Learning To Drive

L PlatesIt’s been a month since I passed my driving test and got my license and I’ve learned a lot more than I expected. I had considered doing a series of ongoing posts during my driving sessions right up to my test day but I figured it wouldn’t make very interesting reading. Instead, after some thought, I’ve decided to give an overview to the entire process. I’m not going into details on the actual driving lessons & skills learned, other websites can do that far better. However, I’ll give more general feedback about my experiences regarding the Theory & Practical Test as well as the actual driving lessons and then onto how I have coped with driving out and about on my own.

First – About Me:

I took some lessons back when I was 17 but it didn’t work out very well and I failed my test. Looking back I can see how I wasn’t ready for any of it, I was nervous and lacked confidence, big time. To some degree I  feel justified in placing some blame on the instructor who was not hugely interested in me but just seemed to go through the motions like a robot. Now in my 30’s I have plenty of confidence and found the driving process much easier to handle. Driving around I can’t believe how I managed to get through so many years without a car, it’s surprised how easily you can come to rely on one. Living out in the country having a car or access to one borders on the essential – busses here are infrequent and often late, also the service stops at 6pm which is a major problem if you rely on them to get to and from work.

Despite not having a driving license I have been able to drive family and friends cars over the years so I have been fortunate to learn more than the basics, albeit not under strict driving instruction. This familiarity has added to my confidence level to the point where I felt comfortable to take onboard what the instructor was teaching with more ease than a novice driver.

Why did I take the plunge now?

My commute to work was taking 3 hours a day on local busses, and because of a reduced service I was losing 2 hours pay a day. You can read some of my unreserved anger about Stagecoach Cambridge by clicking this link, which was written 99% about Stagecoach but that 1% anger after spending years travelling on many different bus routes I’d had enough. I wanted the freedom to travel when and where I wanted even if it cost more to do it. Unlike my very first driving experience, a nervous teenager who wasn’t that interested in driving, I was eager to learn and pass my test.

I wanted to return to college and university and I couldn’t bear the thought of hour after hour of wasted time commuting from home to the city, then out to college, and back to the city, and off to a part-time job…and then back to the city before making the weary bus journey home. No way was that going to happen. Think of the wasted hours throughout the week spent gazing out of the bus window. So being able to drive was necessary.

Choosing an instructor:

I’ve learned that private driving tutors take on new students through word of mouth as well as advertising and that was the case with my instructor., Adrian Rix, I’d heard good things about him and after my first taster lesson I was pleased with his welcoming nature & calm personality. He was easy to talk to, explained things clearly and to be honest it was a joy to be instructed by him. I’m more than happy to recommend him to anyone in the Newmarket or Cambridge area and you can find his website here AGODRIVE, well worth giving him a call.

AGODRIVE - Independent Driving Tuition - Newmarket.

This photo is a little out of date. He no longer uses the Vauxhall Corsa. He has 2 vehicles, both Citroen and very easy to drive, clean and comfortable. He changed his main car a few months ago from the C3 to the C3 Picasso, a bit bigger than the C3 but just as easy to handle even for a novice driver.

It is worth noting that just because you contact an instructor and head out for a taster lesson it doesn’t mean you are stuck with them. That first lesson is your chance to assess how well you get on with your potential instructor, after all you will be spending 25-60+ hours with them! I firmly believe that before you book any further lessons you should make sure you get on well with them, and if you don’t feel 100% comfortable with them look elsewhere.

Your age will probably make a difference to how you interact with your instructor. Being a new driver at 17 or 18 it is likely that you may be considerably more nervous than a more mature driver. However, since a young driver has been in education they may find picking up the skills easier – think of it as learning 2 languages from an early age instead of trying to learn a 2nd one later in life. Here is my checklist for evaluating a potential driving instructor:

  1. Friendliness: Important. Do they smile? Are they welcoming?
  2. Rapport: At the end of your taster lesson you should be able to say whether you gel with your instructor or not. If not look elsewhere. Remember that first taster lesson is your chance to examine the driving instructor!
  3. Instruction: Are they clear with their tuition? Do they answer your questions well?
  4. Credentials: Like an OFSTED report it’s worth enquiring about their pass rate or asking friends about their reputation.
  5. Costs: Are the prices reasonable? Do they do student discount? Enquire about discounts for block bookings.
  6. The car: Even if you are a novice driver you may find you get on better with a certain type of car. Is it clean? Easy to handle? Well maintained?
  7. Taken for a ride: Good instructors will tell you that there is a recommended minimum number of hours under tuition in order for you to stand a chance of passing your practical test. Unless you are a truly awful driver a good instructor won’t tell you that you’ll 150 hours of tuition!

Theory Test:

Remember: You can learn to drive whilst you study for your theory test but you need that Certificate in order to book your practical driving test.

