A Driving Instructor's Blog

Driving Tests

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DVSA LogoAt the start of 2020, DVSA announced they were planning to make some changes to the theory test. Any planned schedule for that went right out of the window when COVID-19 came along. However, with things firing on two or three cylinders again, an email today gives a date for when the changes come into effect.

From 28 September 2020, candidates taking their theory tests will – instead of the current written scenario with questions – be shown a video clip and asked questions. For all practical purposes, a video of a scenario replaces the current written description of the scenario.

You still get asked the same number of questions and you still need to get the same number right in order to pass (note my comments elsewhere on the blog that if you are one point off the pass mark, you haven’t ‘failed by one’ – you’ve failed by eight). And you still have to do the Hazard Perception part of the test.

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Virus graphicWell, I had my first post-lockdown test today, and she passed with six driver faults. Well done to her!

Reading some of the horror stories on social media, I wasn’t sure what to expect when arriving at the test centre. Half of me wouldn’t have been surprised to see armed guards at the gates and outside the waiting room going from some of the (probably embellished) accounts of other people’s tests.

Arriving in the car park five minutes (as clearly requested on the DVSA emails) before we were due, it was clear that alternate bays were coned-off to facilitate distancing. So we reverse-parked into one of them. Or rather I did from the passenger seat, since the pupil’s nerves meant she’d picked one with a cone in it, and with five minutes to play with there wasn’t time to piss about. She also wanted the loo.

On approaching the waiting room for the toilet, an examiner came to the door and opened it manually so she could go into the foyer, and no questions asked. The examiners are using the usual waiting room as an office so they can distance properly, and it is off limits to instructors.

One odd thing was that the pupil had to sign some sort of paper to say they were covered by insurance. Never experienced that before – and the paper was left in the car at the end of the test! The examiner wiped a few surfaces down before he got in, which is DVSA policy according to emails and the sign on the waiting room windows. I have no problem with that whatsoever, since examiners have no idea of who and what is turning up to test. In my case, I use a fogging machine to sanitise my car daily, and all my pupils that I’m currently teaching know my own isolating requirements (two have cancelled in the last week, one because she was unwell, but is OK now and it was just a sickness bug, and another is out of circulation for two weeks because his sister works at a school which has just had two positive COVID-19 tests, and although she has tested negative she still has to isolate). I noted that the test involved a satnav.

I’ve bought a waterproof cape in anticipation of being outside when it is wet at some point. Today was a beautifully warm and sunny day, so it wasn’t needed. I noticed that five out of six other instructors were sat together in two groups. I went outside the test centre compound and found somewhere quiet next to the river. My car has a tracker in it, and I can see its movement in real time, so I know exactly where it is at any time – useful for knowing when to make my way to the car park or (in rare cases) where the examiner has left it if there is a walk-back.

As my pupil returned to the car park, I made no attempt to go and listen to the debrief as I normally would, and kept my distance (as requested by DVSA in its emails). I noted that no windows were fully open – just the front ones a few centimetres. The examiner opened the car door wide as he did the debrief, but I stayed back. She gave me the thumbs up as I stood 6 metres away and shouted that she’d passed. I had to get a little closer at one point because she and the examiner wanted my opinion over taking her licence away, or leaving it with her to apply for her full licence herself. I explained that there could well be a delay in getting her new licence in the current climate, so unless she needed her provisional for ID purposes it made sense to surrender it and get things moving quickly (in any case, I pointed out she had her passport as ID if necessary). The debrief took as long as it usually does – no rush of any kind.

I gave her a sanitising wipe to wipe down contact points on her side before we switched seats for me to drive her home, while she made calls and sent texts to friends and family.

Absolutely no problems whatsoever. If it’s like this in future, the only issue is going to be the rain. DVSA doing their job, me doing mine.

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Pills in a blister packThis article was last updated in 2018, but it’s become popular again recently.

