A Driving Instructor's Blog

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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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Rear of car with L plateI originally published this back in 2010. It is extremely popular, and since it keeps getting plagiarised (without due credit) elsewhere, I update it regularly.

I’ve seen a huge surge in hits during the COVID-19 pandemic. I assume that this is due to the number of people who have lost their jobs and are looking to work for themselves in future.

Incidentally, this is a long article. If you don’t have the attention span to read it, and if Facebook one-liners and emojis are more your style, being an ADI might not be for you (even if you are already one).

In 2010 we were on the brink of a recession following a spike in ADI recruitment. We didn’t realise there was an imminent recession, but there were lavish adverts everywhere, promising huge earnings (one of them – LDC – laughingly declared that you could earn £40k a year!) Such earnings, the adverts said, could be had working “hours to suit yourself”. But was that really possible? To earn £30,000 or more by working just a few hours a day, and not weekends? Are things any different now?

Even in the good times, £30k a year was going to be a struggle, and you were definitely not going to hit that doing 9-5 and only on weekdays – which is still true now. But as the recession started to bite, fuel prices began to rise, pupil numbers started to fall, and the glut of very inexperienced and very desperate driving instructors commenced a suicidal programme of undercutting to try and get work which simply wasn’t there. Even an established full-time instructor with a moderately full diary would be looking at a wage in the region of £20,000-£25,000 – and by “full-time” I mean working evenings and weekends. The price-cutters had no chance of making anywhere near that even if they had 30 hours of work, but since they had done it to attract work they didn’t have, their wage would have been under £15,000, and quite possibly as low as under £7,000. Many instructors disappeared without trace as a result of all this.

Recession aside, it was certainly possible to earn that magic £30,000 as long as you had the work, charged sensible prices, and were prepared to do long hours – but I stress the word “possible”. LDC, who I mentioned above, were referring to turnover with their £40k nonsense, and that is highly misleading.

This industry is fickle, and a fat period can easily be followed by a lean one. Even in normal times, you can do 40 hours one week, but the next might see you struggling for 20. Over a year, you might manage £30k, but the next one – especially if it had a recession (or a pandemic) in it, or if fuel prices increased (petrol went from 80p to over 140p within two years in 2010) – you’d have no chance. I was lucky and managed to weather that storm – but many instructors failed dramatically and gave up the job which had cost them so much to train for.

Things picked up again at the start of 2016 – after a five year doldrums – and the future once again looked bright. There were a lot of pupils wanting lessons, and fuel prices fell again. Then Brexit came along and threw a massive spanner in the works, fuel prices continue to go up and down like a yo-yo, and now we have the damage caused by COVID-19 to deal with (along with whatever Brexit ends up doing).

Many instructors have already given up thanks to COVID-19. But many other people who cannot drive have also lost their jobs, and driving is much more important to them. The future looks uncertain, but it might have a few silver linings depending on how you look at things.


About Being an ADI

How does an ADI’s wage compare with my old wage?

It is vital you compare like-for-like figures. If your old salaried job had a stated salary of £25,000, that would have been before tax and National Insurance were deducted. You need an equivalent figure for being self-employed to make the comparison. British Currency

Driving instructors are self-employed, and everything they do is concerned with obtaining money (turnover) from customers by selling lessons, and paying out money (expenses) in order to deliver those lessons. Their “wage” is totally dependent on these, and since both are variable it is necessary to make a few sensible assumptions if you want to predict future earnings. The worst thing you can do is overestimate your potential earnings and/or underestimate your potential expenses – if you do, the figure you come up with is little better than a random guess.

An ADI’s official wage is determined by adding up all their all their business expenses (e.g. costs for their car, fuel, insurance, advertising, office supplies, etc.) and subtracting that  figure from their turnover. It needs to be calculate for a full year to get the comparable salaried figure. In the simplest case, if an ADI delivers 30 hours of lessons per week for 52 weeks of the year, and charges £25 per hour for lessons, their annual turnover will be £39,000. Expenses (or overheads) will be different for everyone, but a typical overall annual figure might be around £12,000. Subtract those expenses from the turnover and you’re left with £27,000 gross profit. That is a wage figure – before tax and National Insurance – which can be used to compare with other jobs.

What are examples of expenses/overheads?

