Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre

31st January 2009

Heather Harris is firmly in the driving seat – or is she?

When it comes to learning to drive – there are testing times ahead. Under new Government proposals learner drivers may have to take four separate tests – two practical and two theory – in an effort to reduce the carnage caused by young and/or inexperienced drivers.

Speaking on behalf of anyone who found mastering the motor car an ‘L ‘of a problem, I can only sympathise. I still remember spending hours learning road signs, reciting stopping distances, and kangaroo hopping, handbrake still firmly on, down the road in my Dad’s Cortina. It’s no exaggeration to say that I am not a natural when it comes to four wheels – and I still believe if God had meant us to drive he’d have given us wing mirrors.

At £10 per hour, I could have bought my own fleet of BMWs with the amount of Saturday job wages spent on finally burning my L-plates (along with my bra; it was that long ago). Even then I’m convinced that neighbours rushed to lock up their small children and pets as they saw me head for the garage.

Under the new beefed-up system, learners will be tested on certain skills such as motorway and night driving, before taking the main driving test. It’s a sensible idea; we all know people who will drive 20 miles out of their way to avoid a slip-road and the nightmare beyond, and set off home from a ‘day’ trip at 2pm during the winter months.

There are downsides, however. Driving Instructors’ Association chief Eddie Barnaville warns that the average fee for a one hour lesson will rise from £22 to £32. For the average learner this means that a typical course of lessons will rise from £900 to £1,500. For those of us more ‘atypical’ motorists, we’re talking about the cost of a decent two week holiday (probably what the average driving instructor needs after facing some of his more challenging clients).

Surprisingly, more than 90 per cent of driving lessons are now carried out with professional instructors. That’s probably because we all remember what mental torture it was being taught to drive by our parents. My husband, at the age of 18, stormed off and walked the six miles home on one trip out with his Mum. It wasn’t until he finally got there that he realised he still had the car keys in his hand… And that was the days before mobile phones, and when all self respecting Mums wore high heels and tight skirts. Her blistered feet still bear the scars 30 years later…

Another friend recalls writing off his Dad’s Triumph Herald by accelerating into a five barred gate in an effort to avoid a pigeon in the road, while my sister-in-law (a nine times test failure) managed on one occasion to drive the wrong way up a busy one-way street – and still argues that her examiner was being ‘very picky’ to fail her.

Under the revamped scheme, learners will have to follow a strict syllabus and keep a written log of their driving (mine would be akin to War and Peace, but with more casualties). This will be followed by a series of structured modules including a new theory test, a hazard perception test and two practical tests before securing a full driving licence.

Pete Rodger, from the Institute of Advanced Motorists, thinks that this modular testing is a good idea. “Breaking the test down into sections means it can be more thorough. If, say, someone is struggling with clutch control they can focus on mastering this physical skill before having to worry about mental challenges such as night driving”. In my case it would be control in general, but I take his point.

Two million people take a driving test each year with a pass rate of 44 per cent. The Department of Transport argue that the total cost of learning to drive will not rise, as the new system will help more people pass first time. And when they do pass it won’t be just a few hours after they’ve blown out the 17 candles on their cake. The more rigorous test will take many months to complete.

Because of this enforced delay, the Government has rejected calls to raise the minimum driving age from 17 to 18 years and has refused to follow the example of New Zealand, Canada and the USA where restrictions are placed on newly-qualified drivers.

Instead the Transport Secretary (then Ruth Kelly) announced plans for schools to offer a ‘foundation course’ in safe road use, optional for students aged 14 and over. Lessons will include planning journeys, social attitude, peer pressure and fatigue as well as being safe on the road and eco-friendly driving.

Currently one in five people has an accident within six months of passing their test and 70 per cent report near-misses. Fourteen young drivers and their passengers die every week in Britain.

The RAC welcomes the proposed new Driving Test, details of which are now being finalised; if agreed, the process could be implemented in just a couple of years. The organisation’s view is that ‘a dangerous cocktail of inexperience, overconfidence and a risk-taking attitude’ is to blame in many crashes involving novice drivers, and that anything which reduces this has to be a positive move.

Chris Stephenson, 17, who is just about to take his test after 34 lessons, feels that his driving instruction so far hasn’t covered everything. “My parents are paying for an extra Pass Plus session before they’ll let me go out on my own,” he says. Pass Plus is a one-off six hour lesson, covering all those extras (such as motorway driving, driving in town, out of town, in all weathers and at night) currently not included in the existing test. It also means money off your Insurance.

As his mother explained, “This will give me more peace of mind, but I still worry about when he takes his mates out and I’ve had long chats with him about drink driving”.

