Wednesday 14 December 2011

About as blind as they come...

A pupil of mine went to test today and failed! :(  This is obviously a great disappointment to me and to him although not a huge surprise as he wasn't really as ready as I like my pupils to be.  The reason for the failure is not the subject of this blog however.

As is usual following a test failure, I sit and discuss with the candidate the reasons for the fail and any other faults that have occurred during the test.  This particular candidate had a couple of safety faults on moving off.  When discussing these he said "I don't believe in the blind spot!", completing the justification for not checking it with "I check my mirrors constantly and can see everything in there".

I was and still am quite shocked by these comments, particularly the former.  He then justified this stance by saying that his previous instructor didn't believe in it either.  Very often pupils cannot initially see the need for it but, if it is explained correctly, ultimately most people do understand it and the importance of checking it in certain situations.  Now either my ability to explain things well is off this morning or he just wasn't receptive to what I was saying.  He acknowledged what I was saying but just repeated over and over again that he didn't need to check it because he didn't believe in it. 

Regardless of what he thinks he can see, he's wrong.  He will probably do it to get through his test, but then stop doing it and ultimately will either have an accident or, in the worse case scenario, kill someone for the sake of a glance into the blindspot.

I always advise pupils, regardless of what bad habits they may pick up after they pass, to ALWAYS check the blindspot when pulling away.  In my experience, doing so is highly likely to save someone's life and if that happens even once, it is definitely worth it.

Saturday 10 December 2011

Smarter Driving

Back in August I was contacted by the Energy Saving Trust asking whether I would be interested in attending a meeting about Smarter Driving.  At that time I had never even heard of Smarter Driving and so I thought I ought to find out more.  A number of meetings followed and then in October I attended a training session to become a Smarter Driving trainer, endorsed by the Energy Saving Trust.

The purpose of Smarter Driving is to try to encourage as many drivers as possible to drive more economically, saving fuel and reducing pollution.  As a technique it has been successful across the world and has already been passed on to more than twenty thousand fleet drivers in the UK.  The statistics show that the savings can be quite significant, usually reducing fuel consumption by somewhere between 15% and 40% and there is also a corresponding drop in accidents.

Having listened to all the statistics and then been trained myself (showing a potential 15% saving on fuel), I must admit I still didn't believe in the principles being taught.  So I tried it out on a couple of volunteers.  I was amazed at the savings that both of them showed.  One showed potential savings of 27%, and the other 15%.  The former reckoned that was worth a holiday to her over the course of a year.  So I signed up to the Smarter Driving programme.

The principles are simple, within the abilties of all drivers, and take very little time to learn, usually within a single hour.  The cost is relatively low, £25 and, in my opinion supported by the staistics above, is definitely worth the money.

So what is involved?  Well, you drive my car in your normal driving style over a pre-determined route and we measure the fuel consumption and the average speed.  We then discuss a number of different techniques which may reduce fuel consumption and drive the route again, applying some of the techniques as we go.  At the end of the route we see what difference it has made to the fuel consumption and average speed.  Then, time permitting we drive it a third time, this time with you just applying the techniques on your own.  At the end, we compare the fuel consumption figures from the various runs and see how much you could save if the same techniques were applied to your driving.

No-one likes the idea of someone sitting next to them watching them drive (including me!), but I'm really not interested in any little bad habits you may have picked up - that's not the purpose of the Smarter Driving training.  I promise I won't criticise you or think badly of you when it's all over.  I'm just interested in trying to promote a more economic and safer way of driving and turning out as many Smarter Drivers as I can.

If the potential savings are not enough of an incentive, on completion of the Smarter Driving training you receive a certificate from the Energy Saving Trust detailing how much you may be able to save, and a Smarter Driver sticker for your car.

So, if you are interested in Smarter Driving for you or someone close to you, you can get more information here or drop me a line.  It really is worth it!

Absolutely Avoid Absolutes!

One of the things I have wondered about over the last few years is whether driving is an art or a science?  By that I mean, whether you can learn to drive by learning and applying a set of rules alone i.e., science, or whether there is an element of judgement and interpretation i.e., art.  Of course the reality is that it is a combination of both.  I find that many people when starting to learn to drive tend to think of it as purely a science, a set of rules which must be applied in each and every situation, and application of those rules can deal with every road situation which might occur.