At the time of the original, I had recently seen a forum post from someone who had failed their driving test five times, and who said that the whole test business was too stressful and that they were ready to give up. The poster said that they fretted over the test for weeks beforehand, and the repeated failures were affecting them deeply.

Many years ago – and I’d not been an instructor for very long – one of my then pupils (let’s call her Clare), who had previously failed two tests, told me she’d been to her doctor and he’d prescribed beta-blockers. I knew what they were normally used for and asked her if her heart was OK. She told me they weren’t for her heart, and that her doctor had prescribed them to help her with her driving nerves. So I read up on the subject.

At the time this happened to Clare, I’d naïvely assumed that everyone would be like me, and that “getting butterflies” was par for the course. For most people it is par for the course, but as the years passed I came to realise that a fair number of pupils get ‘butterflies’ so bad that they are physically sick on test day – literally vomiting – and that is not par for the course. I’ve had those who start shaking when we arrive at the test centre, or who just break down and can’t go through with it. And I’ve had a couple who, after committing a non-serious fault (the examiner’s precise words) while out on their test, suffer a complete meltdown and can’t continue. This is not ‘butterflies’, and it is not ‘test day nerves’. It’s people with genuine issues.

The effect on Clare was dramatic. She was already a good driver, but she improved even more as a result of a growing confidence. Previously, she’d been a bag of nerves on her tests – it even transpired that she was nervous on lessons, but tests made it a hundred times worse. But after she started taking the tablets she passed on her next attempt. It was a real eye-opener for me. From that moment on, if I ever suspected someone was suffering from crippling nerves, I would advise them to speak to their GP. In many cases this resulted in them being given beta-blockers. There was a marked effect every single time – with some bordering on the miraculous.

Although beta-blockers are intended to treat heart conditions associated with angina and heart attacks, doctors often prescribe them “off-label” (i.e. not for their licensed purpose) for anxiety. Propanolol is usually the one they issue. When I read up on it it turned out that actors and musicians commonly use them to ward off the effects of stage fright or the jitters when playing instruments. They’re banned in athletics because they give archers and marksmen an unfair advantage (steadier hands than without them) in competition.

Beta-blockers are a prescription-only medicine, and should only be taken if specifically prescribed to you by your doctor for this specific purpose. You must not get them from someone else, as there might be a medical reason you can’t have them, and the dosage might be different. One pupil wasn’t allowed them when she was in the early stages of pregnancy, for example, and was prescribed a lower dose while she was breastfeeding. Another had problems with his blood pressure and wasn’t given them. Another was already taking medication for anxiety and the doctor switched her to beta-blockers instead (which also helped as she was less tired with them), but another was already on anxiety medication and wasn’t given them because her existing medication was stronger. Only your GP knows your medical history and will be able to make the call on whether you can have them or not.

Beta-blockers are not ‘zonk-out’ pills that make you sleepy. No one knows the precise mechanism by which they can be used to treat anxiety, but I explain it this way.

Imagine that you’re sitting at home, feet up, chilling out with a beer or whatever. Your anxiety level (i.e. ‘nerves’) might look something like this.

Normal nerves when calm and chilled

Assuming you don’t have any issues, if you’re confronted with a situation of some sort which stresses you out a bit, your nerves might react like this to the stressful situation.

Normal nerves with a stressful situation

This is perfectly normal – anyone is going to get stressed when confronted by a stressful situation. However, some people have a chilled stress level which looks like this.

People already stressed

It might not be like it at home (though sometimes it is), but even going on a driving lesson is likely to send it in this direction. The problem then is that the test (and sometimes, even driving lessons) can send it to this when additional stress is added.

Extra stress in an already stressed personThis is into meltdown territory. At the very least, the person experiencing it is going to find concentrating difficult, especially on their driving test – and that is likely to lead to mistakes.

What beta-blockers do is effectively make this.

People already stressedMuch closer to this.

Normal nerves when calm and chilled

Maybe not as low as this, but much more like it. And that means any additional stress doesn’t lead to overload the way it does in an already stressed person.

