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?