However, whilst the initial learning is predominantly scientific in nature, the good driver will learn to be more flexible in the application of the rules learned, adapting them when required so that they more aptly fit different situations that the driver encounters on the road.   I call this roadcraft - the ability to interpret and appraise different driving situations and apply learned skills appropriately according to the circumstances.

So often I see drivers applying their learned skills rigidly, usually because that is what they have been taught to do.  Whilst technically correct, this unbending application does not necessarily make for good driving.  We all have to be flexible, allowing conditions on the road to influence our decision making and our subsequent actions when behind the wheel.

On some of the forums I frequent there are often requests for advice about how to deal with common difficulties such as stalling when pulling away or how to handle roundabouts.  Very often these requests elicit responses which contain advice such as 'When you get 30 metres away from the roundabout change into 2nd gear at about 20 miles an hour...'.  The problem with this is that whilst the advice may be valid for some roundabouts, it is not necessarily valid for all and to suggest that it is, is very unwise.  Every roundabout has to be judged on its merits because every roundabout is different.  Regardless of the actual layout of the roundabout, the traffic will vary hugely between roundabouts and also on the same roundabout.  Therefore, there is no absolutely cast-iron method of defining how to handle a roundabout.  Yes, there are guidelines for how to do so, but these guidelines need to be applied with judgement.  Therein lies the problem, and the difficulty for most learners.  Roundabouts require judgement and judgement cannot be learned in a scientific way.  It is an art.

There are no absolutes in driving, other than the law (arguably), and it is unwise to think that there are.  Each of us has to drive with an open mind, observing, assessing and reacting to dynamic, fluid and constantly changing situations.  This is the art of driving!

My advice to any driver, learner or experienced, would be to absolutely avoid absolutes - because there aren't any!

Sunday 27 November 2011

Christmas Driving

Last weekend a young man was killed driving home in the early hours of the morning.  It seems at the moment that it was more to do with inexperience than anything.  However, the consequences for his family are tragic and my heart goes out to them.  I truly hope that the family and friends of Jake Johnson find some peace in what is going to be, understandably, a very difficult time.  An unexpected death in the family is always a huge emotional upheaval but somehow at this time of year, it somehow seems more tragic and more distressing.

I understand that Christmas brings stress much greater than the rest of the year and the pressure to get organised and buy everything that makes the festive season such fun is enormous.  Everybody is in a rush and thoughts are dominated by other things.  It is so easy to allow that pressure and the distraction of Christmas to adversely affect our driving. 

I have noticed a general deterioration in the quality of driving over the last few weeks and most of it seems to be due to people just being in too much of a rush and driving without due care or consideration for other road users.  Some of the incidents have been downright dangerous and really beggar belief.  I have seen a number of near misses, some at high speed, and the driving around major shopping centres seems particularly bad.  Apart from the obvious risk of having an accident, driving badly causes other road users to become frustrated, building into agitation accompanied by blue air, enthusiastic hand gestures and blaring horns.  I understand the frustration but it is so important to maintain a balanced reaction so that we don't make a bad situation much worse.

We all have a duty to make sure that we continue to drive safely and responsilbly throughout the festive period and beyond.  I really do not want to hear that someone else has lost their life and another family is facing a Christmas destroyed by such a tragedy.  So please, amongst all the pressure and the distraction of Christmas, stay calm and safe on the roads.  Leave more time than usual for your journey, expect long delays, be extra courteous and don't allow your frustration to get the better of you. 

Finally, please remember that drinking is fun...and driving is fun...but together they cause accidents.  If you drink, don't drive - it's not worth it!

Stay safe this Christmas so that we can ALL have a good time!

Friday 18 November 2011

Don't be a lemming!

Lemmings have a reputation, wrongly as it happens, for following each other even into dangerous or deadly situations.  Astonishingly some drivers are like that too.  I was out with a pupil yesterday who I asked to turn right into the next road.  He didn't check his mirrors or signal.  We parked up and I asked why he hadn't signalled.  He said "Because the car in front didn't!" 

