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.