When it comes to going places, I’m with Thoreau. ‘True and sincere travelling,’ he wrote, ‘is no pastime, but it is as serious as the grave, or any part of the human journey, and it requires a long probation to be broken into it.’ I look upon the journey of my life, from the flat earth of the Mississippi Delta to the flatlands of Suffolk, and feel as true and sincere as a traveller can be.
I have no longing for remote places, messy money, pilgrims progressing. And yet, from the minute I handed over my driver’s licence and passport in the Bury St Edmunds post office and saw them disappear inside a silver plastic envelope addressed to the DVLA in Swansea, I felt as trapped as a terrier in a rabbit hole.
What led me to this stateless crossroads was a misunderstanding. I got it into my head that
I was required to replace my dog-eared, faceless paper British driver’s licence with an up-to-date one with a photograph. I believed that hanging on to the pale pink version was like clinging to your French francs. The day would come when they were no longer valid currency and you’d be out in the cold, unable to buy a baguette or legally sit behind a steering wheel.
I put it off for quite a few years because the procedure seemed rather complicated. Not sending off my old (and frankly never very convincing) licence with a cheque for £20, but surrendering my passport and waiting ‘around’ two weeks for its return. All invitations to an improviste weekend in Paris or a whimsical adventure in Rouen are on hold as I wait for another silver envelope to arrive from Swansea.
In fact, it turns out that there is no expiry date for the paper licence in this country. Despite my libertarian leanings, I think that’s a mistake. There are many merits to the driver’s licence that is the size of a credit card, longer-lasting than most cars and graced with a photograph of yourself, and the greatest of these is an identity. In America, a 25 year old without a driver’s licence is considered a candidate for institutionalised care. Your driver’s licence is your everything.
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It’s your passport to paying by cheque and, increasingly, by credit card. When you’re 18, it’s your ‘proof’ and your ticket to The Godfather and Pulp Fiction, although not to Samuel Adams, Pinot Noir or car rental, which all require waiting until you’re 21, when you can present your ‘proof’ with pride.
Because the USA has no national identity card but does have a lot of cars, the driver’s licence has become a de facto form of identification. Drivers must always carry their licence with them when driving (also true in New Zealand, Canada and most countries in Europe). This makes stopping speeding drivers and identifying injured people in accidents a great deal easier. It also makes catching illegal drivers and illegal others easier as well.
When the last Government embarked on its identity-card scheme, I thought someone might have thought that, instead of spending £10 billion to £20 billion (the cost estimated by the LSE), issuing all drivers with a photo driver’s licence and requiring drivers to carry it with them when they were driving would have been a sensible, cost-free start. And if you don’t drive? In most American states, you can go to the same agency that issues driver’s licences and obtain a state identification card. It offers the same security and identification without any driving privileges.
It all seems so simple and so obvious that there must be a catch. To those who think carrying a driver’s licence when driving is an infringement of their human rights, I advise them to avoid driving in France. As of last week, it’s now compulsory to carry a breathalyser kit, a luminous vest, a warning triangle, a GB sticker, a motor-insurance certificate, headlamp converters and both paper and photocard parts of a UK driver’s licence. Because travelling is as serious as the grave.
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