One of the best stories I have concerns a pupil who was initially breastfeeding. She’d been taking lessons for a long time before she came to me and wasn’t getting anywhere. She turned out to be one of those people who aren’t natural drivers, and who were going to find things difficult no matter what. It didn’t matter what we covered on a lesson, or how much progress appeared to have been made, because by the next lesson she’d be doing things exactly the way she always did. Every stop was likely to throw me through the windscreen if I wasn’t ready for it, and she was like a cat on hot bricks with every action or movement. Driving in a straight line was fine as long as we didn’t have to stop – if we did, you could see the wheels in her head start to go round, the possibilities start to multiply, and chances were she’d try and turn left or right instead for no reason whatsoever. She was like a guitar string that had been tightened to breaking point when she was in the driver’s seat, and some days were especially bad. I saw her walking down the street a couple of times, and she was always in a massive hurry and looking flustered – in one instance, even muttering to herself.

I’d already talked to her about beta-blockers, and when she’d gone to see her doctor – not her regular GP, who was away – she’d been told she couldn’t have them because she was breastfeeding, so we soldiered on. But she went back to her GP a couple of months later – this time, her regular one – and asked again about using beta-blockers. He told her she could have them, but at a reduced dose.

The effect was astounding. All of a sudden, she was actually learning things, and they were sticking between lessons. If you think of learning to drive on a 0-100 scale, to begin with she was about 10-20 and getting no better. Beta-blockers suddenly took her to 40-50 over a couple of months. Then she fell pregnant again, and had to stop taking them, but the remarkable thing was that her driving stabilised where it had got to – it didn’t fall back – and we were in a much better position to move forward.

Initially, her nerves had created a shell through which nothing new could pass. Beta-blockers cracked the shell wide open, and new information flooded in. When she stopped taking them, the shell closed and we were back to square one in the sense learning new stuff was difficult – but the extra she’d learned before was still there!

So, in a nutshell, if you really are having a problem with anxiety or “nerves” when you’re driving, a trip to your GP might be worth considering.

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DVSA logoAn email alert from DVSA details the procedure for the actual driving test. You can read the full communication by clicking the link, but the important part is as follows:

Wearing glasses with face coverings on test

Your pupil must wear a face covering when they come for their driving test, unless they have a good reason not to. This includes if:

  • they have a physical or mental illness or impairment, or a disability that means they cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering
  • putting on, wearing or removing a face covering would cause them severe distress
  • they need to remove it during their test to avoid harm or injury or the risk of harm or injury to others

If your pupils wear glasses

Wearing glasses does not count as a good reason not to wear a face covering.

So, anyone going out on test must wear a face mask unless they have one of the excuses outlined, and wearing glasses is not an excuse not to.

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DVSA logoAn email alert from DVSA, which you can read in full here. In a nutshell, there will be no extension to theory test certificates which expired during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The government has considered the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the validity period of theory test certificates.

After careful consideration, the government has decided not to extend theory test certificates due to the impact on road safety.

A note for the hard of thinking out there. See the words “the government has considered” and “the government has decided”. Can you see the really, really important detail in there?

The GOVERNMENT. Not DVSA.

I’m already seeing instructors blaming DVSA or criticising them for it. It is not DVSA’s decision. In order to extend certificates, there would need to be a change in the Law – look, there’s another important detail – and that is also down to the government.

I realise it’s probably too much to hope for, but hopefully now people will just get on doing the job they’re supposed to do – teaching people to drive. However, I am now waiting for the inevitable lobby groups springing up consisting of people who, 50 years ago, would have been union leaders.

But people paid for a two-year certificate

Look. This is about safety on the roads. The idea of a two year window is so that the information people acquire when they study for their theory tests is at least partially current when they’re let loose on the roads. You know as well as I do that there are those who forget everything two seconds after they walk out of the theory test centre because all they ever wanted was to get the certificate. Some retain the information, though.

