A Driving Instructor's Blog

Driving Tests

StopwatchJust a word of warning to anyone taking their test between 16 July and October 2018. There’s a good chance you’ll have someone sitting in the back when you do your test.

DVSA is carrying out a timing study on how long it takes the examiner to set up the sat nav and conduct the manoeuvre you’ll be asked to do, so the extra person will be there to record those things. They will not be assessing you in any way, so there’s nothing to worry about.

They have the legal right to do this, and you can’t refuse. Well, you could try, but chances are if you do you’ll not be taking your test that day and will lose your money, and then you’ll spend forever vainly trying to claim it back. Since you’d be challenging a clear legal situation in which DVSA is in the right, you’d almost certainly fail, and even if you won you still wouldn’t have taken your test the first time. It’s not worth the hassle. Just get over it.

It’s not uncommon for an assessor or even a rookie examiner being shown the ropes to come out on tests, and many people will have experienced that. It’s no big deal. When it happens to one of mine, if I was planning on sitting in then I just don’t – four people in the car might be pushing the candidate’s nerves a bit too far, and in any case there’s not enough room in my car unless I shift my training stuff box off the back seat, where it is securely fixed.

The study is being carried out at about a third of all test centres around the country.

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Pills in a blister packI recently saw a forum post from someone who has failed their driving test five times, and who says that the whole test business is too stressful and that they’re ready to give up. The poster says that they fret over the test for weeks beforehand, and that the repeated failures are 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 she 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.

Being a naïve new instructor, I’d simply 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 over the years I’ve discovered that a fair number of pupils get it so bad that they are physically sick on test day – literally vomiting – and that is not normal. I’ve had others 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 told me that) while out on their test, suffer a break down and can’t continue. This is not “butterflies”, and anyone who dismisses it merely as “test day nerves” is talking out of their backside.

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 – and I hadn’t cottoned on – she’d been a bag of nerves on her tests, but after she started taking the tablets she passed on her next attempt. From then on, if I ever suspected someone was suffering from crippling nerves, I would advise them to speak to their GP. If beta-blockers were prescribed to them, there was a marked effect every time – with some bordering on the miraculous. I can only remember one person out of many dozens for whom they seemingly did nothing.

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. The one they usually prescribe is propanolol. When I read up on the subject 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 is able to make the call on whether you can have them or not.

Beta-blockers are not “zonk-out” pills. No one knows the precise mechanism by which they can be used to treat anxiety, but one way of looking at it is to consider what someone is like when they get anxious or nervous. Terms like “jangling nerves” sum it up. When I’m explaining it to pupils, I use the example of static hiss on a radio – I switch to an area on the AM band where there is just static and turn the volume down; then I start talking gently and calmly and explain this is how your nerves normally are, but when they get overactive (I turn up the volume gradually to demonstrate “nerves” taking over) my normal voice is gradually lost; eventually it is drowned out completely. That’s what happens to pupils’ concentration if the nerves are hissing or jangling too loudly.

Beta-blockers reduce or even eliminate that static. They control the “nerves”.

Concentration and awareness of what is happening all around is vital when driving. “Nerves” act like a distraction, negatively impacting concentration and so reducing awareness. In the early stages of learning a certain level of anxiety and nerves is completely normal, and that’s why beginners often make mistakes. It’s later on – in cases where the jangling nerves don’t go away – that people can become discouraged.

One method I use to find out what’s happening with established pupils is to do some scaling to find out what they’re feeling. When I’m scaling pupils, I’ll set up the scale with something like this as we’re sitting parked up in a quiet location:

Imagine you have an inner pressure dial that goes from 0 to 100. Imagine now that you’re sitting at home, feet up, watching TV with a can of beer or a cup of tea. That’s ‘0’ on the dial. Then imagine you have an important job interview tomorrow, and you’ve got to do a presentation to a room full of people you don’t know. You’ve not been well, so you haven’t prepared for it properly, and getting the job depends on how well the presentation goes. That’s ‘100’ on the dial. Now, on that same scale of 0 to 100, what is the dial reading right now?