Clearly a sensible young man, Chris is willing to acknowledge that it would be good idea to have P Plates which are obligatory in Northern Ireland and which indicate that a driver is newly qualified. “Because it’s not until I start going out on my own that I’ll really become a confident driver”.

He reluctantly agreed that a harder test would make sense, as most of his 17 year old friends are already driving. His mum agreed, but did question the extra expense. “Surprisingly I did actually enjoy taking him out, but it’s no substitute for proper lessons,” she added.

One experienced instructor, from the British School of Motoring, firmly agreed. “Most young drivers need 45 formal lessons and 20 hours practice driving to pass the current test and be a really safe and confident driver.”

He was critical of recent plans to publish a league table of Driving Instructors showing their pass rate. “It’s not just about getting people through their test. It’s about making them safe drivers for years to come,” he said, adding that he keeps in touch with his clients once they’ve passed to make sure that they are accident free.

“Girls do tend to be more thorough, whilst boys just want to get in and drive. A lot of my job is to force them to stop and really think about just how dangerous a car can be.”

He also felt very strongly that every driver should be forced to re-sit their test every seven years – and not just have a medical when they are 70, as is currently the law.

“The road are getting busier, and cars faster, all the time – and what was good driving twenty years ago may not be any more,” he said, before asking just how long ago it was that I passed my test.

But surely driving a car is like riding a bike or falling off a log – you never forget… or do you? There was only one way to find out…

Heather Harris re-takes her driving test 28 years on…

From 20 feet I saw him (well, at least that was the eye test passed) – a stern looking gentleman with greying temples brandishing a clip board, standing next to a shiny BSM car. Bang goes the use of my feminine wiles, I thought as I approached, smile on face and large wet patches under each armpit. Twenty five degrees in the shade, a full bladder – not a good time to re-take my driving test.

He clearly thought so too as he put on his seat belt before I'd even switched on the engine. In my defence I should add that I'd never driven the car before and hadn't been tested at anything since the trombone a few centuries before.

Forty five minutes – surely the clock has stopped on the dashboard – later, and you name it and we’d faced it… speed humps, children doing their Cycling Proficiency test, salesmen on mobile phones swapping lanes, Sainsbury’s lorries in reverse – not to mention numerous pigeons and other livestock all hurling themselves in front of the car in a mass suicide bid.

On and off went the windscreen wipers as I tried to indicate left or right (why don’t manufacturers put the controls on all UK cars the same side?) and up and down went the gears. The mirrors, previously used predominantly for the subtle application of mascara, were in constant use as I reversed around corners, executed a three point turn and went around (rather than over) numerous mini-roundabouts.

My emergency stop involved an impressive screeching of brakes, met by sympathetic looks from innocent bystanders and even a 'bet you'll pass' shout from a lecherous lorry driver (he must have been desperate, as I was now sweating and shaking more than Pete Doherty).

Even simple commands such as “Please pull over when it’s safe to do so” (delivered in a tone that made the Sat Nav sound jovial) had me questioning just when it was safe. Road markings appeared from nowhere – yellow zigzags, white chevrons, white circles, red triangles. Pages of the Highway Code (now available in a revision disc from the BSM) did spring to mind, but sadly not quite quickly enough, as I sensed a degree of impatience from the man on my left.

“Please don’t drum your hands on the dashboard or I may cry,” was my only thought, as I finally took the decision to come to resounding halt, yank on the hand brake and stifle a sob.

But then he smiled! Never since my own children's first smile have I been so grateful to see an up-turned mouth.

Dennis – as I was now allowed to call him – was actually happy. Or should that be relieved? Smugly I looked at his Mock Test Form. Was a plethora of black ink good or bad I wondered, as somewhere in my consciousness I heard him say the word ‘fail’. Suddenly I was 17 again…

As he rattled though my faults – driving at 32mph in a 30mph, insufficient turning of the head during a three point turn, undue changing of lanes on approach to a roundabout and 49mph in a 60mph – all I could remember was that badly concealed look of disappointment on my parents’ faces.

But he was very kind, explaining that all my faults were classic for an “experienced driver” and simply the result of “bad habits”. "Over 80% of experienced drivers would fail if asked to re-sit,” he reassured me.
“It doesn't mean you’re not safe,” he added, seeing my panic as I contemplated doing the evening’s swimming lesson run on foot with four children plus floats! “In fact this has made you a far better driver than most of the people on the road.”

It certainly was a salutary lesson – one that I think every driver should have to go through (especially all those people who saw my L-plates but still sat on my bumper or overtook me on a bend). As I drive home – 29 mph, no riding the clutch, hand brake on at every red traffic light and obsessive use of the left hand mirror – I realise just how difficult driving a car properly really is. I don’t know about making the test harder… after that experience I’d rather re-sit A-Level Maths – but first I need a good hosing down and a large gin.

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