The problem is that the first type become – or cause – statistics. The second type, less so. Therefore, it makes sense that this second group does not morph into the first, and that is the basis of the decision the government (not DVSA) has made. Just remember that the lockdown is likely to have a longer term effect on road safety even as it is – there are already reports saying accidents have increased – so stop potentially making it worse by trying to behave like a Samaritan on this subject.

Do YOU agree with it?

If the government had given an extension, I would have accepted it. They haven’t, and I accept that. My job is to teach people to drive, not to argue with every single aspect of this job and the legislation which surrounds it.

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An email alert from DVSA states that all theory tests booked from 20 April are off until Friday 8 May.

Key worker tests will still be conducted. All those affected are being contacted.

I’m sure the rumours will start imminently, but 8 May is just a current future point. Depending on what happens over the next few weeks will govern whether or the lockdown is extended again, so further cancellations are still possible after that.

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ITV: Secrets of the Driving TestThis is a new series on ITV, where cameras were allowed ‘unprecedented access’ to the driving test and test centres, and each week (if it sticks to the same format), follows three candidates with a bit of background information about them, and footage of their performance during their tests. You can still watch it on ITV’s catch-up service.

Going from the first episode – and the ‘next time’ bit at the end (which I haven’t watched, yet) – it’s clear that their choice of which candidates to show is diversity-driven. And I mean ‘diversity’ in the broadest possible sense, with knobs on. I suppose just showing good drivers who pass easily would be boring, so you can maybe see why they did it this way. Obviously, there’s a lot of editing going on to get three tests condensed into a 30-minute slot, so it focuses on mistakes rather than the good bits, which fairly obviously makes it more watchable.

The narration is a bit annoying in my opinion, both in terms of the actual voiceover – it’s a bit grating – but also in what he is saying and how he says it (that grates, too). The funniest part, though, is seeing other instructors’ reactions to it. Not content with complaining about their own pupils’ results, now they can do it by proxy and whinge about other pupils’ results.

Nothing that was shown in the programme contradicts what I have experienced with my own test candidates. I always tell (or teach, or coach) mine that driving onto a footpath is bad and that they shouldn’t do it. And to assume a fail if they do. Because purposely driving onto a footpath and thinking it’s OK is not good by any stretch of the imagination.

Doing it for an instant, by accident – and who hasn’t clipped a kerb at some point (even when they’re super-perfect ADIs who hold court on social media)? – is in a grey area. Clip a kerb that’s half a meter high, and tear off the front of the car – fine. Fail, with knobs on. But brush a normal one (or clip a dropped kerb) at low speed? The examiner’s decision based on the rest of the drive.

In the 1st programme, one pupil had effectively passed minutes before returning to the test centre. Then he stalled repeatedly for trying to move off at a roundabout in 3rd gear. He’d just taken a wrong turn – which isn’t a fail in itself – but he knew he’d gone wrong and became stressed by it, resulting in the stalls. If he’d have realised after the 1st or 2nd stall he was in 3rd he’d probably have passed. As soon as the examiner had to tell him he was in the wrong gear – that’s ETA (V) on the test sheet – he’d failed. So close, but definitely a fail.

The second candidate had also passed minutes before the end. But then she sat waiting to turn right at a junction when it was clear that all the traffic ahead of her had stopped. I can’t recall from the programme if a filter light came on (I don’t think they showed that), but we have a similar junction in Nottingham, and more than one candidate has failed for sitting back. Definitely a fail.

It reminds me of a pupil I had about 12 years ago, As he drove back into the test centre, he had two driver faults on his sheet. The examiner asked him to drive forward into a bay (and back then it didn’t matter how you did it, or how many bays you used). So he braked late and hit the barrier. Only slightly, but he hit it. Fail. Driving into a bay is one thing, driving into a wall at the back of it is something else. Fair enough, the examiner could have passed him (and I’d have accepted that), but he didn’t (and I accepted that). Because it isn’t my call. It’s the examiner’s.

That’s what can happen.

When it comes to tests, I do my job, and I let the examiners do theirs.