Most pupils will say something like ‘10’ or ‘20’. A fair number will say maybe ‘30’ or ‘40’. But every now and then, someone will come out with ‘70’ or more – and when that pupil has had maybe 20 or 30 lessons… well, that’s when my beta-blocker stories get an airing.

One of the best stories concerns the 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 isn’t a natural driver, and she was going to find things difficult no matter who she was learning with, and no matter how many lessons she’d had previously. 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.

I’d already talked to her about beta-blockers, and when she’d gone to see the 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 for a month or two more. But then she went back to her GP – 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 represent the process of learning to drive on a 0-100 scale, she was at about 10-20% and getting no higher. Beta-blockers suddenly allowed this to climb to 40-50% over a couple of months. Then, disaster! She fell pregnant again and had to stop taking them.

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. Unfortunately, she then had a few family crises all in quick succession and had to put her lessons on hold.

The way I describe it, she was initially enclosed in a shell created by her “nerves”, and nothing new could get through – it was just deflected. Then, with the beta-blockers, the shell was cracked open and information was able to get through so that learning took place. When she stopped the medication, the shell closed up again, but what had previously got through stayed there.

Many of the others have marvelled at “how calm” they feel when they start taking them. One of my current pupils has gone from being stuck on a low plateau since she started last year to being likely taking her test in the summer – and it was definitely down to the beta-blockers.

You see, some pupils don’t like the idea of “relying” on medicine. But as the first example shows, you don’t have to. The medicine appears to allow confidence to develop, and that brings the overall “nerves” down so that the medicine isn’t needed permanently.

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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Doing the theory testI must admit that wasn’t aware this was being looked into, but from today the Theory Test is changing slightly to make it “more accessible”.

Apparently, words like “increased” and “decreased” are considered to be “long and complicated”, so they have been replaced with “bigger” and “smaller” instead. I’ll take their word for it that this solution has addressed an actual problem, and look forward to future changes where “bigger” and “smaller” are replaced with “↑” and “↓” on the grounds that written words are too complicated.

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StairsLast December (2017), the driving test was changed to include use of a satnav, and two of the harder manoeuvres were replaced with two that my cat could do. From June 2018, learners will – at long last – be allowed to take lessons on motorways (with an instructor, and not with mum, dad, or best mate Kyle/Kylie).

A couple of weeks ago, I asked a new pupil if they knew about the changes, and they came out with something about “graduated licences”. I pointed out that graduated licences (GLs) have been talked about for almost as long as learners being allowed on motorways has (30 years at least), and although they are a good idea, their introduction is not going to happen in the near future.

I picked up this month’s copy of Intelligent Instructor and saw that Northern Ireland is to introduce such a scheme, and DfT is going to monitor the success of this with a view to introducing a scheme for the rest of the UK. It is worth pointing out that the scheme in NI is set for launch “in 2019/20”. Allowing for a suitable monitoring period, followed by consultation, then the likely changes in the Law, any similar scheme in the UK is unlikely to be seen before 2025. And even that is if there’s a highly favourable following wind (i.e. the same government and no other unrelated problems rearing their heads).

For a start off, IAM is involved, and it is already opposed to night-time curfews – which would be one of the most obvious things to include in any GL system). Then there is some nonsense about post-test training involving parents, when the parents are some of the worst offenders out there. And Theresa May’s hold on power is tenuous at best, so she’s unlikely to risk bringing in anything that loses votes.

The learners-on-motorways saga picked up steam almost ten years ago, but it’s taken until now – with several government changes and other delays along the way – to come to anything. Now, we have Brexit hanging over us like a skip load of manure ready to fall.

Don’t hold your breath.

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Anyone due to take their first driving test in the new format, a bit of advice.

  • make sure you can handle roundabouts and multi-lane junctions competently when following satnav instructions
  • make sure you can do it on roundabouts and junctions you may not have driven on before

The satnav gives instructions differently from the verbal instructions your instructor or an examiner might have previously given. Whereas you might previously have been asked to “turn right, third exit, follow the signs towards Nottingham [or whatever], the satnav will say something like “go around the roundabout, third exit, A52 [or whatever]”.

Although the examiner might give some limited guidance in some situations, you need to be able to use the satnav display and any road signs to work out where you want to go. In a way, you have got to construct the old-style instruction in your head from the new-style one.

