Diary Of An ADI

A Driving Instructor's Blog

I saw it on the TV earlier today. It’s another JML one (remember PediPaws and the Turbo Brush?) This time, it’s for Hollywood Pants – a lower-body garment that appears to be capable of the equivalent of turning a hippopotamus into a cheetah without the need for liposuction.

Take a look at the TV ad above. Now, I am a scientist by training, and I am aware of the Law of Conservation of Mass. Essentially, this says that matter can be neither created nor destroyed, but it can be rearranged. So my question is this.

When those women put those pants on, where does the fat actually go? Because it’s not inside the pants, that’s for sure.

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Illuminati symbolismA DVSA email alert advises that DVSA is running a trial where they will send text messages to candidates in the run up to their tests offering advice on how to be prepared, not to take their test before they’re ready, and how to stay safe once they’ve passed. The trial will run between now and March 2019.

Not all candidates will receive the texts, as it is a trial. Instructors are advised to reassure pupils who receive such messages that there is no cause for concern. Also, instructors who book tests on their pupils’ behalf might receive the messages instead. I stress again, it is a trial.

Now, there are two ways this can go out here in Instructor Land. One, on my side of the tracks, it seems like a reasonable idea which can’t do any harm, and which in no way interferes with my job. Or two, on the side where all the smack head anarchists live, it is obviously a DVSA conspiracy whose only purpose is to spy on ADIs and deliberately poke their noses into our job.

Let’s see what happens.

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STOP PRESS: PayPal has an offer live at the moment – until 30 November 2018 – where the card reader only costs £34.

I originally posted this article in October 2015, shortly after I started using PayPal Here to take card payments from pupils. Before then, I’d been using iZettle, but I had an unfortunate experience with them which forced me to find an alternative. Basically, iZettle updated their app and it wouldn’t install on my phone. When I contacted them, they basically told me my phone wasn’t supported – even though it had been up until then. They nearly destroyed my business overnight, and effectively told me “tough”. I was not happy. They came back to me sometime later and apologised for their error – apparently, the app had been given an incorrect filename on Google Play, and that was the cause of the problem – and gave me almost £1,000 of free transactions – but it was too late. In the two weeks it took for them to admit their mistake, I had purchased and started using a PayPal Here card reader.PayPal Here card reader

I’d considered PayPal Here even before iZettle. But at that time, PayPal Here was brand new, and staff were even more inept than iZettle’s, and more or less told me any money I took wouldn’t be accessible to me for 30 days because of a “reserve” that existed on the account I’d set up. I wrote about that at the time. PayPal was easily the better option on paper, but not having access to my money was obviously a major issue, so I went with iZettle.

To this day, I have no idea what the hell was going on with that “reserve” malarkey, but when iZettle went titsup I contacted PayPal again, and in the intervening time they appeared to have recruited  people who knew what they were doing and actually wanted to do it for me.

So, anyway. Armed with a new PayPal Here reader and a reserve-free PayPal account in 2015, I set to work.

Since then, I have taken more than £50,000 in card payments through PayPal Here (I’d also taken a fair bit through iZettle before that). As time has gone by, the number of people paying me by card has increased, and right now I’d say that about 70-80% of pupils pay that way (2018 card takings look like being about 30% higher than in 2017). The rest still use cash (someone block-booked 30 hours of lessons a couple of weeks ago and paid me £700 in notes, which I banked, because it isn’t mine yet), a few use bank transfers (a couple of months ago a new pupil’s father paid me £700 for a block booking this way), and a couple have routinely paid using contactless apps on their phones. I refuse to take cheques – if someone has a cheque book, they have a card, and I can read that instead.

The PayPal Here reader can carry out transactions via contactless, PIN, and swipe (though swipe is not necessary in the UK). Single hour lessons can be paid by contactless (if pupils have them) but anything above £30 has to be by PIN (contactless phone apps depend on the app they’re using, and one pupil easily paid for £50 two-hour lessons contactless this way).

Since I began using it, PayPal has updated the app several times, and it is extremely convenient being able to sign in using my fingerprint these days.

The massive benefit of PayPal over iZettle is that the money from a transaction goes into your PayPal account instantly. When you transfer it from there to your bank account, for all practical purposes that is instant, too (it says it can take “up to 2 hours”, but less than a minute is typical). With iZettle, it took nearly a week – and we’re talking a business week here, so Bank Holidays both here and in Sweden mattered – for money to get into your bank account.

How long do PayPal Here payments take to clear?

For all practical purposes, they’re instant.

