Driving in the Netherlands: Time for revolution

A while ago I decided to learn driving. I felt it could make my life here in The Netherlands a bit nicer: it would make me more independent, allow me to bring home a lot of groceries from the supermarket, and give me a chance to make some good road trips (short ones, I admit: this country after all is not too big). So I grabbed the phone, took some test drives with different schools, compared the prices (my goodness, can I keep the car after I get my license?) and in the end chose for a well reputed driving school in the heart of Utrecht. So far so good, you think? Yep, but keep on reading.

Driving car (not my driving car!)
Driving car (not my driving car!)


Now before I continue, let me explain you first something more about the Dutch. Tall, funny and at times considerably handsome as they might be, they also are a bunch of extremely careful people. The Dutch nature is known to be extremely risk avoiding: by a complex web of rules, insurances, social security systems and contracts, the chances of any undesired event is reduced to a minimum. Thinking I am exaggerating? Then just read the books of well-established cultural researchers like Hofstede and Trompenaars: they actually are from Holland, so surely they can know.

Anyways, back to the main topic of today: driving classes in the Netherlands. The first shock, of course, was the huge hourly tariff, but that would be fine, as long as you would just get your driving license after 10 or 15 hours. Anyone can learn to control a car in that time, right?

Perhaps in a less risk avoiding country, but not in the Netherlands. Because once you got a good control of your car, the real fun starts: the instructor starts the process of making you a clone of him: a human being that acts, looks, talks and breaths exactly as  he would do if he was driving. In fact, my trainer got extremely displeased if my personality (sorry that I have one!) would tell me to even divert one inch away from the perfect driver he had in mind. Occasionally I asked him questions like: why do you need me to check in the mirror four times even if I have seen at the first time already it is safe to change lanes? Why can I not look over my left instead of over my right shoulder when driving backwards, if I find that more convenient? The man would look at me for some time, shake his head and then say: “I am just preparing you for your exam, okay? After that you can do it just the way you want”.

The researcher in me started to come in. Why my driver tried to make me a photocopy of himself? Was it just me? Or was it something other expats were struggling with as well? As to find out the question on those two crucial questions I started a small survey.

The replies, without exception, were all the same. Yes, quite some of the people I spoke to had experiences with Dutch driving classes. Almost everyone said that they took only a few hours to learn car control, they were very good with clutch, stirring, brake and accelerator; in fact, some of them already had considerate experiences in their home country. They felt they knew all about speed limits, signs, rules and all the other special actions such as parking, going up and down, etc. soon enough. And then they added “at least according to me”. Not according to their instructor, who still felt their style was too unique for the Dutch roads. And that’s why they keep on driving, week after week, maniacally looking into their mirrors and over their shoulders, just to show their trainer that they can drive and they could do their exam…

And then came the biggest shock.

I started to observe some of my Dutch friends who had their driving license. I observed their hand and eye actions closely. I looked at the sequence of their mirror looking behavior. I investigated on the moment they would switch their indicators on. Just like my teacher told me? No way: they held their steer with one hand if not less (“Poonam! Both hands at the steer! Always!”), they switched lanes with the use of indicators at their will (“Poonam! That was a side movement! Indicators! Indicators”) and they standardly added 20 km/h to any maximum speed given, unless there were camera’s.

Driving students sometimes must feel like a obedient dog?
Driving students sometimes must feel like a obedient dog?


So if even the Dutchies are changing their style of driving after they got their driving license, then why the instructors and the examiners are stressing so much on this extreme predefined style of driving? Is it just so that they can earn more money from you? I, and perhaps I am extremely naïve here, do not believe in that. It must be that well known characteristic, extreme degree of uncertainty avoidance.

Of course I am no one to say anything here, but I, Poonam Sharma, I have a dream. I dream of a country that is providing driving classes in which the drivers can develop their own unique technique that fits with their style and preferences. As long as the rules and regulations are followed, and no one is being killed, I believe that would be perfectly fine. And probably people will be far better to anticipate and react if they can drive the way they like it – anyways they are going to do so once they get their license.

Waiting for D-day
Waiting for D-day


Message to our beloved, careful instructors and examiners who are responsible for this system: be brave and stop making clones of yourself! Let’s make this world more mobile!

Yes we can!


  1. Nothing surprising in what you describe. I come from Greece, a much more risk-inclined country than the Netherlands, and what you describe applies 100% for Greek driving instructors/examiners too.

    Your teacher didn’t try to make you “a photocopy of himself”. He just tried to teach how to drive safely and have you succeed in the exams. That’s what you pay him for. That’s what he is respected for.