All the manoeuvres (edit: a reader points out that the reverse bay park is still done only at the test centre) can now be done away from the test centre, and that means the test can travel further before having to head back. Some of the routes are MUCH longer than any of the ones from pre-December 2016. Consequently, if your instructor doesn’t know about them, you may not have driven on many of the roads and roundabouts.

The new test is actually easier than the old one if you look at it objectively. However, the details above mean that SOME people will inevitably find it harder.

I’m going to do another article about the satnav, and I’ll add a link to it on this one once I’ve written it. Here it is.

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Fossil fishVarious alerts from DVSA over the last week. These are summarised here. Not so much a “strike” but a “work to rule”.

It’s the same advice as usual. Not all examiners are union members, and not all those who are will necessarily be involved. Turn up for your test as normal, get a free rearranged date if it doesn’t go ahead. They also include advice to consider changing your test now to avoid problems – which sounds more ominous.

The action is scheduled to start 23 November 2017 and no end date is given.

From what DVSA has said, the action is primarily a continuation of that we experienced over a year ago, but with the added complication of the new driving test due to become active on 4 December. The union is apparently “trying to link the dispute with health and safety risks” associated with the new test.

As I have written elsewhere, I have no issue with the additions to the new test per se. However, I have huge issues with the removal of the turn in the road and corner reverse manoeuvres. The new manoeuvres are so simple that my cat could do them, and they in no way represent a like-for-like replacement. But they are not dangerous.

As I’ve said before, the PCS union is a fossil, and thank God that only a small number of examiners are thick enough to belong to it.

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This is an old article from 2010, but it’s had a run of hits recently, and I have updated it.

Someone has found the blog several times on the search term “abandoned tests”. I’m not exactly sure what they were looking for, but here’s a bit of information that is probably relevant.

I’ve had several abandoned tests in my career as an ADI. No matter how you look at it, they are embarrassing for you and traumatic for your pupil. One of them was around 2006 – the candidate tried to drive into a No Entry street leading off a roundabout after being told to “follow the road”.

When I discussed it with him afterwards he said that all that was going through his mind was “go straight ahead unless told otherwise” and that he’d seen the signs, but that instruction just ended up taking precedence in his head. He had been one of those learners who takes things in very slowly, even though he was a very intelligent lad (very good at Maths, and went on to study it at University). Once he’d made the error, he just lost it and the examiner pulled him over and abandoned the test. I had to walk about ¾ mile to find him where the examiner had stopped the car. He passed his test soon afterwards.

Another one was in 2008. That pupil was extremely slow, and although he was up to test standard, I don’t think his mind was ever going to be able to stay there. He got the Bay Park exercise right at the start of his test, and finished just on the line (which isn’t an automatic fail). He leaned out the door and said to the examiner “have I failed?”, and the examiner replied “I’ll tell you at the end”. Unfortunately, his mind was so one-tracked he was still thinking about the Bay Park when he attempted to drive into the gate at the end of the Test Centre driveway. The examiner abandoned it there and then, less than 5 minutes in, and about 5 metres outside the test centre. I vividly remember the examiner asking “is he on anything?”

In another example from 2013, a very nervous pupil made a simple mistake – and one which might not have been a test fail in the first place – but then cracked up and couldn’t continue. She was hysterical from what the examiner told me. She passed easily the 2nd time (which I had expected her to do the 1st).

And my most recent one was earlier this year, with another nervous pupil who had found learning difficult. The test hit her so badly that she pretty much forgot how to drive (I was sitting in on that one). She’s taking lessons with me again right now.

Although you always blame yourself, you can’t control what a candidate does when they are out there with the examiner. It all depends on what kind of people they are. All you can do is teach them as well as you possibly can.

In a nutshell, when an examiner abandons a test, he/she will typically leave the pupil with the car and inform you of the location when they get back to the centre. Sometimes (from what I’ve been told), he will walk back with the pupil and have a chat. If you’re sitting in, you can take the examiner back to the test centre. The examiner cannot supervise a learner due to insurance cover, which is why he cannot bring them back once the test is terminated and the candidate becomes a learner again. Having said that, the examiners up here will make every effort to take the test to its conclusion back at the centre, and they will even dissuade candidates from terminating tests as long as there is no danger to them or the public.

