Saturday 8 September 2012

A week of contrasts

It has been an interesting week of contrasts for me, the highs and lows(?) of being a driving instructor.

On Thursday I took a pupil, John, for test.  He passed with zero minors which, depending on the statistics you believe, only 1 in 250 or 1 in 5000 people do.  Either way, he was my 43rd pass so 1 in 43 for me is pretty good!

Conversely on Wednesday I had to tell a pupil to postpone his test, because he simply wasn't going to be ready and I was concerned about his standard of driving.  I hate delaying tests because I don't like to disappoint pupils and therefore find it difficult to do.  However, in this case I made the right call and was happy with the way that I did it.  The justification was plain and clear and ultimately I made the right decision.

I've also had a chance this week to enjoy the sunshine, have taken on a couple of new people and have some other prospects in the pipeline.  I've also ordered my new car, a brand new Citroen DS3 - arrives 1st October. 

Next week I may not be so satisfied but this week has been good!

Monday 18 June 2012


There is an assumption made that most of my pupils are 17 year olds who are learning to drive because their parents want them to or their friends already have.  In fact, most of my pupils tend to be a little more mature and their reasons sometimes are different to what you might think.

I have two pupils at the moment whose reasons are different, specific and brave.  Both of them have been involved in horrendous, tragically fatal, road accidents; both were blameless; both were seriously injured and as a result still carry physical, mental and emotional scars.  Their reasons for taking lessons are different but both have exhibited, and continue to exhibit, great courage in tackling such an emotionally charged learning process.  They are nothing short of inspirational.

V was a passenger in a car in Ghana back in 1997.  The driver lost control as a result of a blowout on the motorway whilst exceeding the speed limit.  The car was catapulted across the central reservation somersaulting a number of times.  The driver was paralysed, V's friend died of her injuries and V herself had a long stay in hospital.  The other passenger escaped with a broken leg.  Until recently V has been unable to talk about the accident in anything other than the vaguest terms but now, due to a therapeutic visit to Ghana, has finally been able to come to terms with what happened.  V doesn't have a UK licence and it has taken considerable motivation on her part to get her provisional and start to learn over here.

J was riding pillion on a motorcycle involved in a head on crash with a lorry in 2011, an accident in which her partner died and she was trapped for a considerable time.  It has been a hard road back to life for J and setting goals has helped her to focus and progress.  One of the goals she has set herself is to get mobile again.  Having had her full licence for a while, J needed the confidence to get back on the road.

It is so easy to forget that these cars that we treat so casually at times are actually killing machines in the wrong hands.  It is incumbent upon us all to ensure that we never drive flippantly or carelessly, instead applying the fullest concentration at all times and ensuring that we always maintain absolute control of the car.  When we sit behind the wheel we are not only responsible for our own lives but those of all road users that we come across whilst driving.  If our driving is below standard then it is our responsibility to do something about it.  No-one likes the idea of someone else reviewing their driving (me included) but sometimes we need to swallow our pride and accept professional help so that we know, beyond any doubt, that our driving is as safe as it can be.

Even though V hasn't yet passed her test and J hasn't yet felt confident enough to venture out on her own, both these women are brilliant drivers.  It's not just about being able to control the car, it's about conveying safety and comfort to me as an instructor.  I feel utterly safe and completely comfortable with both of them, to the extent that I would happily allow them to transport my loved ones without a second thought.  I know that they understand better than most the danger associated with motor vehicles, their own limitations and the concentration and care that they need to exercise at all times.  If all drivers had just a little of their attitude the roads would be a much safer place. 

For both of these women the trauma that they suffered, and continue to suffer, would have prevented many people from moving on in their lives.  I applaud them for doing so.  I applaud them for their determination to fight for what others take for granted.  I applaud them for seeking professional help with their driving.   I applaud them for taking a responsible attitude whilst on the roads and keeping themselves, me and other road users safe.  I applaud them for persevering both in attitude and actions.  I thank them for the laughs that we have had together.  Above all, I thank them for their friendship and being so insprational.    I wish I had your fortitude and strength and I look forward to continuing to help you achieve your goals.

Thank you.

Sunday 8 April 2012

Expensive Lessons?

From time to time I hear complaints that driving lessons are too expensive and that instructors are 'ripping off' those who wish to learn to drive.  "£20 per hour is exorbitant - they're making a fortune!".  I've had potential pupils haggle with me, trying to get the price down and occasionally encounter the attitude that they are doing me a favour so I should be grateful.  It's time for the instructor to bite back :-) or at least have her say on the matter.