I'm sure you will agree that this is a poor argument.  So, if the guy in front drives into a lamppost, you're going to do the same?  Of course not, but the suggestion nevertheless is there.  He does it, you do it.  I don't teach people to do what other drivers do; I teach them to drive properly.  Every day I see many examples of bad driving, not signalling being one of the most common (and most irritating).  In these days when day to day communication is handled in the briefest way possible (i.e., text messaging) some drivers seem to think that signalling in good time has become superfluous.  It hasn't and if anything, due to the congestion on our roads, has become more important than ever.

However, although signalling is important it has to be done appropriately.  Not every situation requires a signal and sometimes a signal given can cause more confusion than not given.  So always consider carefully whether a signal is appropriate and if it is, give it in good time.

Above all, if you choose to copy the driver in front, and he does it wrong, then you'll do it wrong as well - with all the consequences that there may be!

Sunday 11 September 2011

Do you want to be a better driver?


I know it probably seems like a completely pointless comment but I am constantly amazed at how fast people drive, unnecessarily so.  I really cannot understand why.  Having driven many miles over the years I have found that rushing rarely gets me to my destination any quicker than taking my time and I would prefer to arrive unstressed and unflustered rather than looking like I've been in a sauna with a bad tempered bear! 

Although some of my pupils are 'typical' learners, those who have never driven before or have very limited experience, I also have a number of pupils who are specifically taking a UK test having a number of years driving experience behind them already.  Some have international licences and wish to have a UK licence instead, some are trying to regain their licence after losing it and some have considerable experience from driving illegally without a licence.  Rather than try taking their test without any professional instruction, they take a few lessons with me in order to ensure that they will pass.  I approach these cases by carrying out an assessment of their driving to try to identify whether they will pass and whether they need to resolve any specific faults before presenting themselves for test.  This approach has proved to be quite an eye-opener and in almost all cases the same bad driving habit is at the centre of all the problems. That habit is simply driving too fast, which leads to a whole host of other problems and would inevitably lead to a fail at test time.

So is this a fault solely applicable to those approaching tests?  No, I don't think it is.  I have come to the conclusion that there is an epidemic of speeding occurring on our roads.  I don't mean breaking the speed limit but I do mean driving at a speed which is inappropriate for the conditions and in particular when approaching hazards.  I definitely don't advocate reducing speed limits as such - I enjoy driving fast - but all of us have a responsibility to make sure that our speed is always appropriate for the traffic, road and weather conditions which are presented to us at the time.  If everyone drove according to what is sensible, reasonable and safe for all road users, we wouldn't actually need so many speed limits in place.  The reduction need not be significant, a maximum of 5 miles per hour, in many cases less, and the impact of it in terms of journey duration is negligible.  These days life is so often conducted in such a rush that the extra 30 seconds which can be gained on the journey to work seems like a matter of life or death.

I often hear the complaint that speed limits are too finite.  A road on which 60 mph is appropriate during the day might be able to handle faster traffic in the early hours and some drivers who want to drive faster at that time feel aggrieved because they can't.  They assert that they can maintain control of the vehicle at higher speeds and should be allowed to do so.  Notwithstanding that they may actually have a very inflated view of their own abilities and actually can't handle high speeds, I believe that speed limits should be more flexible.  However, until such time as drivers are taught, and actually learn, to drive at an appropriate speed for the conditions, this simply isn't possible.  We need a sea-change (and I hate the term!) in our approach.

It would be so easy to blame this speed epidemic on the few but unfortunately it has already infected the many and until such time as each of us cures ourselves I'm not sure there will be a quick resolution.  With very few exceptions, all of us can become better drivers by slowing down.  It won't cost you more than you can afford - a few extra minutes at most - and you might save someone else having to pay the highest cost of all, their life!

Please slow down.

Thursday 5 May 2011

Good Driving

Surprising as it may seem, learning to drive is not about passing your test. It's actually about learning to control a huge, heavy lump of metal in such a way that it does not endanger you or any other road user. There is no leeway in this. Any loss of control is likely to have serious, potentially fatal, consequences and therefore anything we can do to prevent it, we must do.