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OktoberfestA few years ago, on a now-defunct forum, one of the resident fossils took issue with comments I had made on the page where I provide the PST marking sheets for download. It was around the time DVSA (or DSA, as it then was) introduced CCL (client-centred learning) as part of the expected skills of an ADI. I had pointed out that since the Standards Check was going to be looking for evidence of CCL, and since learners were being taught using it, at some point the same approach would have to be used for ADI qualification on the Part2 and 3 tests.

My only point at the time was to indicate that once I had access to the necessary marking sheets for the new test, then I would make them available.

DVSA announced in 2016 that the Part 3 test would indeed be changing – an outcome so obvious that I can take no credit whatsoever for predicting it several years earlier. However, DVSA is not renowned for its efficiency or constancy, and although I cannot now recall the precise sequence of events (i.e. delays) to the change since its announcement, this latest email indicates that they still haven’t got the necessary Parliamentary approval, and the proposed start date of “late October” has been put back yet again.

No dates are given, but since any ADI with a test booked needs to be aware of what is happening, it would be logical to assume that the best-estimate start date for the new test has got to be at least as far away as the current longest waiting time between booking and taking a test. In other words, several months – and that’s several months from the date Parliamentary approval is gained, which may not be for several months in itself!

In short, don’t expect the new Part 3 testing regime to come into effect until 2018 (that’s my estimate). At least 2018 (that’s my cynicism).

Fair enough, I could be wrong, and they might get approval tomorrow, but I doubt it. Taking the Part 3 is stressful enough for people as it is. Knowing that the test was changing will have meant they will have been trained specifically for it, so to be told that it’s old-style PSTs is really going to screw them up.

On the one hand, it’s all the government’s fault for being so inefficient. But on the other hand, DVSA should not have announced a semi-specific start date before Parliamentary approval had been gained. It was obvious that it simply wasn’t going to happen to a fixed timescale.

It also makes me wonder when learners will finally be allowed on motorways. That also needs Parliamentary approval, and back in August it was expected “in 2018” (the ‘first half’ being implied). At this rate we’ll be lucky if it happens during the current government, which takes us right back to where we were before.

And these are the same twats trying to take us out of Europe. Make up a suitable sentence using the words “piss”, “up”, and “brewery”.

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Horse's rear endI originally wrote this way back in 2010, and it was only a simple couple of paragraphs thrown out following a search term used to find the blog. Since then, I get periodic hits on the same search term: driving examiners are arseholes. I had another today.

Assuming that it’s a candidate who is searching, the lack of a question format suggests they are seeking like-minded people to rant with, rather than to actually ask if examiners are arseholes. The person using the term probably thinks they’ve been hard done by on their test after having failed, and is seeking to blame the examiner – quite possibly, in my own experience, in spite of ample evidence from their drive that the examiner was right.

On the other hand, it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that it is an instructor who has taken exception to one of his pupils failing their test. I’ve seen more than one take to a forum to vent their anger at a test fail they disagreed with (at least two in the last month).

Examiners are not arseholes.

The purpose of the driving test is to ensure that a candidate meets the bare minimum requirement to be allowed out on the roads unsupervised. The pass ‘mark’ is actually quite low, which means that anything below it is going to result in a fail. That’s the way it is, and nothing the candidate or instructor can do is going to change it.

If you don’t check your mirrors a few times when you should have, you will accrue faults, but miss them one time too many and you will fail. You will fail if you miss the check even once if there is someone behind or alongside you. The same is true of blind spot checks, and observations at junctions. You will get away with poor checks up to a point, but if it’s obvious you have a problem in this area you will get a serious fault (and if there’s someone behind or coming towards you, you will fail immediately).

You’re expected to stop at amber or red traffic lights. If you could have done safely, but don’t, you will fail. Furthermore, you’re expected to understand how traffic lights work – green filter arrows, etc. – and if you sit there holding up traffic when you should be moving off, then you’ll fail for that, too. If you completely miss traffic lights, or drive in such a way that it looks like you have, you will fail.