You will need a car. If you haven’t got one already you will need to buy or lease one, and what you pay is (or contributes towards) an overhead for your business. Having dual controls fitted is an overhead. Fuel to run the car is an overhead, as are repair and maintenance costs. Insurance is an overhead. Phone and internet costs associated with your business are overheads, as are printer ink, paper, envelopes, and various other stationery items if they relate directly to your business. A car wash is an overhead. And so on.

Advertising is an overhead which can make all the difference between success and failure for an ADI. If you are on a franchise this is less of an issue, but if you are independent then you will need to pay for your own advertising so that people who wouldn’t otherwise know that you’re there can contact you if they want lessons.

How much does a car cost?

Look it up on the internet, in magazines, or visit showrooms and forecourts. One way or the other, the price you pay for your car affects your profit over the entire period of time you own it. For example, if you spend £10,000 on one, keep it for 5 years, then sell it for £2,000 at the end of that period, that £8,000 difference is your business overhead, and it works out to about £30 a week over the 5-year period. No matter how you look at it, it is definitely costing you £30 a week over the whole five years. Fitting dual controls, and taxing and insuring it, are extras which might amount to another £10 a week over the same period. Repairs could be anything from £0 and easily up to an equivalent of £10-£20 a week in any given financial year (the age of the car is important here).

Alternatively, you could lease a car from one of the various main dealers, specialised ADI lease companies, and driving school franchise providers. Prices start at around £60 a week and often include tax and insurance as part of the price. Dual controls are usually standard items, or can sometimes be negotiated into dealer prices if that’s the route you choose. Top prices can be £200 or more per week (but read the rest of this article before you decide that £200 is “too much”).

How much does it cost to run a car?

It depends on the mpg figure of the car, and how you and your pupils drive it. Obviously, this is a variable, but for normal petrol vehicles a 30 hour week fuel bill might come to £90-£120 (2019 estimates). For diesel, it would be about two-thirds of that figure. I don’t know about the other fuel types.

Electric vehicles (EVs) are obviously making inroads these days. The first thing to remember if you think going electric is some sort of unique selling point is that you would be teaching automatic and not manual. On top of that, there is the initial cost of an EV to consider, it’s range per charge, its charging time, and where you will charge it. If you buy one second-hand, think about how the range will be affected, and how you would handle a failed battery (which is usually a substantial part of the vehicle’s cost new).

How many miles would I drive in a year?

A typical driving test in Nottingham can cover 10-15 miles, so you could logically argue that on average your lessons would cover a similar distance. On a 30-hour week, that’s 300+ miles (16,000+ annually) just for lesson time plus, say, 5 miles travelling between every lesson (another 8,000 miles). A total of 24,000 miles annually. If you get busy, it goes up further. And if – like me – you take pupils outside test routes, it goes up even more.

Leased vehicles usually have mileage caps. I lease, and speaking personally, I do between 30,000-45,000 miles a year. When you lease a car, make damned sure you go for an option which covers your likely mileage – and don’t forget to include personal miles, because it’s what’s on the dashboard display when you give it back that matters.

Obviously, giving lessons in big cities might require fewer miles. But make sure you do your homework properly, and don’t apply London mileage to rural locations. If you end up trying to stay within a mileage cap your lesson quality will suffer, and you’re less than 12 months away from a return to salaried employment if you do that. One reason I’m usually busy is that I don’t hold back on the miles, and pupils like that. Being busy easily compensates financially for driving a few extra miles.

How many hours would I need to work?

Everyone’s personal circumstances are different. At the very least you’ve got to cover your overheads – if you don’t do that you’ll go out of business. Work-life balance

If this job is your primary income source, you’ve got to earn enough to be able to earn a living wage. If every hour you work nets you £25 of turnover, and your weekly overheads bill is £220, you will need to work for 9 hours (dead hours) to cover that. Every additional hour you work thereafter becomes your wage, and on paper an average of 30 lesson hours per week will give you an annualised wage of around £27,000. However, you will almost certainly not get this amount of work straight away, it doesn’t include Christmas or other quieter periods, it doesn’t take into account fluctuations in fuel prices, and it assumes your insurance company doesn’t lay any nasty surprises on you from one year to the next. You should allow for all this in your plans.