When you take a card payment either by chip & PIN or contactless, funds are instantly transferred to your PayPal Here account. You can leave them there, or transfer them to your bank account whenever it suits you – either from the app or from PayPal on your computer.

My only minor gripe is that you have to transfer the money manually – you can’t set it to go straight into your bank account. It’s on my wish list.

How much does the card machine cost?

At the moment (2018), a PayPal Here card reader costs £54.00. They have special offers from time to time, where the machines are cheaper than this, and my backup was purchased when an offer was in place.

How much do they charge per transaction?

It’s 2.75%. For each £25 lesson paid for by card, you “lose” 69p.

Other card reader vendors have lower fees

I’m not saying you must use PayPal. Just be aware that other vendors’ fees are often on a sliding scale (iZettle’s was),  and you only get the lower rates if you take more than a certain amount per month – which for an ADI is often quite high. I triggered iZettle’s lower rate fees a couple of times, but the lower rate only applies to takings above the threshold.

For example, if there is a threshold at takings of £5,000 per month, and you pay 2.75% up to that, and 2.5% above it, then if you take £5,500 in that month, you pay 2.75% on £5,000, and 2.5% on £500. To get any real benefit, you’d need to be taking £10,000 per month or more. Small multi-car driving schools might benefit, but a self-employed ADI wouldn’t.

The charges are a rip off

Fine. Keep taking cash.

You’re not going to get away from transaction charges. A fee of 69p is nothing on a £25 bill. All you have to do is increase your prices slightly and you’ve covered the fee, anyway.

But I can save money if I don’t have to pay transaction fees

As I say. Fine. Keep taking cash. You probably also believe your car isn’t an overhead because you own it (it is), and that if you don’t have to pay a franchiser then you’re better off by the whole franchise fee (you’re not). A card fee is an overhead, that’s all.

I can’t see the point of taking card payments

Fine. Keep taking cash. It does tend to be the older ADI who thinks this way, though.

For me, from the day I first became an instructor, the ability to take card payments was on my wish list. As years went by, having to carry lots of cash around (sometimes, a heck of a lot) and make frequent trips to the bank was becoming a major headache. Bank branches – especially convenient local ones – are an increasingly endangered species, and with parking and lost lesson time, and cheques (some weeks, every pupil would pay by cheque), it was more like an atomic migraine than a headache. There is a business cost associated with that, which is proportional to how often you have to go to pay money in. With cheques especially, I’d only have a cash flow if I went to the bank, since £1,000 of cheques in your wallet is pretty useless. I’d been waiting for something like PayPal Here or iZettle – and there are others – to appear, and got in on the ground floor.

Is it of any benefit to take card payments?

As I said, it has saved me a lot – in monetary terms, and in terms of my sanity.

But another benefit is less tangible. Some pupils might be impressed if you pull out an iPad and have a glitzy demonstration video to get some point across. Believe me, many more are impressed when you tell them you can take card payments – even more so when you actually take a card payment from them. This might become less true in the future as the dinosaurs gradually die out, but right now it works in a highly positive way.

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Asda forecourtFor as long as I can remember – from way before I was a driving instructor – I have repeatedly heard the old story trotted out about how supermarket fuel is of inferior quality and can damage your engine. I even got it from an Esso cashier a few years ago when I told him I could fill up at Asda for up to 10p per litre less than what the Esso garage had just hiked its prices to.

Before I go into any detail, let me just say that that claim is a load of bollocks, and is perpetuated by people who don’t have a clue.

All fuel sold in the UK must conform to EN228 or EN590 (petrol and diesel, respectively), and unless you have a car which states otherwise in the manual, it will run comfortably on fuel which meets these specifications. The only difference is that some major garages may include extra additives designed to improve performance of their basic “premium” grade (and note that I said “may”). The “super” grades definitely contain additives, along with that other “additive” of about 10p per litre on top of the forecourt displayed price. EN228 and EN590 ensure that any fuel does not damage your car, and they also ensure that you don’t get the famous “residues that gunk up your engine” crap that people love to tell you about. You can read more about it here.

There is no way that the majority of driving instructors fill up with “super”. They use regular “premium” like the rest of us. If I used “super”, my fuel bill would increase by about £500 a year.

When I drove a petrol Ford Focus, the handbook told me I needed to use a minimum of 95 RON fuel. “RON” is the Research Octane Number, and the larger the RON number, the more expensive the fuel. Normal “premium” petrol is the bog-standard grade, and is 95 RON. The higher grade 97/98 RON is the “super” type, and often has an amusing comic book name like “Super-X Excelleratium Ultra Hyper-Q Unleaded Fuel”, alongside some graphic likely to appeal to chimpanzees in fast cars. Higher performance cars tend to specify 97/98 RON as a minimum, but normal cars don’t. Unless your handbook specifically tells you to use higher than 95 RON, you will have no trouble with it. I never did.

