer, which include unlimited lessons, it is claimed that the pass rate is more than 80 per cent, meaning that the vast majority pass on the first or second attempt, owing to extra lessons and more tailored instruction.
What’s the test like?
It is 10 to 15 minutes of driving in Al Quoz or Al Qusais with an RTA road test examiner, which is a profession reserved for Emiratis.
Normally you sit your parking test separately in a closed car park earlier in your course, then at the end sit a driving-only test. In the course I did, you do both together in one test.
Some of the driving schools still put several students forward in the same car – a real quirk of the system – so that you rotate for the examiner.
If you fail, don’t panic. Listen to the feedback from the examiner, it will help you to pass next time.