The driving test sets a minimum level of driving competency which must be attained before the driver is let loose on the roads on their own and, as such, it is a good thing. However, with the increase in vehicle capability, the amount of traffic on the roads, the general urgency of life and societal attitudes towards courtesy and reasonable conduct, the minimum level is simply no longer enough. Nowadays it is wrong to assume that a test pass means a safe driver. Unfortunately it is possible for a poor driver to have an uneventful, lucky test and to pass when in reality they should not have. They are then free to motor on for the next 50 years without any further examination of their driving ability. Do we really believe that that is acceptable? Surely there has to be a better way of training and testing drivers.

Nobody likes being told that their driving is not good - that's human nature. Now that I am older, I know that I should not have passed my test first time. I was lucky and had a very lenient examiner. As a result I was not a good driver but I was lucky and eventually trained in the police to a much higher standard. Nevertheless I had a high speed accident after I left the police in which I could have been seriously injured. Fortunately I wasn't and mine was the only vehicle involved. The accident was caused by me simply being too blase about driving and not taking enough care. It changed my view of driving because I know how lucky I was.

Although I can tell people the tale, I cannot convey the effect and impact that the accident had on the view of my own driving. Therein lies the problem. We learn through experience and despite our best efforts, experience will always be the best teacher. So should we give up teaching best practice and expect everyone to have a view changing accident? No, we need to change attitudes towards driving right across the industry and this is not the responsibility of solely one group of people. It requires politicians, the police, the DSA, insurance companies, examiners, instructors, learners and all road users to work together to improve the standard of driving right across the board. All road users have to accept that they have a responsibility towards all other road users. Anything less than this and the ultimate goal of safe roads will elude us completely.

Over the next couple of weeks I will post some of my ideas as to the weaknesses in the current system and how it might be changed to make it better. I have no doubt that these ideas will have their sceptics but if one suggestion made changes one person's view and makes them a safer driver, then it will be worth it.

Monday 2 May 2011

Never too old to learn

It is very easy to sink into the mentality that says "I know it all, I have nothing else to learn" in any area of life and none more so than driving tuition. It seems strange because, being in the 'teaching' profession you would think that we would be more aware than anyone of the dangers, but it is something against which we have to guard constantly.

It is therefore important to constantly review the way we do things and make changes where necessary. For example, things that seemed to need emphasis when I started instructing now take a lesser place because I have found that although they were an issue to me, others did not find them so. Conversely, some issues that seemed to me largely irrelevant at the beginning have now become very important. There are also issues that are important one week and less so the next. In essence the teaching process is constantly evolving, not least because every pupil is different and what one finds easy, the next will find difficult. It is my job to ensure that both find success in driving and it's what makes it so enjoyable.

In re-evaluating my perfomance and identifying how I could do things better, the input of others becomes invaluable. I listen to friends, family, past and present pupils and other instructors to get different perspectives on what works and what doesn't. I would be foolish to think that I have a monopoly on good ideas and the right way of teaching. To all those who have helped in the past, I offer my considerable thanks - please continue to be honest with me; it keeps me honest too.


Tuesday 19 April 2011


I have been driving for the last 33 years and thought I had seen every example of idiots behind the wheel. I was wrong! Earlier this evening driving through Suburbia I was aware of an ambulance on an emergency call behind me. There was quite a bit of traffic and so I took the first available opportunity to move to one side as did everyone else.

When the ambulance passed me I did the usual of trying to move back out into the line of traffic, maintaining position, as did everybody else. Fortunately I had my wits about me because there was a mini tailgating the ambulance! Travelling at high speed overtaking all the traffic which had given way to the ambulance completely ignoring other drivers.

She stopped about half a mile further on at some traffic lights and when I passed her to turn right she was busy looking pretty and lighting a fag. I must admit that I was absolutely livid and nearly wound the window down and gave her a mouth full of abuse. Had I still been a police officer I would have subjected her to every possible vehicle check and lectured her on the crass, stupid and downright dangerous behaviour that she had just demonstrated.

Friday 15 April 2011

Cheap lessons?

What's the cheapest way to learn to drive? In these hard times everybody is looking to save money and that includes those learning to drive. It has always been relatively expensive to do so, now more than ever and therefore people are looking at any way to reduce the cost. Beware though because there are real issues and dangers with doing this.