A similar thing applies to diesel fuel. The big garages may have a “super” grade alongside the basic one, but smaller garages don’t. For the last 5 years or so, I have exclusively used Asda for my diesel fuel. I have had no engine problems, and I get excellent mileage (over 50mpg).

In 2010, while I was still driving petrol cars, I had a problem with erratic idling on my Focus (across several cars, I should add). Even the dealer tried to argue that it was down to the fuel, and advised me to use “super” and give the car a “good blow out” on the motorway. It was absolute bollocks – the pre-2013 model cars all had the same fault, and a mechanical fix was needed. But if the dealer trotted out that same crap to other owners, the myth would just get perpetuated for another generation.

Supermarket tankers fill up from the same places the bigger garages do. Sometimes, you’ll even see one of the “bigger garage” tankers delivering to a supermarket. But it all meets the EN228 and EN590 specifications.

As an additional tip, I fill up at Asda – where the fuel is always about 5p cheaper than the local garages to start with. I use an Asda Cashback+ credit card, which gives 2% cashback on all Asda purchases (including fuel), and 0.2% on all other purchases. I pay it off before any interest is charged, and since I shop at Asda anyway – spending upwards of £150 on groceries most weeks, and over £100 on fuel – cashback soon mounts up. I know 2% doesn’t sound a lot, but it is the equivalent of about 3p per litre of fuel, so if Asda is charging £1.32, I end up paying £1.29. I save at least £150 a year just based on fuel purchases, and at least double that on everything else.

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UK PassportThis question pops up from time to time. I often gets hits on terms like “can driving instructors sign passport applications” or “can my instructor sign my passport photo”.

On the forums, no one knows the answer – but it doesn’t stop them offering one up all the same. Their answers are mainly based on the fact that they’d like to think they can sign, and proceed from there.

The GOV.UK website lists recognised professions, members of which can countersign passport applications. It is worth pointing out right away that driving instructors are not mentioned. The closest is “teachers and lecturers”, and as much as ADIs like to consider themselves teachers, they are not teachers in the sense the word is intended in an official context.

I have asked the Passport Office for guidance on this before. Their initial answer was:

Yes you would be able to sign a passport application if you are self employed and VAT registered or a Limited company.

I queried this further (most instructors would stop reading after the word “yes”), pointing out that most driving instructors are not VAT registered, nor do they operate Limited companies. The Passport Office responded with:

…a driving instructor can be considered a suitable countersignature not because they are a driving instructor, but if they would be considered the owner/manager of a limited or VAT registered company.

If they would not be registered in this way we cannot guarantee they would be accepted by the processing team.

There it is in black and white. Driving instructors (the vast majority of them, anyway) cannot officially countersign passport applications. If they are VAT registered or owners of Limited companies, they can. But most are not. If they do countersign a passport application, the application may be rejected because they do not meet the requirements.

Of course, some ADIs might operate a larger school and their greater turnover would mean they would have to be VAT registered, thus becoming eligible to officially countersign passport applications. And if their company is big enough, it may well be a Limited Company. But that’s a very small proportion of those on the Register.

I have successfully signed passport applications for friends over the years on the back of being an instructor, but I was always wary because I knew it was a grey area. Any one of those applications could have been bounced back. I’ve never signed one for a pupil because I simply don’t know them well enough (as well as being from a “recognised profession”, you also need to have known someone for at least two years, and I’ve only ever had a handful who’ve been with me that long in all my years as an ADI).

So, technically, the answer is no. The typical instructor cannot sign off passport applications. And that’s the official Passport Office stance.

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TomTom Screen GrabI originally published this article in January 2018, but it is due an update.

It was announced mid-2017 – sometime before the 4 December start date – that when the DVSA introduced satnavs as part of the independent driving section, the model the examiners would be using was going to be the TomTom Start 52.

After briefly considering buying one, I decided against it. I’ve used standalone satnavs before, and the problems with mounting them and all the bloody cables has pretty much put me off for life. Even the latest ones are just too bulky to sit anywhere unobtrusively.

In the more recent past, if I’ve ever needed to navigate somewhere, I just use Google Maps in one of its forms on my smartphone. In the weeks leading up to 4 December 2017, I tried using it with pupils. It works (if you know what you’re doing), but its choice of route can be creative to say the least. And it isn’t the most chatty of navigation apps. Worse still is the inability to save pre-determined routes – and that’s essential for a driving instructor.

