Monday 28 May 2018

ET... Don't Phone Home

Don't phone while driving... sounds easy doesn't it?  Car moving, phone down.  As Aleksandr Orlov would say "Simples".  Or is it?

Driving implies moving but it is just as illegal, just as unwise and carries exactly the same penalties if you use the phone whilst stationary at traffic lights, in a line of traffic or stopped at the side of the road (unless parked with the engine off).  There is no correlation between driving and moving; you can be driving and be stationary at the same time.  That's what the law is and using your phone whilst driving is breaking the law. 

It's also unwise.  If you ring someone and they are busy, they'll most likely ring you back.  What do you then do?  Answer the phone or try ringing them back?  Ok, take the easy option and text them.  What happens then?  They text you back even if it's just to say 'OK' and you will be tempted to look at it on the move.  It's only a short message, it won't take long to look at.  Oh, hang on, it's longer than I expected.  Could I pop into the shop and get some...?  You see, if we initiate a conversation we have no idea how long that conversation may take.  Isn't it better not to start the conversation in the first place?

Learning to drive?  You know not to use your phone.  That's great but did you know that the person supervising you is subject to the same law as you, the driver?  That means that if they use their phone while you are driving, moving or not, they are breaking the law and the penalties for them are the same as if they were driving.  So no texting, ringing, surfing or playing angry birds for them while you are driving.  Incidentally, they also cannot be over the drink/drive limit or asleep...

If one of your passengers either takes a photo which requires you to pose or decides to show you a meme, video, photo or post whilst you are driving it would be very unwise and I suspect the police would take a very dim view in the event of any resulting driving incident.

Finally, although it is legal to use a hands-free mobile phone it has to be completely hands-free requiring little or no manual intervention by the driver.  You must remain completely in control of the vehicle at all times.  I'm not sure that reading or initiating texts or anything else would allow such a level of control and even initiating a call might not.  To be honest, I would avoid making any calls from the vehicle unless it could be initiated legally before starting the journey or during it.  Receiving calls is the least dangerous but be careful not to be distracted by the contents of the call.  Texts and any other electronic communication I would ignore.

Above all, stay safe out there.  Concentrate on the road and driving.  Cars are cheap, lives are not.

Monday 2 October 2017

Clever Cars or Dumbing Down?

The inexorable rise in technology has now well and truly invaded the modern motor vehicle.  I doubt that Henry Ford, Karl Benz or Gottlieb Daimler would ever have envisioned the types of horseless carriage that now roll off the average production line but in our 21st century world it is another opportunity for clever technology.  If a human can do it, then a human can program a computer to do it.  So we have automatic windscreen wipers, automatic lights, parking sensors, automatic braking systems, cruise control, GPS locators, Bluetooth, ESP, ABS, tyre pressure sensors, self parking systems etc., the list goes on.  Furthermore, after 125 years of the internal combustion engine, improved and refined many times but never replaced, we now have a viable, practicable and available alternative, the fully electric motor car.

Everything is good, yes?  Well, maybe.  Technology is great and I love having a car with gadgetry all over it - it makes my life easier, it's impressive and it's fun too!  I use it - all the time - and I love it.  I've started to depend on it.  If the parking sensor bleeps at me, I know to take a look; otherwise pah, nothing's there!  Cruise control on the dual carriageway - so easy.  Hill Assist - great, no need for the handbrake.  Windscreen wipers and headlights are always on automatic.  Driving just gets easier and easier.  But herein lies the danger, a very real danger - when technology takes over and I just let it. 

Some unsophisticated tribes around the world believe that if you take a photo of them you take away part of the individual.  They become less.  Can the same happen with technology?  Does a dependence on it mean that we become less as individuals?  Less willing perhaps?  Less able?  As we rely on technology to do things for us, is there a danger that we will prefer not to do it for ourselves?  Maybe we will lose the physical ability to do it or even forget how to do it.  If we don't use a particular muscle, it weakens.  That's fine - if we don't and won't ever want or need to use that muscle again.  But what if we do?  What if we might have to in the future?  What if the technology isn't available?  What if it's broken, or obsolete?  What if we simply don't want to use the technology but prefer to do it ourselves?  Maybe we will be able to; maybe we won't.