It is no coincidence that the DSA recommend approved driving instructors and in spite of rumours to the contrary it's not to make money for the government. It's because they recognise that to learn to drive properly you need some amount of proper professional tuition. Although Uncle Joe or Aunt Flossie might be able to teach you to drive so that you can get through your test, it does not mean that you will be a good driver. I and a lot of my colleagues are in favour of the DSA requiring that everybody has a minimum number of lessons with an approved driving instructor before being allowed to take a test.

Furthermore, if Uncle Joe, Aunt Flossie or any other person who is not an approved driving instructor charges you for lessons, they are breaking the law and the penalties are severe!

The other problem is cheap lessons. It is so easy to opt for the company which offers lessons for the cheapest rate. I often see offers such as 5 lessons for £75 which look like a very good deal. However, there are a two things to consider with these offers. What conditions are attached to the offers? What price do you pay once the offer has been used? If you pay £15 for the first 5 lessons and £22 for the next 15, you will pay £405. If you pay £20 per lesson for 20 lessons, you pay £400. So cheap offers don't necessarily lead to paying less overall.

However the single most significant issue with the overall cost of learning to drive is the number of lessons you take. 20 lessons at almost any cost with a top quality professional instructor is a far better deal than 100 cheap lessons with a crap instructor. And yes I have heard of people who have had 100 lessons!

The most important question to ask a potential instructor isn't about pass rates or prices or special offers or even their grade, it's how many lessons on average do THEIR pupils take to pass their test. Then you can get some idea of how much it is likely to cost you. Don't be fobbed off with the average from the DSA (which is about 45-50), it's their rate that is important.

So ask the question of your instructor and make sure you get the best possible deal for you as a customer. Remember deals are designed to be seductive and make you think you are getting something for nothing (or less than you should). Don't be fooled, do your research and make sure you don't get conned.

All the best.

Google has lost its way

Google used to be great because you could type in your search criteria and find genuine, useful websites which appeared because they contained what you were interested in.

Now you get presented first with websites where the owner has paid for it to be presented, followed by those where the owners have manipulated the site so that it appears high up in the list, whether or not it is relevant to you. It is this last part that really annoys me. There are masses of sites which bear absolutely no relation to my search criteria but are there because someone has overloaded their webpage so that their site appears on the first page of search results.

I understand the desire of Google to make money by advertising but whereas it used to be a useful tool for navigating the web, it is now a massive advertising mechanism for the rich to exploit so they can become richer. It is a real shame that Google has departed from its original principles and an absolute disgrace that they don't do something about it.


I get a large number of phone calls and emails from companies trying to sell me one kind of marketing or another. Some are upfront about it, usually because they have no choice, some are more subtle. However, they are all basically selling the same thing - promoting my business.

Hence I find it staggering that most of them have given absolutely no thought whatsoever to the nature of my business. It is generally accepted that 95% of business for a driving school comes through personal recommendation, usually from a family member or friend. Therefore any marketing thrust is effectively working for 5% of your pupils. They also seem totally oblivious to the idea that in order to justify the cost of their advertising, you work out the cost in terms of pupils. For example, if the cost of the advertising is £100, that equates to around 5 lessons. On that basis I won't even start to make money until the 6th lesson with that pupil, unless I get more pupils from the same advertising cost.

Of course none of these companies will give any kind of a guarantee of business coming my way. They will say that they are confident that I will see a lot of business as a result of their promotion but they never actually guarantee it. Every time I get in the car with a pupil I put my money where my mouth is but it's interesting that marketing companies never do the same. Is that because I know I am good at what I do and I don't rip my customers off but they know they are crap and the con is what they are about?

I have advertised in local newspapers, magazines, digests, shop windows, community noticeboards, flyers, Yellow Pages, Thomson Local, Google Adwords and Facebook. The most successul of all of these has been shop windows where I have picked up 2 pupils over the last year - it also happens to be the cheapest! For most of the other methods I have seen absolutely no results at all, in spite of some of them being very expensive.

All the rest of my pupils past and present have come through personal recommendation and contact e.g., seeing the sign on the car, talking to people in social settings.

