Driving us mad

An immigrant doctor finds it easier to convert his medical license than his driver's license.

classic car 88 248 (photo credit: Jerrin K. Zumberg)
classic car 88 248
(photo credit: Jerrin K. Zumberg)
I am a mid-30s oleh with three children working to support a successful aliya. And so it frustrates me to no end that, after 17 years of driving in the US and at least 10 years running without any moving violations, I find myself spending an extraordinary amount of time and money on the simple task of converting a US license. The irony is palpable. Israel has historically had more traffic fatalities per vehicle and per kilometer driven than most other Western countries. Its 1.99 fatalities per 10,000 vehicles in 2007, though improved from years prior, continues to be higher than the US's 1.6 fatalities per 10,000 vehicles. And using 2006 data, this country, with more expensive fuel and shorter commutes, still had a fatality rate per kilometer that was 6 percent higher than that in the US. The driver's licensing process is an aspect of aliya that sorely needs change. Although called "conversion" (hamara), it is never just that. It begins with the optician, who sells the official licensing form (tofes yarok) and the eye exam, continues with a visit to your doctor, who should list on this form any and all medical conditions you may have, and then proceeds to the Licensing Bureau (Misrad Harishui). With a valid US license and bureau approval, you can take the form to an official government instructor who arranges for lessons and for the test. The number of lessons required is at the discretion of the instructor and the test itself varies by tester: one oleh wrote that his test comprised of "four consecutive left turns which was around the block." I STARTED my licensing process shortly after arriving, and have found it significantly easier to obtain a medical license (which was more of a pure conversion) than a driver's license. I wanted to quantify the collective experience of my cohort, US olim, and wrote a quick 10 question survey that I posted on three different aliya e-mail listservs. The survey targeted American olim who arrived in the last 10 years and, despite flaws such as selection and recall bias, the results were surprising. Who are we? Of the 50 respondents, two-thirds had been driving in the US for more than 20 years prior to making aliya, 10 percent had been driving in the US for 15-20 years and 18% had been driving for 10-15 years. In the seven years prior to aliya, 76% had not received a single ticket, 20% received one ticket and 4% received two. So how did US drivers fare with Israeli testers? Only 71% (n=48) passed their first driving test. Of those who failed, four were never told why. One failed because he held the steering wheel too high while two others failed because they followed the instruction of the tester who had intentionally led him or her to turn into the wrong end of a one-way street. At the end of the day, the majority of those who failed the first test failed the second test as well. There was a wide range of time and money spent on this conversion process, ranging from three-four hours to 48 hours, and from NIS 400 to NIS 3,000, with the majority spending over NIS 1,000. Similarly, there was a wide range in preparation for the exam: 23% had less than half an hour of instruction, 40% had a half-hour to an hour of instruction and 19% had more than two hours of instruction. Half of the respondents who listed any medical condition on the licensing form saw a delay of two to four months before moving forward with the licensing process. An overwhelming majority of respondents felt that the test served no purpose, was subjective at best and corrupt at worst. Some testers are perceived to have "arrangements" with instructors that result in a very high pass rate for students of that instructor; a certain tester (this was related to me by an instructor) passed a testee on the basis of being an attractive, blonde, Russian female. In 68% of cases, the tester neither introduced himself nor showed any identification. Wrote one respondent, "Any reform to this degrading and humiliating process would be much appreciated by future olim." Others called the process "ridiculous," "horrific," "a racket," "a money-making scheme" and "absolutely and by far the worst of all my challenging aliya experiences." An easy first step to encouraging aliya would be to reciprocate the driver's licenses of olim from Western countries. The writer is a physician who came to Israel from Atlanta in September, 2008 and settled in Modi'in with his wife and three daughters.