Furthermore, I believe that the relentless march of technology into modern driving is at least partially responsible for the decline in driving standards.  Take the satnav for example.  Why do people use them?  To get to places they don't know.  It seems reasonable to me - we used to read maps - but each to their own.  So, why do people use it driving to and from work?  To be informed of traffic conditions?  Rather than actually reading the road?  To be informed about prevailing speed limits?  Rather than reading the road!  Perhaps to avoid having to think for themselves!  Reading the satnav is not the same as reading the road.  It won't tell you that the traffic lights have just turned red ahead.  Could this be why more drivers jump red lights these days?  It won't tell you that someone's heading for the zebra crossing and you need to stop.  Could this be why not all drivers give way at zebras?  It won't tell you which lane to use on a roundabout.  Could this be why drivers' lane discipline is so poor these days?  It won't tell you about the correct speed to go round a bend.  Could this be why seeing Corsas in hedgerows is commonplace?  It won't tell you about the slippery road surface ahead.  It won't tell you what effect the weather is having?  It won't tell you about road conditions?  It won't always tell you about temporary speed limits, road works, broken down vehicles and other hazards.  It won't tell you about the kid that's just run into the road right in front of your car.  Oh, hang on, that's what the automatic braking system is for, isn't it?

Wednesday 21 June 2017

Safer Cars?

Manufacturers are constantly evolving the motor car to give us, the consumer, a better, safer, more convenient and more comfortable drive.  Many of the features incorporated today do just that.  For example, built-in satnavs, electric seats, windscreen heaters and eco stop/start are all things which make for a more pleasant driving experience.

However, as the designers constantly tweak aspects of the car there is a risk that they start to compromise the most important aspect of driving, that of road safety.  I wonder whether they are now pushing the boundaries so far that it is actually having the opposite effect to that desired.  To take a simple but significant example, daytime running lights.  These are the line of LED lights usually around the headlight which operate whenever the car is running.  LED's are bright, very bright and these can start to impact on the ability to see the indicator effectively depending on their closeness.  In duller weather DRL's project a significant light and it is easy to forget, particularly in rain or other conditions of bad visibility that whilst the front of the car is easily seen, the rear of the car has no such DRL's and therefore cannot easily be seen.

Almost from their inception, indicators have been positioned to the outside of the car body.  Indeed on the old Morris Traveller (and others) there was a little 'arm' that sprang out when the indicator was put on.  Nowadays the position of the indicator seems to be secondary to the overall design of the light clusters, meaning that if the indicator 'looks better' in the middle of the light cluster, that is where it will be rather than where it can be clearly seen.

With the drive towards more slimline lights, we now have single line indicators which are even more difficult to see, particular when the DRL's are on.  Lights also 'move' along slim lines, which seems to me like an unnecessary distraction - clever, yes.  Safe?  Maybe not.  Manufacturers need to realise that their priority should be towards road safety and not design!

In-car features which we think of as making our lives easier can also be counter-productive.  Having relatively recently acquired a car with automatic windscreen wipers I have noticed that they do not necessarily wipe the windscreen at the same interval I would.  There then ensues a battle between doing it myself and allowing the car to do it on my behalf.  It seems rather petty to do the former when the manufacturer has provided the latter even if it does not provide me with the cleaning frequency that I require.  So I compromise and look through a screen which is not clear wondering when the wipers will go again.

Automatic headlights create a different problem.  Going through a tunnel, brilliant - I don't have to think about it.  When it gets dark, okay - probably puts them on a bit early for me.  When it rains and visibility is poor, probably won't turn them on.  Taking some of the decision making away from the driver but not being entirely clear when is, to my mind, ill-considered.

The other problem with safety features is that not all cars have them.  If a pupil learns in a car with lots of fancy features - and let's be honest, I quite like having a car with gizmos galore - then they will expect those features on their 1.0 10 year old Corsa!  On such a car, hill assist (which my car has) is called a handbrake.

Finally, manufacturers have made cars safer, the passenger cage, air bags of numerous varieties, active braking systems to name but a few.  These amazing advancements are great but should not be considered as a justification for then introducing features which detract from safety.  If the scales between those features which make driving safer and those that make it less safe are balanced then that needs to be redressed in favour of safety.  In fact, if a feature makes a car less safe should it be on the car at all? 