My view is that marketing is a complete waste of time and money in this profession UNLESS you are willing to pour lots of money in on a long term basis - i.e., multiple thousands of pounds over years. Of course as a single independent driving instructor, this is something I simply cannot afford to do.

Speeding and complaining

I am continually amazed at the fact that some of those that speed complain when they are caught in a speed trap. The comments are many and varied. "I was only going x miles over the limit". "It was 2 in the morning and there was no-one around". "I hope I get away with it, I need my licence". "It's a stupid speed limit - no-one sticks to it".

The issue for me is simple. If you don't want the fine and the points on your licence, then don't break the limit. Speed limits are there for a reason and whilst there may be some that are wrong or stupid, the law is the law and if you break the law you are taking a risk. More importantly, limits are in place because going faster is likely to endanger you or other road users. There are places to enjoy speed on the open road but exceeding speed limits is not the way, wherever you are and whatever time of day it is.

The best approach? Don't speed ever - it's simply not worth it.

p.s. And before anyone observes that they bet I speed from time to time. If I do, a rare occurrence, it is always an error of judgement and I reduce my speed as soon as I realise.

Monday 21 February 2011

Mock Tests

Mock driving tests are popular with some instructors and very popular with others.  I have my reservations and think that sometimes pupils and instructors get hung up on performance in mock tests.

Thinking back to my schooldays I remember the period just after Christmas when mock tests were undertaken in every subject.  They had two aims: one, to give us (and our parents) some idea of the likely attainment and two, to give us some idea of what the actual exam conditions might be like.

I think driving mock tests should be the same.  Giving the pupil some idea of the format of the practical test, the procedure, the form of words used and the likely pressure is a good way of alleviating some of the test day nerves.  As far as the likely attainment goes, I think it gives a rough idea - but no more than that - but this is, or should be, for the benefit of the pupil! 

However, this approach is not ideal because an instructor will always mark differently to an examiner.  We are biased, they are not.  We have previous experience of the pupil's driving, they do not.  We are likely to be well-disposed towards the pupil, they are not.  Any or all of these can affect the way that the mock test is marked, either to the advantage or detriment of the pupil.

I know some instructors subject their pupils to multiple mock tests until they can 'pass'.  I think this is a flawed approach partly because of the reasons given above but also because mock tests should never be used to force improvement in performance.  They can be used as a tool to give confidence to the pupil if necessary but the instructor should not need to use them to assess whether the pupil is ready or not - they should be ablle to do that without carrying out a mock test.  Certainly they should never be used to justify more lessons for the pupil, something which I am aware does happen!

So I will conduct one, or maybe two, mock tests if I feel they are of benefit to the pupil, trying to mimic the conditions of the actual driving test as best I can.  This is quite sufficient as far as I am concerned...

Wednesday 16 February 2011

Roundabouts - confront your fears!

More pupils say to me that they are scared of roundabouts than any other traffic situation...but after a single lesson with me, no longer!  The problem with roundabouts is that, by their very nature, there is likely to be lots of vehicles and lots happening at the same time.  Trying to pick your way through that can be a bit daunting.

However, if you follow two basic principles, roundabouts become a lot easier.  The first is to approach them with this thought in your mind: "Assume that I am going to go but be prepared to stop".  This is in direct contradiction to normal junctions where the thought process tends to be "Assume I am going to stop but be prepared to go".  The reason that a junction has been created as a roundabout is to keep traffic flowing so it is only sensible to approach it thinking in that way.  Once you have that thought in your mind, the decision whether to go can be one of three things: Yes I can, in which case, go.  No, I can't, in which case stop.  Or Wait, I'm not sure yet...  The first two of these are easy, the third is more difficult to judge.  Ultimately, it will turn into a Yes or a No and for the learner it is more likely to be a No than a Yes, to be on the safe side.  However, as you become more experienced you will find that judgement becomes easier.