More recently still, I tried using the satnav in my Focus. The graphics on that are straight out of the 80s, and you half expect Super Mario to bounce across the screen. It, too, can be rather creative with its suggested routes, it can’t save pre-determined routes, and the erratic split-screen thing it does at unfathomable times is confusing to pupils. And I think the last map updates were drawn up by personally Christopher Columbus.

The more I thought about these issues, the more I realised that the only realistic way forward was to use a TomTom in order that pupils wouldn’t be intimidated by a different looking map, different instructions, or different voices. I asked TomTom if there were any plans for an approved app that would run on Ford’s software. It seems that they did have an arrangement with Ford to develop such an app at one point, but that fell through for some reason. But then I came across the TomTom GO app for Android. It turns your phone into a fully-blown TomTom satnav, with the added benefit of a high-res display (see the screen capture, above). TomTom GO gives you 50 miles of free navigation per month, but that gets used up in a couple of hours on lessons. However, you can subscribe for about £5 per month, or £15 for a full year, and get unlimited navigation (you can also subscribe separately to other TomTom services). You get unlimited world maps for this, and any updates are included. I bought the year subscription – it means I can have an absolutely up-to-date satnav for up to ten years for the same price as a standalone unit that would be out-of-date within a year.

A massive additional benefit is that by logging into your TomTom account on your PC or laptop you can create entire routes using a drag-and-drop map and save them. When you sync them to your device, they appear in the list of saved routes. This is how DVSA has created the routes it uses. The benefit of these pre-determined routes is that you can force a specific journey around specific roundabouts or road features, rather than have the satnav try and re-route you through a shorter route to a specific destination. Of course, you can also save favourite places – like test centres or retail parks – and just set one of those as a destination and let the pupil follow whatever route the satnav comes up with. It’s all extremely flexible.

The TomTom GO speaks through the vehicle audio system via your smartphone’s Bluetooth link.

How are pupils managing with the satnav?

At the time I started teaching it for the test, some of those I expected to have problems took to it remarkably well. A year down the line, I don’t even think about that anymore. It’s just part of what I have to teach them.

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You know how I’m always going on about the prats I have share this planet with? How about this one?

He goes into a garage and tries to put £10 of fuel in his car. He overshoots by 3p, but he doesn’t want to break into another note, and the garage won’t let him off the 3p (he’s actually got the money, remember). So what does he do? He phones the Police on 999.

Better still is the fact that he’s now gone on to Reddit to ask how he can get the Police to remove the video because it’s gone sort of semi-viral. As you can imagine, he doesn’t have much support (incidentally, to some of the smart arses on Reddit, that doesn’t sound like a Nottingham accent – more like a Derby one).

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Shopping in AsdaWell, well, well. I just did a bit of delving to find out why someone had found the blog on the search term “why is UK productivity so low”, which had thrown up an article I’d pretty much forgotten I’d written. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but I mentioned Asda in that.

Then, browsing the BBC website, I found this article which says Asda is considering cutting up to 2,500 jobs.

Asda has two problems: 1) too many chiefs, and 2) most of them are incompetent.

I shop in Asda regularly, though I am increasingly having to complete my shop elsewhere because of the stock levels. My branch is open 24 hours, but its shelf stock does not match that detail in any way, shape, or form. Asda stocks up in the middle of the night and early morning, then that’s pretty much it until the next night. On top of that, they keep running “Rollback” offers on things, and haven’t cottoned on to the fact that this encourages the owners of corner shops to come in and buy everything up so they can resell it at the RRP in their own store. By 10am, the shelves are empty of those items. I’m also pretty sure some people buy some things on Rollback to sell on Ebay at the normal price.

That’s the thing about large retailers. They can buy at much better prices than smaller sellers can, and even their normal retail prices are better than you can find in the cash & carries. Beer is a prime example – Asda’s normal prices for a case of 12 bottles are £3 – £4 cheaper than the cash & carry offers, but when they put it on Rollback, it can be as much as £10 cheaper! When that happens, even pub owners  go in and buy up stock. This Rollback discount problem also applies to many items in grocery, snacks, and confectionery.

Asda also has a problem with stock control. The amount of shelf space it gives to various products is fixed for long periods of time. So it doesn’t matter if they repeatedly sell out of one particular item (even a chimp would realise that’s because people want it), they will still maintain row after row of slower selling items, and maintain the 2 sq. ft. they allow for the item that is selling. Then, when they run out of warehouse stock, they will make no attempt to get anymore of that product until the next scheduled delivery – often weeks later. Management cannot see that if they held stock of things that sell, they would sell more of it.