When I first started teaching I needed to be doing 17 hours of lessons each week in order to run my business and pay my personal bills as they stood at that time. I was covering my business overheads within a week, and my personal commitments within 5 weeks. Since then, and apart from the Christmas period (which also fluctuates depending on which day Christmas falls), I’ve never dropped below 20 hours. Your personal circumstances will be different to mine, so you can only use this as guidance, but I’ve seen people on various forums still struggling to make 10 hours even after a year. You can’t survive long on that.

New ADIs consistently overlook the fact that unless you are averaging 30 hours a week over a full 12-month period, you are not going to earn £27,000 over that same period.  A 40 hour week here or there feels great, but if for every 40-hour week you have three 15 hour ones, your average is just over 20 hours. So your annual salary is going to be substantially less than that £27,000 figure.

Before you decide to become an ADI you need to carefully decide how much money you need to pay your bills, assess the personal risk of not achieving that every week, then work backwards from there. Be cautious almost to the point of pessimism when you’re working out what you might earn. Those seeking to become ADIs tend to be brimming over with enthusiasm the moment they announce they’re going to do it, but they haven’t considered the harsh realities of running business. Dreaming of earning £30k is light years away from achieving it.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a wholly unforeseen example of what can go wrong. You need to make sure you can deal with such things if they hit, instead of being in a position where you can’t afford to eat and your house is at risk.

Can I really work whatever hours I want?

If you mean “can I work just few hours and still earn a lot of money” then the answer is a resounding no, and especially not right at the start. Those adverts are dangerously misleading when they suggest that this is possible, because it always comes back to the simple fact that your salary is directly proportional to how many hours you work. Sticking with 30 hours as a target weekly number needed, you could fit that into five days in theory, but you are counting on things that simply cannot be relied on.

When I first started, most pupils took two hour lessons, and the best days were when I had a 10am, a 2pm, and a 6.30pm lesson. Since I also work weekends, it meant I was easily getting over 40 hours many weeks, and I even remember doing a couple where I ran to over 50. As time has gone by, pupils have gradually shifted to doing hour or hour-and-a-half lessons. Some still want two hours, but not all the time. I’m comfortable as long as I do at least 30 hours. Bearing all that in mind, imagine trying to fit it into Monday-Friday, then imagine trying to make it 9-5 as well.

Firstly, you’d have to go out during rush hour, and I avoid this like the plague because traffic is often gridlocked. Secondly, you’d have to have a short travel time between lessons, which heavy traffic can screw up in an instant. Short gaps between lessons means rushing the debrief, or cutting driving time short to compensate, and pupils will notice that. They will also notice if you are late for a lesson. Thirdly, you need to eat, drink, and have toilet stops. Some people insist on a ‘lunch hour’, which kills an hour from your schedule. Then there are the school run times, accidents, road closures, and so on. And so it goes on.

If you’re late more than once, many pupils will simply dump you and say bad things about you (I pick up loads who cite turning up late as their reason for changing). If lessons are rushed, they’ll end up dumping you. If you take them into heavy traffic when they’re not ready, many will dump you. You driving around trying to find somewhere quiet will not go down well, and they will dump you. At best, they won’t recommend you. All of this will damage your business.

Finally, many pupils will have fixed times during which they can do lessons – fitting around lectures, jobs, childcare, and so on. In many cases, this will mean they want evening or weekend lessons.

In a nutshell, you cannot reliably deliver 30 hours of lessons week-in and week-out in most locations if you just do Monday-Friday, and you’ve got no chance if you also make it 9-5. Realistically, you’ve got to allow for evening and weekend lessons unless you’re only doing the job for a bit of pocket money.

How easy is it to get new pupils?

Pupils are your only source of income, so they are vital to your success. Unfortunately, every new ADI seems to be convinced that they will corner the entire pupil market and consistently be working 50-hour weeks inside a fortnight. That isn’t going to happen. Sales book

You can never guarantee how much work you will have even in the good times, which is probably the main reason so many people went back to salaried employment after the last recession. As I said earlier, I sometimes see newbies on forums and social media still struggling to get as many as 10 hours, even after a year.

COVID-19 has thrown a major spanner in the works – right next to the one Brexit had thrown in earlier. The last recession was evidence enough of what can happen. This time around, the problems caused by COVID-19 might initially have a positive effect on work levels, but if a major recession follows then that could all change in an instant.