As with any small business I have running costs.  Fuel is a variable which will change depending on the lesson content but on average I do about 20 miles per hour's lesson.  The fuel consumption of the car is not at its most efficient, as the driver is a learner and there tends to be some over-revving, incorrect gear usage and sitting by the side of the road.  I also have to travel between lessons which sometimes can be quite a distance.  According to the statistics from last year, it worked out overall at £3.90 per hour.  I lease my car, which costs me almost £350 per month but does include servicing and road tax plus insurance at £450 per year, comes to £4.88 per hour.  Other expenses, including marketing, materials and phone comes to £2.58 per hour, in total £11.36 per hour's tuition.  So assuming I get £20 per hour, I will actually make £8.64 per hour.  Of course, in reality, I don't actually get £20 per hour when you consider discounts etc. - the actual amount per hour earned last year was £17.67 thus reducing my earned income to £6.61, not that much above the minimum wage!

In addition, the business of being an instructor starts long before a pupil ever sits down in the car and finishes long after they get out.  Yes, they may only be paying for an hour of my time but the work that I do on their behalf goes well beyond that hour.

I start work on a lesson by reading up my notes from the previous lesson, possibly more than one, and looking at the subject of the current lesson.  The lesson may consist of something new, consolidation of something recently learned, dealing with specific problems, revisiting something learned some time ago, practising roadcraft, preparing for a test or, frankly, anything in between.  This is not something that can be done on the fly - some forethought needs to be applied and that is best done before setting out to pick the pupil up.   I plan the route, at least in part, considering where I want to be to teach the subject matter of the lesson.

Okay, so planning the route is easy, isn't it?  Well, no, not always.  If the most direct route to the target area means going across, say, a horrendously tricky roundabout and the pupil hasn't yet tackled such things, then an alternative route may have to be chosen.  This is not because I do not believe that the pupil would be able to handle the roundabout, particularly with guidance, but because the roundabout may cause the pupil's confidence to be shattered or fear to set in, neither of which will help in the long run.  So, an alternative route may be necessary - the roundabout can wait for another day!

Once the lesson is over, I then have to update the records to show what has been done.  This extends to confirming that the most recent lesson has fulfilled its purpose, making notes about any problems that have arisen, detailing the areas driven and the subject to be covered in the next lesson.

So, having done these 'before' and 'after' activities, all that I then have to do is the lesson itself - phew!  That's alright then. So my £6.61 per hour actually ends up covering probably 2 hours allowing for pre- and post-lesson activities, planning, travelling to and from locations so that's just £3.30 per hour.

Why on earth do I do this job then?  Well it's because I love it.  I get a huge amount of job satisfaction and the joy of helping people to achieve success by passing their test is just brilliant.

So, the next time someone suggests that driving instructors must be raking it in and are charging exorbitant prices, you can now put them right and tell them that we do it for the love of the job :-D

Saturday 7 April 2012

How to stop people speeding...

I have a real problem with speeding!  Speed can be a killer; of this there is absolutely no doubt.  But as humans, we constantly engage in activities that have an element of danger.  The problem with the speeding motorist is that they are not only endangering themselves but other road users as well.

So the authorities attempt to reduce this risk by attempting to enforce speed limits through such mechansims as speed limits, cameras and 'speed reduction methods' (humps to you and me!).  Any such techniques are only ever going to be partially successful.  Everyone has seen drivers who slow down on the approach to a speed camera (sometimes lower than the limit) and then speed up against once they are past it.  To a lesser degree people do the same between speed humps.

Solving the problem of speeding is easy.  Get rid of all the static speed cameras or stop painting them yellow and hide them from sight.  Issue a decree at Government level as follows:-  "Please note that as from today all speed limits are mandatory and absolute.  If you are caught speeding, you will automatically receive a considerable fine and points on your licence.  There will be no mitigation and no excuses.  If you decide to flout the law and are caught, you will receive the punishment, regardless of circumstances."  Then employ mobile speed camera vans and allow them to park anywhere to catch speeding motorists.  Fines should vary depending on the type of vehicle, the excess speed and any previous convictions.  Multiple repeat offenders and non-payers should have their cars confiscated and crushed.

There would be uproar but I am utterly convinced that this would see a general lowering of speeds right across the country.  If drivers simply didn't know where or when their speed was likely to be checked they would be more inclined to stick to the limits.  A few high fines, signficant bans and cars crushed would soon convince the general public that enough is enough and speeding is no longer acceptable.

Hark, what's that I hear?  The 'Human Rights' brigade bleating loudly about their rights being ignored by the Government being surreptitious and harsh.  Well, tough.  The law is the law and it is about time the Government stopped pandering to the speeding minority and did what is indisputably right!