Then there’s the Dairy items. I don’t piss about with low-fat stuff – if it’s got 50% less fat, it’s also got 50% less taste – yet they have shelf after shelf of that, whilst the normal-fat stuff sells out completely every day, and the shelves stay empty until the next midnight re-stock.

It’s no wonder that they’re struggling. And they’ll keep struggling until they start taking on managers who have a clue.

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Shaun the SheepPeople often find the blog on something to do with sheep. The latest was asking what you should do when you encounter them in the road.

The word “sheep” isn’t specifically mentioned in the Highway Code in this context, but the following rule is the relevant one (it comes under “other road users”):

Rule 214

Animals. When passing animals, drive slowly. Give them plenty of room and be ready to stop. Do not scare animals by sounding your horn, revving your engine or accelerating rapidly once you have passed them. Look out for animals being led, driven or ridden on the road and take extra care. Keep your speed down at bends and on narrow country roads. If a road is blocked by a herd of animals, stop and switch off your engine until they have left the road. Watch out for animals on unfenced roads.

It’s happened to me before where I’ve rounded a bend on a country lane and the road is blocked by a herd of sheep being moved from one field to another (twice in 18 months, though I haven’t had one for a few years now). I’ve also come across sheep just wandering on the road in the Peak District, and one time a lamb had escaped from a field and was being chased by someone trying to recover it.

I’ve also encountered cows browsing on the bushes on the outside of their field (I’m not sure who shit themselves the most that time I came round a bend on a single track road – me, or the bullock that had got through a fence, a stream, and then a hedgerow to meet up with me). Then, of course, you have horse riders – the normal ones who give you a wave, and the ones with attitude problems who take racehorses out.

In the case of the sheep being herded, I stopped and turned off my engine (and had a quick chat with the farmer who was at the front). If they were just wandering around in small groups, I passed slowly, keeping my eye on them. In the case of the lamb, I stopped, then put my hazard lights on when I saw a car come over the brow of a hill behind me.

What should you do when passing sheep on the road?

Someone found the blog with this question recently. It’s from the theory test, and the correct answer is to slow down and drive carefully. In reality, though, stopping and turning off your engine is often the best course of action, so make sure that’s not an option if you see this question.

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Slave CylinderAbout a month ago I noticed my clutch pedal on my Ford Focus 1.5TDCi felt different. It started off where as you lifted it, your foot would leave it, then the pedal jumped the last few centimetres and bounced on to your sole.

The next morning was quite cool, and after the first depression to start the car, it stuck half way down. Hooking your toes underneath and pulling it up righted it, and it would be OK for a while – but you could still feel something odd in that as you pressed it, there was initially not much tension until you’d gone several centimetres down, then it would bite.

Over the next week or so, cold mornings made it worse to start with, but pumping the pedal a few times would make it work again for a while. During a warmer period it was less noticeable, but still apparent as the day wore on. As I switched between pupils each day, I’d sometimes realise that some of them had been driving with it stuck part way down. Several of them had commented on it – one asked if I had used the dual controls a couple of times, because she’d felt the pedal move.

It went into the garage (a main dealer, as it happens) for a day, and they could feel the bounce, but I got the usual spiel that made it sound like they’d never come across it before. They bled the system and asked me to try it for a few days. The mechanic said it might be the master cylinder. He assured me the clutch was still working fine, it was just the pedal return.To be honest, it still didn’t feel right even driving away, but after a couple of hours it was back to the way it was before, so I booked it in again. They said they’d need it for three days, and I scheduled lessons around it as necessary. It went in this week.

Before it went in, I did a bit of Googling, and it seems that this is not an uncommon problem either with Fords or various other makes. I told the dealer that when I dropped it off.

Long story short, they replaced the slave cylinder (which meant taking the gearbox out) and it is now fixed. No more clutch pedal sticking down.

I’ve seen a few instructors asking about it in various places, and I can assure them it isn’t because the floor mats are jamming the pedals, and it’s got nothing to do with the dual controls (two of the answers given that basically equate to “I don’t know”). In fact, when the clutch pedal sticks down, you can tell by touching the duals (a few times, I thought pupils had their foot on the clutch when driving).

Note that from what I have seen on Google, this fault is absolutely not confined to Fords. Modern clutch systems are hydraulic much of the time (they used to be cable-controlled). So if you get a clutch pedal not coming all the way up, this may well be the problem you are experiencing. A slave cylinder for a Focus costs about £40 (probably more at a dealer), plus there’d be labour on top, but it’s not the end of the world in terms of total cost of repair. Fortunately, mine is covered, so I didn’t have anything to pay.

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