    Because driving examinations is that: examinations. Examiners are there to verify this one specific thing: that you can drive without posing a danger to the rest of us. It’s not a talent show where you will demonstrate your driving ingenuity. They won’t give you any kind words, useful advice or props for trying.

    And most important, succeeding does not make you a good driver. It’s just like succeeding in a written exam because you knew exactly what the questions would be. Nothing to brag about, really.

    PS. Looking over your left shoulder while driving backwards a left-hand drive car is really dangerous. I hope you just made this up and don’t seriously consider doing it.

  2. You’re confusing being able to operate a car in a remote part of the desert with navigating it safely through traffic in busy cities. The frustration with this whole process is (in my opinion) exactly why this whole process is there in the first place. To prevent you from driving a car just because you think you can do it. The driving is not the hard part, the being aware of everything while driving is and clearly you do not understand that yet. Maybe a few more lessons are not such a bad idea.

  3. A very good article connecting personal experience and social theory (I love Hofstede, did you read Lewis culture model, too?). Just by going across the border we find an extremely different driving licensing process. In Belgium, you can learn to drive with anyone who has a license, like your parents or older siblings. No special instructors, let alone pricey driving course! In Germany, if you have a license from other country that cannot be exchanged with German license, you just need to take a couple of lessons to make sure you’re ready for the exam. In Netherlands, even if you have a license for so many years already, this is what you’ll hear after your driving test, “Dude, you’re not ready at all! I prescribe you 20 lessons.” This happens to holders of Australian and American license. The instructor may say “Back home you don’t have bikes on the road.”

  4. As of yet, I still have not received my license. I started the process in April- and even though I do not have to take an exam (I qualified for the 30% exemption or whatever it is due to my husband’s job) I have been through this absolutely insane bureaucratic process between my city hall and the cbw. The good news, is that as of the other day I finally received the paper photocopy that my license has been approved and is in process. When will it all be over? Not sure. But this has been one of the most insane processes I have ever experienced in my life.

  5. […] The Dutch driving licence is among the most universally accepted thanks to the Netherlands being part of the EU. It is also, however, among the most difficult to obtain. An exacting testing process combined with solid infrastructure mean that Dutch roads are some of the safest in the world (Dutch Road Safety). The ubiquity of public transport may cause you to use a car only rarely, but as I rediscovered recently, road trips have an otherworldly joy of their own. If you are from outside the EU your existing driver’s licence is unfortunately only valid for a period of 6 months (I have heard from some friends that they were able to rent a car even after this period, but I cannot confirm that this is legal). I passed my test for a Dutch driving licence a few months ago (fun fact – this means I now have driver’s licence in 3 countries but own nothing more than a bicycle) and I think it would be useful to explain the major steps of the process. Bear with me here, because this story about ‘How to get a Dutch driving licence?’ is going to be a long ride. […]

  6. Yes, the basic of driving a car can be taught/learnt in only a few lessons. But driving lessons are meant to prepare a student for driving *safely* which – yeah I guess – has a lot to do with the Dutch being controlfreaks. Being aware of the different situations you can encounter in traffic and learning how to deal with them safely. And being safe involved checking you mirrors lots of times, too… but it shouldn’t be about those mirrors, it should be about your awareness of the traffic around you. To be able to drive safely you need a little experience, at least according to the Dutch. In the eyes of a Dutchie, a system like in Belgium or the US where a teenager can just drive with any ol’ licensed adult seems highly, highly irresponsible. But that’s just culture. I never really looked up any facts about which system works better in the end..

  7. You sound like exactly the type of driver I always hope to avoid, overly confident in your own abilities and more worried about looking casual than driving as well as possible. If the ‘researcher in you’ researched why there are many specifics of learning to drive such as excess mirror checking, you would have learnt a lot

  8. Did you payd attention to what 1st commenter sayd ?
    You article was tooked as a good behaviour of this new generations and guess what ….
    Now 8 years after you wroted this article, your driving skills becomed more accurate, probably, i say probably because we do not know.
    Look better on this days traffic, 98% of the accidents are created and mounted by young unexperienced guys hwo took your article as a state of the art of driving. Everyday we see unexperienced young people with powerfull cars, reading sms, talking on phones, being distracted by gps and alot of mistakes.
    The most common, leaving the column, to jump in front of other drivers, just to win 10 car ahead and creating more traffic jam…. plix plox milenials or Xlrnial, or whatever your nicknames are on this days. Later you will become the next judges hwo will say ( when you will be over 50), come ooon ASO !


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