No Respite

Instructors can never be at anything less than their best.  From the moment that the lesson starts we have to be the epitome of 100% concentration - to be anything else is, at best, discourteous to the pupil and, at worst, downright dangerous.  So, if I am not performing at my absolute best, due to tiredness, illness, personal circumstances or anything else, why does that matter?  Well, I may be less observant, lacking judgement or even lazy, none of which is particularly clever when in charge of a lethal weapon - the car, not the pupil :-)  It is so easy to think that it doesn't matter... when actually it does.  Getting too close to the left hand side for example.  It's easy just to ignore it and assume that it will be alright rather than reacting as necessary to avoid a potential collision.  It may be easier not to offer a prompt or guidance rather than doing so, potentially leaving the pupil to make a decision which is outside their skillset.  Alternatively, instructions may come later, too late for an inexperienced pupil.  Being safe on the roads, whether as a driver or instructor, relies on a certain amount of anticipation.  If anticipation suffers as a result of impaired performance, then it must follow that safety is compromised too.

Not only do I have to concentrate 100% of the time, I also have to remain utterly calm in any given situation, allowing my pupil the latitude to make mistakes and not panicking if they do.  When I am expecting the mistake to occur, for example, trying to pull away in the wrong gear, it's not usually a problem.  If it will cause danger or inconvenience to other drivers, then I may try to preempt it with some appropriate guidance, but if it will not, then I may just let it happen.  A lesson is always easier to learn through experience rather than being told!  However, if I am just not paying attention and the problem occurs, it could cause mayhem.

This happened today - the reasons do not need to be divulged but I didn't think I was off form at all.  My pupil made a simple mistake, using 4th gear instead of 2nd at a roundabout and stalled as a result.  I failed to notice the gear problem until after it had happened and then proceeded to issue a series of instructions to get us out of the situation - which unfortunately just made matters worse!  No major problem resulted but that does not excuse my poor instruction in that situation.  I subsequently apologised to the pupil concerned, an apology understood and accepted.

So what of the aftermath?  It has reaffirmed my belief that being anything other than perfect is simply not good enough.  Unfortunately, mistakes happen but the reaction to that has to be to try to do better the next time.  I need to work hard constantly; there is no room for complacency at all.  I need to stay fit and healthy, looking after myself properly, getting enough sleep and being in the right frame of mind.  I am duty bound to give my best to my pupils, other drivers, the DSA and the public at large.  I am determined to do that and if that means that I have to admit a mistake from time to time, so be it.

I have learned a lesson today and ultimately I hope and trust that it will make me a better, more professional instructor.

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Nerves of Steel

One of the most common questions that I am asked when people find out that I am a driving instructor is "How do you keep calm?  You must have nerves of steel."  usually followed by "I could never do your job".  In truth, I don't have nerves of steel at all...and actually I don't need them.  Although I am not 'in control' of the car I always have the option to exercise full control if I need to, either by using the dual controls or grabbing the wheel if necessary.  In fact I encourage all my pupils to adopt the attitude very early that they are driving the car, not me.  I would rather they made decisions about driving.  If they are going to make the wrong one, I will advise them otherwise, or stop them.  Sometimes I'll let them make the wrong choice, as long as it is safe, in order to learn from the mistake.

So am I ever frightened?  Very occasionally, yes, and the reason is always the same.  Most of the time, I can anticipate the mistake that the pupil is going to make.  For example, I know when there is a likelihood of rolling back towards the car behind and I can anticipate and deal with it before or as it occurs.  There are hundreds of similar examples.  However, occasionally a pupil will do something that is completely and utterly random and that makes me jump!  For example, if the pupil is turning right at a roundabout, has checked right mirrors, signalled right and taken up a position in the right lane, they have done everything that I expect in respect of turning right.  If they then turn left, with no warning, without looking, cutting up whoever is in the left-hand lane and confusing everybody on the roundabout - that's frightening.  No warning, no mitigation - just a sudden, inexplicable change of mind.

I'm sure there is some psychological reason why someone just makes a completely random choice like that and I wish I understood it better.  Then perhaps I could anticipate and prevent it.  Until such time as I can I'll just have to go on collecting missed heartbeats.

Fortunately this kind of thing happens very rarely and has never resulted in an accident although I imagine there are one or two drivers out there cursing my learners!  Most of the time and with most of my pupils I feel very relaxed and never feel the need to even consider the dual controls.  When I do, it is always for the best possible reasons and I try to make it clear why I have intervened in the way that I have.  At the end of the day, my safety, the safety of my pupil and the safety of all other road users are my priority.