Furthermore, the more technology that manufacturers introduce into cars the more lazy drivers will become.  This is not a criticism but is simply a statement of human nature.  To fight against human nature is not only illogical but unrealistic so we rely, to an extent, on car manufacturers to rein in their natural enthusiasm for amazing technological advancements and keep road safety at the forefront of their strategies.

Monday 12 June 2017

Testing Times?

From time to time pupils go to test and fail badly either with a plethora of driver faults exceeding 15 or maybe even multiple serious or dangerous faults.  Sometimes the instructor involved is criticised because they allowed, maybe even encouraged, this to happen.  These criticisms may come from the DVSA or, in the maelstrom of test centre gossip, other instructors.  The latter express with some incredulity that any instructor could be so naive as to do something so stupid even though they may well have done the same thing themselves in the past; the former are considering publishing pass rates for instructors in an attempt to stop instructors from submitting, in their opinion, ill-prepared candidates.

On the surface it seems ridiculous that an instructor would either knowingly submit a sub-standard learner for test or, perhaps worse, not be able to identify whether a specific pupil is actually ready for said test.  However, these seem to be the accepted theories.  So, I would like to offer an alternative, somewhat controversial theory.

The demands on an instructor are many:- teaching a variety of learners to a consistent, safe level of driving skill, meeting the needs and specific wants of said learners e.g., passing the test at the earliest opportunity, fulfilling the requirements of the DVSA, conducting a lean driving school business, providing suitable candidates for test, maintaining their own knowledge levels and constantly evaluating and improving their own abilities.

It takes a considerable time to train examiners and they go through a whole host of training elements to bring them up to their required standard.  In addition to a higher level driving test, they have to do a situational judgement test and a behavioural assessment just to be accepted as a potential examiner.   They then have weeks of training and a probationary period.  They are evaluated throughout their training and beyond on an ongoing basis.  Whilst there are similarities between our training and theirs, they are essentially being trained as assessors, whereas we have been trained as instructors.  These are two fundamentally different roles.  In the same way as I would not expect the examiner to be able to instruct to the same level I can, I suspect they would not expect us to be able to examine to the same level they can.

Examiners see a candidate for about 40 minutes.  There is no history, no shared journey, no understanding of their personality, motivations, attitudes, views or difficulties encountered.  Whilst their training and ability may give them some insight they cannot understand the pupil as well as we do.  In addition, we have an ongoing, possibly long-term, working relationship with the pupil and no matter how much we try to remain objective towards the pupil that may not be as easily done as said.

Most people feel comfortable with what they know and our pupils know us.  Therefore they feel comfortable with us and may well feel uncomfortable with an examiner.  Some pupils wrongly develop an 'instructor dependency' because they know that ultimately we will always step in. They don't have such a dependency with the examiner and they know it!  This adds to their nerves - it may be the first time driving without the safety net of an instructor.  Unfortunately if such a dependency exists it can be incredibly difficult to wean them off it.  Furthermore, some pupils react badly to the word 'test'.  They can drive - they know they can, we know they can - but call it a test and suddenly they can't.  Nerves can make the normal abnormal. 

The examiners have a sole purpose, evaluating the driving presented to them and issuing a pass or fail accordingly.  It is a rubber stamp exercise and as such it is relatively easy - it will either be one or the other.  We have a whole host of responsibilities that go way beyond getting them to and through their test.  We should be ensuring that putting them on the roads is commensurate with maintaining safe driving and is not going to lower the existing standard of driving.  We therefore have to drive them to a much higher standard (pun not intended but gratefully accepted!)

We also have to manage a diary.  We have new pupils waiting and are externally driven by them and therefore by the availability of tests which we have to book some time in advance of when we are going to require them.  How are we to judge when a pupil will be ready?  Is it even possible?  Yes, we may be able to identify the amount of time required to cover the syllabus but this does not take into account specific difficulties encountered or something as simple as missed lessons.  Unless we train the pupil to the level we require and then book the test, which may be 12 weeks away, we are always guessing to a degree. 