The second principle is preparation with purpose.  When you reach the roundabout you have already identified one thing that you have to do - to make a decision!  In order to do that safely, you have to look.  It is very easy to be preoccupied with mirrors, signals, speed, gear changes, braking etc. rather than looking so do them all before you get to the roundabout; that way you are free to do the most important thing which is looking at what is happening on the roundabout itself.  Don't just look to the right.  You need to look at your approach to the roundabout so that you stay in lane and don't hit the vehicle in front, a glance to the left just to make sure, looking at what is coming straight on and so on.  Your head doesn't remain static - it moves constantly allowing you to make the correct assessment.  Because you have already done all the preparation before getting to the roundabout you only have to look and decide.

Even with the correct approach sometimes it is difficult to make the correct judgement so this is what I do.  Look for cars coming across your path.  Three things will show their intentions.  Their indicator, their road position and their speed.   Base your judgement on all three.  They may have left their indicator on by accident, they may have misjudged their position or speed but it is unlikely that they will have got all three wrong.  If all three say to you that they are not coming round the roundabout, then the likelihood is that they are not so it is safe for you to proceed.

If the roundabout is busy, finding a gap can be even more problematic.  Instructors talk about 'blocking vehicles' or some such similar phrase i.e., vehicles on the roundabout which interrupt traffic flow allowing you to get out.  The most important thing is that a vehicle becomes blocking when other traffic stops for it, not when it is physically in the way.  If you leave it too long, then the blocking vehicle itself may stop you from going.  Anticipate vehicles not being in the way as well as being in the way.

Finally, remember that you are negotiating a roundabout, not an acrossabout so stick to your lane and don't cross lanes unnecessarily.  If you do have to cross lanes, check in your mirrors (and possibly over your shoulder) before doing so that it is safe, indicating if appropriate.  

I hope the above helps to make your passage round roundabouts a little smoother and safer.

Friday 21 January 2011

Why I don't teach Hill Starts...

There are many aspects of driving which pupils, instructors and other drivers build up to be huge issues for those learning to drive and one such aspect is that of hill starts.  Whilst I do understand the importance of being able to correctly pull away up a hill without rolling back or straining the clutch, I don't believe that it warrants being separated out as a particularly demonic aspect of driving.  So why is it often portrayed as such?  I believe the reason is two-fold; the possible consequences are more serious and any error, no matter how small, is exaggerated.

However, the actual process is very similar to any clutch/gas balancing act i.e., the clutch needs to be at biting point and there needs to be sufficient gas to prevent the car from stalling.  The difference with a hill start is that both need to be more accurate than pulling away on the flat. 

So for the good driver (and this includes learners), this shouldn't be any problem at all as long as the pupil's ability includes proper clutch control.  Good control of the car depends on good clutch control and it is an incredibly powerful tool.  Once mastered, such that the driver rarely has to think about it, this technique allows concentration on other aspects of driving, essential for the good driver.

So I encourage all my pupils to excel at clutch control both through driving, particularly in traffic, but also in the early days through a clutch exercise.  There is therefore no reason to single out hill starts for any special treatment as their clutch control is good enough to handle every situation and hills make no difference.

So does this mean that the handbrake becomes redundant?  Not at all, but what is the difference between pulling away from the side of a flat road and pulling away on a hill?  Nothing really, in spite of what some people think...

Saturday 8 January 2011

Madness on the A2

Yesterday I had to drive along the A2 a number of times both when it was raining and when it wasn't.  Frankly I was horrified by some of the driving that I saw and, believe me, I've seen plenty of examples over the years.

It started with seeing a car sliding down the opposite carriageway, sideways, in the very heavy rain, finally coming to a halt, straddling the two outside lanes.  I have no idea why they skidded but fortunately there wasn't anyone particularly close to them even though the traffic was very heavy.  Perhaps they had worn tyres, perhaps they did something a bit too sharpish.  Either way, they were obviously going far too fast for the conditions and were very lucky that they didn't hit anything although I suspect that the subsequent traffic jam probably saw a fair few accidents.

Later on in the day I was on the same stretch of the A2 and was being held up by someone doing 40mph.  It wasn't a lorry, van or clapped out car.  It was a woman in her thirties, hunched over the steering wheel, just pootling along.  It wasn't raining, the road surface was only mildly damp but she simply wouldn't go any faster.  What she probably fails to understand is that she is causing a serious hazard to other road users on that stretch of road.  If she's not comfortable on such roads, then find another route or take lessons to get confident!