At first I found the idea of sitting a theory test a little daunting, that I wouldn’t remember enough to pass. The key to being confident is studying. I bought a DVD Theory Test Guide that I ran through every day, roughly 1-2 hours was enough for it to sink in slowly. There are many DVD’s around, take a look at the The Official DSA Complete Learner Driver Pack that includes a CD with hazard perception tests, practice test questions and answers – costs about £25 and includes the books as well as the CD. You can buy ones from other companies but it’s worth going for the official stuff. And don’t forget your Highway Code either, with this get the book as you can carry it around with you and dip into it when you need to. It should cost about £2.50

The theory test comes in 2 parts: Hazard Perception Test and the Questions Test. The Hazard test is actually fun! You are presented with a series of video clips where a car drives through a range of streets/roads/situations. All you need to do is click the mouse button whenever you see a hazard. A hazard is anything that can cause you to take action, whether that is slowing down, stopping, changing direction etc. For the younger XBox generation imagine playing Call Of Duty (or any FPS) where you need to react to an ever-changing situation. Everything you do is in reaction to something. An enemy player runs around a corner, you duck behind oil drums. An enemy player throws a grenade, you dive out-of-the-way. The same with the hazard test.

Hazard Test Examples:

  1. You see a cyclist turn onto the road ahead so you click the mouse button once because it could mean you have to slow down.
  2. Someone is waiting at a crossing. The lights may change so you need to click the mouse button to indicate that you are aware of the hazard. Click it again as you near the crossing because the hazard is still there.
  3. You see a car approaching on the opposite side of the road and is about to overtake a parked car. Click the mouse button because you are aware of the hazard that the car may pull out around the parked car and cause you to slow down.

It’s common sense stuff really but it does require practice. Don’t think that giving it a run through once on your practice CD is enough because it isn’t. Like driving itself you need to keep practising.

The Questions Test is a series of questions designed to test your knowledge of the Highway Code and basic understanding of what is expected of you when driving. This is where reading your Highway Code a lot will come into play. The questions are varied and whilst some are very easy and based on common sense others are based on various situations and you will need to think about them.

The test itself takes about an hour. I was surprised when I went for mine that I was asked to put my mobile phone, keys, and other such stuff in a locker – to reduce chances of cheating. I don’t see the point in cheating the test. You are taken to a room with PC’s and given instructions on how the test works and you can listen to audio instructions via headphones if you wish but I didn’t need to. Other than daily learning the best advice is to stay calm, read the questions thoroughly before answering and remember that it’s not the end of the world if you don’t pass.

By the time you have finished and returned to the reception they will present you with your results. If you pass don’t expect a grand certificate! It’s a very plain letter with your score and a test certificate number that you need when applying for your practical test. Even though I was anxious about my score I was optimistic as I had studied every evening using the Practice Theory Test CD. Passing the theory test was a big confidence boost!

Practical Driving

As I’ve already mentioned I have been driving for years off an on but I still needed tuitions to iron out habits and learn the correct ways. I was able to work through the majority of manoeuvres easily enough and to a good standard although I admit I often braked too hard and my reverse park behind a car was something I felt needed a lot of work. The only problem I saw with learning to drive was how much straight line driving there was. What I mean by that is simply driving along a road, turning corners etc. Even for a novice this is something you should be able to pick up without too much effort. The actual mechanics of driving along a road are quite easy, but then you have to be aware of everything around you at the same time, and that only comes with practice.

During my lessons I was more eager to concentrate on the actual manoeuvres; reverse around a corner, bay parking, turn in the road etc. These are the ones that I considered much more important as I needed to be confident and comfortable in the test. My instructor, Adrian Rix, was always calm and explained where I was going wrong and how to correct things. He answered every question in a plain and easy to understand manner.

Beside the driving lessons I was also driving a friends little Ford Ka, quite a size difference to the roomy Citroen C3 Picasso! It’s easy to mock the Ka for it’s smallness and odd looks but it handles amazingly well and is a very nice drive. I spent considerable hours driving in and out-of-town. Whenever we were off shopping I took the keys and offered to drive. For a learner driver I think it’s very important to get as many hours as possible behind the wheel. Don’t worry if it’s a different car to your driving instructors, the practice will pay off for you.

Day of the test – Things to avoid : Things to remember.

After looking at a lot of websites based around learner drivers and driving tests I’ve found good advice about what and what not to do on your driving test day and thought I’d include some of the basics here.

  • Practice: Make sure you are ready. If you have doubts about certain things then discuss them with your instructor and work on them until you are more confident. Never rush to take your test, it isn’t a race but a serious assessment of your ability to be safe on the road.
  • Never Panic: Easier said than done I know, but try to remain calm. It’s not bad to be nervous before your test but don’t concentrate on it. Take deep breaths and think about all you have accomplished since you first sat behind the wheel.
  • The Night Before: Get a good nights sleep the day before your test. You may be anxious and find it hard to get to sleep so head for bed early and you’ll be fresh the next day.
  • Avoid Stimulants: Don’t gorge yourself on caffeine, nicotine, medicines etc before your test. These will only impair your judgement.
  • Test Times: Try and book a morning test as this will stop you from worrying about it all day.
  • Mistakes Happen: Move on. If you make a mistake don’t worry about it, if you can correct it then do so where possible. By dwelling on it you may become nervous and effect the remainder of your test.
  • Avoid Failure Stories: Don’t pay attention to your mate who failed his test 8 times or other rubbish. This will knock your confidence.
  • Think Practically: Okay, tests are important but they are not worth worrying yourself silly over. If you fail put it down to good experience and know that you will be much more confident next time round.