All of this means that although we can evaluate our pupils' driving within the instructor sphere that we inhabit we cannot possibly evaluate their driving entirely objectively within an examiner's sphere.  We are influenced by so many things as identified above and it takes a remarkable detachment to be able to assume the sole role of an examiner.  Yes, we can take our best guess about when a pupil will pass their test but ultimately that is all it can be - a guess.  Mistiming the submission of a pupil for test may just be a poor 'guess' and whilst we might not like that we sometimes get it wrong, it may be as simple as that.  It probably isn't a conscious mistake and, in my opinion, does not justify criticism at all whether by our peers or our overseers.

Emma Ashley - Ashley School of Motoring

Friday 24 March 2017

90% - Good enough?

I've been ill this week.  That's not an excuse, more an observation.  I've had a heavy head cold which makes it feel as though my head is full of dense fog in which moments of occasional clarity occur, usually preceded by an explosion of air and noise, otherwise called a sneeze!  Putting the general inconvenience of this to one side along with the risk of passing it on to all my pupils, the bigger issue is what effect is this illness having on my ability to do my job.

I can still drive so that's alright then...  After all being an instructor is basically doing what I normally do except in a different seat.  So there shouldn't be a problem then, should there?  I'm not so sure.

When you go on your summer holidays and fly off to some far flung sunny destination you probably trust the pilot of your plane.  After all he's highly qualified and wouldn't knowingly risk your life.  Working at 100% he will be looking after all his passengers and will be more than capable of handling any emergency that crops up.  What if he is not feeling great, perhaps only 90% or maybe even less?  Is he still as capable?  Perhaps he will still be able to handle most situations as long as they are not too difficult.  What if he's only 80%?  At what point does his fitness start to become an issue for you?  I am not sure I would be happy for anything as complex as a plane to be flown by someone who is not at 100%. 

But driving's different isn't it?  After all it is only one person I have to look after so if I'm not at peak efficiency it doesn't matter, does it?  Actually, as an instructor I have responsibility for my pupil, other road users and myself.  I cannot afford to not be concentrating or to be distracted by illness or anything else.  I cannot afford to be less than 100% because if I am I may not be doing my job properly.  So, what percentage is okay?  95?  90?  80?  I'm not sure that anything below 100% is acceptable.

I'm not at 100% at the moment.  Late on Wednesday I did a lesson which on reflection I should not have done.  I was poor at my job.  I misjudged a lot and although we didn't have any major problem we had a number of potentially dangerous situations.  Ultimately the fact that they weren't dangerous wasn't so much to do with me as the fact that the situations did not fulfil that potential.

So, I've cancelled lessons over the last couple of days.  It costs me, lets my pupils down and that makes me feel even worse.  However, I believe that I have done the right thing.  I have a responsibility to give my pupils the absolute best instruction they can get and I can't do that if I am not at my absolute best.

What percentage is good enough for you?

Thursday 3 November 2016

Stop Blaming Young Drivers

The big driving story in the news today was the fact that 10000 motorists had been caught twice indulging in distracted driving, presumably the majority using their phone.  Later I caught an item on the radio where they were interviewing a spokesman for BRAKE, the road safety charity and he immediately trotted out the fact about young drivers being responsible for x% of accidents while making up only y% of drivers. (I have deliberately left the numbers out!)  Mr. Spokesman, you do yourself, the charity and road safety no favours whatsoever.

This particular problem has NOTHING explicitly to do with young drivers.  I see lots of people using their phones while driving and the most numerous offenders are van drivers in their thirties.  However, I have seen everyone from young drivers right through to old people on their phones.  With the exception of van drivers, an awful lot of the offenders are women.

When it comes to the statistics that are quoted with such glee by those who wish to blame young drivers for all the ills on the roads it should be noted that meaningful statistics i.e., those which break down accidents by age group, severity and gender are only available since around 2005.  How can we possibly compare statistics from then with statistics now?  A lot has changed.  Cars are safer, roads are safer, qualifications for driving have changed, training has changed, volumes of traffic etc.  A 17 year old in 2005 is vastly different from a 17 year old in 2016.  Someone who has their 17th birthday today was born LAST century.   

When I passed, in 1977, the roads were nothing like they are today.  The impression given is that somehow young drivers today are more reckless and dangerous today than they were 10, 15 or 30 years ago.  The only comparison which is actually fair is to have a look at the statistics from 17 years ago and compare them to statistics for 34 year old drivers who are driving now – because they are the same drivers – the drivers who may well be those whose mobiles are stuck to their ears! 