Finally, and this is a bit of an issue for me, we have a tailgater!  A young woman in her KA completely oblivious of everything around her, about 15 feet from my rear bumper.  I got out of the way and she promptly drove right up behind the car in front and did the same to him.  At 60 miles per hour, thinking distance is 60 feet.  She is a quarter of that distance from the car in front.  If they sneeze, she is in the boot.  Why, oh why do people do it?  And she just seemed completely unaware that she was doing anything wrong.  She was obviously in a hurry - to die?

It's all about attitude...

Belonging as I do to a number of forums where people talk about learning to drive, I am constantly amazed by the differing attitudes to aspects of driving.  Instructors tend to discuss points of law, driving etiquette and how to deal with unusual situations (or unusual pupils).  Pupils tend to discuss the incompetence of instructors or the personality disorders suffered by examiners - they are evidently not human!  Rarely do their own failings come up for discussion.  One thing that I find astonishing is the attitude with which some people approach learning to drive. 

People tend to think of learning to drive as an academic exercise which can be mastered by listening to an instructor or reading books or just watching other people.  I suppose this is not unexpected as the vast majority of learning done by people is done in this way.  However, driving is fundamentally different.  It requires constant, repetitive practice just to master the mechanics, co-ordinated control of the pedals, clutch, gas and brake, steering, observations etc.  For many people it is the first time that they have to specifically learn to use many parts of the body at the same time in a co-ordinated fashion.  Babies don't learn to walk by reading a book - they do it by constant, repetitive practice which involves failure as well as success.  It takes time!

Isn't it therefore amazing that people think they can learn to drive without practice?  So many times I am contacted by people who have their test booked and 'need a few lessons' just to get through the test.  They may be right; more often than not, they are wrong!  They may have the mechanics perfected but their road craft might be bordering on dangerous.  Their general driving may be fine but their manoeuvres would be better if they got out and pushed.  "I'm a safe driver - but I failed my test because I pulled out in front of someone on a roundabout" is a fairly typical statement made to instructors across the country.  It doesn't sound that safe to me...!

Trying to circumvent the learning process may work when studying for an exam but it doesn't when learning to drive.  It requires commitment and dedication, common sense and lots of practice.  Yes you may be able to do it without some of these but ultimately it will probably cost you more, take longer and you won't be a particularly good driver as a result.  Is it worth it?

Why did I fail?

I really do understand the immense disappointment of pupils who fail tests, particularly for seemingly innocuous things but I am amazed that they don't really understand why.  Being safe on the roads is far more than just managing to get through a 40 minute test without doing anything outrageously silly or accumulating too many minor errors. It is about being in control of the car and being able to react safely to changing situations.  This is far more than just learning a set of rules and regulations and is what examiners are looking for.

Many test failures complain that the fault they committed was minor and they should not have been failed for committing it and, on the face of it, it may appear that way.  For example, failing to signal when moving back in to the left after passing parked cars on a dual carriageway.  Is this a serious fault?  Well I have seen it marked as such and also completely ignored.  This is because driving is not about following a hard and fast set of rules; it's actually about doing the right thing for the circumstances that exist at that time.  Yes, we can teach pupils what the usual action should be in a given situation but they have to think for themselves constantly and make decisions based on what they see around them. 

I teach my pupils to do just that, to be aware of road situations and other road users and adjust their behaviour accordingly - it's called road craft and is essential for safe driving.  I recently had a pupil who clipped the kerb driving out of the test centre and still passed.  Why?  Because her driving overall was at a level where the examiner could see she was thinking sensibly and logically and not just doing what she was taught - and no, I didn't teach her to clip the kerb.  Throughout, she was applying road craft and the initial mistake was just a nerve-induced error.

Once reasonably competent on the road, I tell my pupils that they are driving the car and therefore they must make decisions about what to do in any given situation.  After all, once they have passed their test and are out on their own, they won't have an instructor sitting next to them telling them what to do and making sure they are safe.  It's their responsibility then and the sooner they get into the habit, the better.

This approach encourages the pupil to take complete responsibility for their driving so that passing the test is easy and driving safely is completely natural.