Driving Test Day!

The practical test takes about 40 minutes and can include 2 manoeuvres and an emergency stop if conditions allow. But from 4th October 2010 you will only need to do 1 reverse manoeuvre as there will be a new section, called Independent Driving where the examiner will ask you to drive to a destination using directions given or following road signs. Takes about 10 minutes of your test. This is designed to assess your ability to drive safely while making decisions independently.

I’m quite a calm and laid back person but I admit I was slightly nervous about my practical driving test. My examiner was a young (ish) chap, very perfunctory and wasn’t interested in chat-chat. Before I go any further I should explain that I have quite big leg muscles, especially on my shins and calves. In the past I have often had intense cramp all down my shin from driving in the city, constant use of the pedals was something my body was not used to. In my practical test I stalled the car twice at junctions due to cramp and whilst the stall itself wasn’t enough for a fail I was failed on the manner in which I handled the stall.

I had sat in traffic for about 10 minutes, shifting forward very slowly until it was my turn at the traffic lights. I stalled the car, braked, into neutral, hand brake on, restarted the car and waited to move off into traffic. I was told at the end that I should have let the car roll forward a few feet and then break, thus allowing any car behind me to see what was happening instead of breaking sharply. I disagree with this as any car behind me should not (and could not!) have been moving much more than about 2 MPH.

I’m not sure that rolling a few feet forward toward oncoming traffic is a very good idea. However I have since learned that when stalling in traffic I should tap my break to show the driver behind that I am stopping…and then stop. A mistake for something I had not learned. Apart from that serious error I received only 5 out of 16 minor errors. My examiner was curt and uninterested in my questions, and couldn’t wait to get out of the car quick enough! Sadly I had the jerk of the day as my examiner.

I wasn’t put off by the result. I knew I wouldn’t make the same mistake again and with only 5 minor errors I was encouraged to keep going.

Driving Test Day 2nd Attempt!

I passed with 4 out of 16 minor errors! I had practised stalling and happily didn’t stall it once! The examiner was a jolly nice chap, chatty, friendly, pleasant nature, a huge contract to the robot on my first test some weeks ago. Note: You will be asked to pull over and stop several times during your test. This is to assess your ability to enter and leave traffic safely. If you make a mistake don’t worry, even experienced drivers make mistakes. My examiner did give me a telling off for following a van too closely on a dual carriageway but didn’t fail me because I had slowed down to put a 2 second gap between us after a short period. He understood that I knew I was too close and corrected my position.

To say I was overjoyed would be an understatement! I had waited 15 years to do this and couldn’t stop smiling! I shook the examiners hand and went off to give the good news to my instructor. When we arrived home I thanked him for his very good tuition, shook his hand and broke the good news to friends and family. 2 weeks later my new pink full drivers license arrived in the post and I was very proud to slot it into my wallet at long last!

Learning after Learning

It’s quite surprising to find that you still learn loads more about driving after you have passed your test. I’ve taken things slowly, driving short distances into town and back on my own, not dashing all around the country or zooming at high speeds like too many stupid youngsters do these days. I’m more mature and approach things with a calm rational manner, I also don’t have a bunch of mates or girls who I need to impress by reckless fast driving.

There is a strange sensation when going out on your own for the first time. There isn’t anyone in the passenger seat telling you what to do – slow down, watch this, watch that, explaining situations as you drive through busy areas etc. You have to rely on your skills and common sense and understanding of the road. It’s a very different experience. In a short time since passing my test I’ve relaxed more, feel much more confident in my abilities and my driving is much smoother.

I’m still open to instruction from experienced drivers. I don’t admit to knowing it all just because the pink plastic card in my wallet says I can drive. Early on in my lessons I thought I would be one of those people who never really gels with driving, tolerating it at best. However, since being out on my own I have found a curious pleasure from driving, something I didn’t expect.

Moving On

I’m looking forward to getting my own car in good time and taking trips further afield. I love going to the beach in any weather and since we have a new dog I’ll be taking him along regularly. All those times in the past where I’ve wished I could drive instead of waiting for busses or lifts I now have the ability to get to places under my own steam. There is a downside to all this, I’m now a designated taxi service…pick up the kids from blah blah, take them to blah blah, can you drop me off at…. and so on. Not that I mind one bit, I’m driving now and every time I get in the car I have a smile on my face!

Useful Links

DSA – Practical Driving Tests Explained

DSA Study Guides – Get them, learn them. Make sure you study.

Directgov – Information for new drivers, many topics to choose from.

Theorytest’s Blog – Decent  blog for learner drivers with plenty of helpful tips and guides.

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