Edit: Episode 2 – yep! ITV’s primary objective when conceiving this series was definitely ‘diversity’ among anyone appearing on screen.

The examiners are still definitely doing their jobs properly, though, and come across professionally. Mind you, the older woman from Cardiff’s test would more likely have been abandoned – or at least diverted back to the test centre early – around here. The candidates are clearly (mostly) hand-picked. Rich and Yolana were the only token candidates who were test ready, with Rich – as the older driver – making probably the most typical mistake people who can ‘already drive’ make when they go on test. The clips of his lessons showed him to be a decent driver overall. You could see Yolana was going to pass from the short clips of her lessons – she was good. Mind you, she’d have got a bollocking from me if she was mine after I’d watched the dashcam footage later, for choosing a bay next to a kerb to park in when the whole bloody row was free.

I’ve got a pupil at the moment who is in his late 40s, and who has years’ of experience driving in another country. He can genuinely drive, but getting him to understand the importance of blind spot checks, then getting him to actually check them, has been a nightmare. He failed his first test for it, and that was after around 25 hours of lessons. I’d got him to check properly on lessons, but he was only doing it as an artificial exercise and was not taking it seriously. So he fell back to driving like he has for the last 30-odd years in Africa.

ITV’s apparent desire to get mistakes on screen does show, though, that not taking proper training is not a good idea for the majority of people.

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First message on GOV.UK test bookingRegarding the three-month driving test suspension, be aware that the rearranged dates in June cannot be changed right now.

One of my pupils texted me tonight and said the time on the new date she’s been given isn’t convenient, but she couldn’t change it. I asked her for the booking reference so I could have a look and even on the first page the message above makes it clear you cannot do anything right now. If you do try to proceed further, you get this message.

GOV.UK main messageIt’s fairly clear. The entire DVSA is effectively closed as far as test bookings etc. go.

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An hourglassI’ve now officially cancelled all my pupils’ lessons (with the exception of a Pass Plus that concludes Tuesday, and I’m uneasy even about that. Update: I have cancelled it).

Not one of them had any issues whatsoever, and all of them fully understood the gravity of the situation we find ourselves in right now. I’ve told them they can phone me or text me at any time, because I’m always here (unless COVID-19 gets me first), and that I will contact them as soon as I know we’re OK to fire up again.

I fully understand the financial predicament many other instructors are in. But there comes a time when you have to realise which side of the seesaw has the heavier load. There’s no point trying to bounce down when there’s a two-tonne bag of sand the opposite end. And that’s where we are. This is serious shit beyond anything we have experienced before.

It strikes me that many instructors are only thinking of themselves – and (perhaps understandably) using their children as scapegoats. But COVID-19 is a problem that is so serious that people have got to start actively looking at alternative ways of dealing with not being able to pay the mortgage or the bills instead of trying to carry on working against the tide. Seriously, that’s going to be a lot easier than you imagine once you start dealing with it – and far easier than what is likely to happen if you don’t, keep working, and end up in hospital.

Remember (or understand) that COVID-19 isn’t just something you get, then get rid of. Evidence suggests that those who recover often have impaired lung function, and possibly impaired organ function. Basically, they’re disabled and susceptible to minor ailments later. Not everyone – it’s too soon to know for sure – but enough to ring the alarm bells. By trying to ‘feed your kids’ against odds, you could easily end up in a far worse position on that front once the problem passes.

I find it ironic that even though the government response stiffens by the day, the ‘I’m going to work no matter what’ brigade maintains a flat response.

It’s still a relatively free country, and people still have a relatively free choice (for now). But I’d like to think people would make the right choice before it is made for them.

Oh, and the title of this article just refers to my lessons. The blog’s going nowhere – especially seeing as I will have a lot of time on my hands.

Update 23/03/2020: I hear that both BSM and The AA have directed their instructors to stop lessons immediately. They will not be charging franchise fees for four weeks, and will review that later as needs be – and depending on what, if anything, the government comes up with.

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