Furthermore, it is so unfair to compare a 17 year old driver now when they have to deal with higher volumes of vehicles, some of which are driven by people trained outside the UK to goodness knows what standard, vastly more complicated road junctions, busier roundabouts, increased legislation and signage, a general populace which treats the roads as a personal walkway and personal examples of driving which beggar belief at times.  Societal traits such as instant gratification, impatience, intolerance for anyone or anything that gets in the way and a general superiority are all traits that seem to be infecting drivers of all ages.

Being an idiot behind the wheel is not something which is restricted to those under the age of 20.  As instructors we teach a few idiots and a lot, an awful lot, of responsible, considerate, thoughtful, safe drivers in whose cars I would happily be a passenger.  Idiocy can strike at any age and some of the cars I see being driven in a crazy manner are well outside the price range of the average 17 year old.

How on earth can we work out whether we are turning out good drivers now?  The statistics certainly aren’t going to tell us – at least not for another 17 years – and then only if we look at the same drivers!  When I look at the level of general education now compared to when I was at school, I feel as though I am looking down... as though I was educated better than young people are today.  If the same is true of driving instruction (and there is no reason to suspect it isn’t) then I will always be a better driver than those who are taught now.  This may sound conceited but I sincerely wish it wasn’t the case.  My fervent hope is that all my pupils attain a better standard of driving than I have.

Please do not misunderstand me.  I am not condoning using a mobile when driving.  It is unquestionably dangerous.  In my opinion, anyone caught doing so should have their licence taken away for a month; second offence, 2 months and so on.  Anyone who causes an accident while on their phone should be banned.  Anyone who causes a death should be banned for life.  This is not an issue which should be lessened by mitigation; there is absolutely no excuse whatsoever.  It is fundamentally dangerous and as drivers we shouldn’t do it ever – and that includes when sitting at traffic lights too!

I’m also not saying that young drivers don’t have a significantly higher risk than other categories. They do, a fact that can be shown by statistics and is supported by the medical profession.  I just don’t think that they should be blamed for anything and everything and used as an excuse for all the ills on the road. 

I’m also not saying that we’re all bad drivers because that isn’t true either.  However, if we do something wrong in sight of a young driver, can we really expect them not to copy us?  They will and they will use our example to justify it.  This is one situation where "do as I say, not as I do" doesn't carry any weight.  The responsibility for safety on the roads lies with us all and we don’t need statistics to prove it! 

Emma Ashley

Friday 18 December 2015

Christmas Celebrations

Drinking can be fun. Driving can be fun.  But together?  Not fun! 

So we are heading for the party season and we all want to make merry and enjoy ourselves and I'm the last person who would want to curtail someone having a good time.  However, when we are driving we have an inescapable responsibility to look after ourselves, our passengers and all other road users regardless of what they are doing.

I could come up with lots of statistics about the dangers of drinking and driving, the general risk for young or inexperienced drivers, the effects of alcohol on the various parts of the brain and the changes in attitudes after drinking.  I could also list the various drinks and the number of units and how long it takes for it to dissipate in your system.  I could try to dissuade you by telling you what might happen if the police pull you over, breathalysed, arrested, locked up, disqualified.  I could put up videos for you to watch to try to get across the dangers of drink driving, some so gruesome that they will make you feel sick, others so heart-rending that they will make you cry and some so bland you wouldn't even notice.  But I'm not going to do any of those things.

Instead I'm just going to plead with you to make this commitment.  "I will not drink at all if I am driving or if I am going to be driving in the next 12 hours.  If I am going to be driving then I will not have a drink for 12 hours before even if that means not drinking the previous evening."  This is the only way to be sure.  Even one drink will affect your ability to drive the car at the standard you normally do so it is simply not worth it.     

Many of my pupils have said to me that they don't drink and that is fine but sometimes at Christmas things change and people might have one or two.  If you do, remember the commitment you made above and don't drive.  Finally, if you are offered a lift by a friend or acquaintance and they have been drinking, don't accept, encourage them not to drive and get a taxi...  it's simply not worth it.

Wherever you are, take care on the roads during this festive season.

I wish you all the very best of Merry Christmases and a Happy, Fruitful and Prosperous New Year. 

Emma Ashley