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