If you don’t stay in lane – demonstrate good “lane discipline” – you will accrue faults. If you weave across lanes when someone is behind you, you will fail. If you don’t realise you are doing it – and let’s face facts here, if you knew, you wouldn’t be – you will fail. If you change lanes without checking your mirrors first, and signalling if necessary, you will fail.

If you pull out in front of someone, you will fail. If you did it because you thought you “could make it”, you have no excuse whatsoever. If you stall you will accrue faults, and one stall too many will result in a fail. If you cause a hold up by stalling even once, you will almost certainly fail for that alone.

If the speed limit is 30mph, it doesn’t mean you can drive at 40 and expect to get away with it. Anything illegal is a fail. And if the speed limit is 60mph and the road is clear, doing 30 is causing a hold up and you’ll fail for driving like that. You need to see the road signs, and be confident enough to drive according to what they tell you.

If you drive too fast for given situations, you are going to accrue faults. If you approach a junction or a bend too fast, or slow down too late, if the examiner uses the brake because you haven’t, you will fail. Even if you think you were going to brake, if you were too late you will fail. Harsh braking will accrue faults, and one time too many will get you a fail. Do it in front of someone and you’ll fail immediately.

If you don’t stop at a STOP junction – and I mean stop absolutely dead – you will fail. It is illegal not to stop at these, and slowing to a crawl, no matter how slow it is, is NOT stopping.

If you mangle the gears every time you change them, you will accrue faults. If you use the wrong gear you will accrue faults. Do it one time to many and you will fail. Do it once at the wrong time – going into 1st when you wanted 3rd in moving traffic, for example – and you will fail.

This list is by no means complete. But the bottom line is that if you do any of those things and fail your test, it is because of your poor driving skills – not because the examiner is an arsehole.

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I will Google it before asking dumb questionsIt often amuses me the kinds of questions that get asked in Q&A columns in the media. Apart from the stupid ones along the lines of “does anyone else have a surname that rhymes with ‘spanner’, like mine does?” there are the ones that a child could answer simply by typing one sentence into Google – and yet the asker has wasted money on a stamp (there’s no way they’d have used email) and got themselves into print.

Readers who have been following the blog for a while will know that I am sometimes scathing with my comments about other instructors – the dickheads who try to do a manoeuvre 3 metres behind me on a 500 metre stretch of empty road, or who turn up in a small car park I’m using and take over with their own manoeuvre (until I explain a few things to them) get frequent mentions. I’ve not gone off on one for a while, but flicking through this month’s Intelligent Instructor magazine I had to shake my head when I read the Readers’ Questions section.

If you’re an ADI, there is absolutely no excuse for not knowing that the driving test is changing in December. Likewise, there’s no excuse for not being subscribed to DVSA announcements, nor of being aware of new posts to Despatch (DVSA’s blog).

So I was surprised to see someone asking what the changes to the Show Me/Tell Me questions are going to be.

For God’s sake! DVSA sent an email alert back in July explaining the changes in detail. They did a Despatch blog article covering the test changes, including the questions back in August, covering the wording the examiners will use. The Show Me/Tell Me questions are given in black and white in both of those. If you Google “show me tell me december 2017” four of the top seven hits are DVSA pages either as mentioned above, or informational videos on YouTube (I’m the seventh). Then there are dozens and dozens of other instructor sites which talk about it, and link to the DVSA articles. And DVSA even sent out a booklet to all instructors last month with all this in it.

I was similarly surprised to see someone else ask how the examiner will word the instruction to pull up on the right (one of the new “manoeuvres”).

DVSA covered that in August with their Despatch blog post. They also produced a YouTube video explaining it. And it was in the booklet, I think.

It’s funny, but sometimes when you’re on a lesson and your pupil comes to, say, a roundabout (which they’ve been struggling with). They’ll go through all the motions and negotiate it perfectly. You think you’ve cracked it, and you’ll say something encouraging like “that was great. Well done. I liked how you checked there was enough room to go with that car coming towards you.” And they say “what car?”

I can’t help get the same feeling when ADIs ask dumb questions like this. I mean, what the hell are they doing on their lessons if they don’t know this basic stuff?

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