In my early days, when the market was buoyant, I tested the water in in various ways. First of all, I spent £600 on a business card sized advert in Yellow Pages (the done thing back then, and when YP was the size of a breeze block). I got absolutely zero enquiries out of it, other than skip loads of spam ever since. Then I tried placing a quarter page advert in one of those local free monthly magazines with a “guaranteed circulation of over 10,000” at a cost of £300 over three months. Again, I got zero enquiries. The return on the investment just wasn’t worth it, so I stopped. But by then I was getting referrals, so it didn’t matter anymore.

People think they’ll get lucky pinning their business card on the wall of the local chippy. One person in a thousand might, but the other 999 won’t. So be careful when other established instructors tell you to ‘advertise’. Times have changed, but they haven’t.

The only realistic way these days is to make sure you’re on social media, have a website, then annoy everyone else on the internet by keep mentioning your school name every time you post something. Don’t worry about that, because everyone does it anyway. Then, once (and if) you start to build a good reputation, you’ll also get people refer their friends and relatives to you by name. It’s a slow-burn method, but it works. In the the first couple of months of 2020 I had about a dozen new pupils come through that way.

So how DO I get new pupils?

As I said above, get yourself on social media, get a website, and push your services whenever you can. Get some business cards, and – if you can afford it – some giveaways. I give all my pupils a plush toy animal keyring when they pass their tests, and an A5 diary each year (so some will get two diaries while they’re with me, and one has had at least three!)

Once you’re established, you will start to get referrals from previous pupils. However, don’t expect these referrals to go on forever. Some pupils will not refer you anyway, and others won’t have anyone to refer even if they wanted to. Every now and then you’ll perhaps get lucky, and a pupil (or their parents) will start giving your number to dozens of other parents, so you’ll get an influx of work. Other times, a pupil you taught anything up to ten years ago will suddenly start flashing your name around – I’m teaching a lot of Nigerians at the moment for precisely that reason. But in most cases, beyond a brother or sister, the channel dries up and you have to hope others kick in.

Don’t expect all referrals to run smoothly, either. You may have taught an excellent pupil, who you got on really well with, and who passed their test easily, and who is now singing your praises to everyone. But their brother, sister, cousin, friend, or whatever (and I’m thinking of one fairly recent example of my own) can turn out to be a right unreliable pain in the arse.

By all means experiment with different methods, but bear in mind my own experiences. And don’t expect overnight results.

How do you deal with unreliable pupils?

Not all unreliable pupils are like that just because they’re prats. Some will have ongoing health issues, some have genuine bereavements, some have genuine and very important job interviews that they weren’t aware of when they arranged their lesson, some work for employers who couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery (McDonalds, for example), some have money issues, and so on. Of course, there are always a few who really are just prats.

My philosophy is very simple. I can tell what mood someone is in two seconds after they open the car door, and I build up a detailed picture of the kinds of people they are from the first moment I meet them. I know what jobs they do, or which college or university they’re at, so I tend to know if their claim to having just shaken off a bout of malaria or having undergone a full internal organ transplant is true or not. If I think they’re lying to me when they make their excuses, I’ll give them my “riot act” speech and allow them a couple more chances. If they do it again after that I stop teaching them. I have only ever got rid of a small number out of the many hundreds I’ve taught.

My “riot act” speech includes how much it costs me to run my business, how much I lose when people cancel or don’t turn up, and the question about how they would feel if they lost that amount of money out of their wage packet. It also includes a bit about being honest, and how I am far more tolerant with someone who simply can’t afford the lesson and tells me so than I am with someone who can’t afford it, but instead claims they were hit by a meteorite or had food poisoning for the sixth time in two months. It usually does the trick.

I give every pupil a paper diary and insist they bring it out with them every lesson (and that can be fun). I often get their parents involved. Those with health issues will already have told me about it, and I just ask them to give me as much notice as possible if they are unwell. Sudden genuine illness can’t be helped, nor can sudden job interviews. If someone is sick, they can’t drive – and that includes me. If something personal comes up, that can’t be helped either – and that includes me, too.

The only time I claim for the lesson is if they are pissed, or are recovering from having been pissed (I had one turn up one time who couldn’t stand and didn’t recognise me) There are some pupils I won’t allow to book Saturday mornings because I know they go out Friday nights. If I know others are going anywhere where they might drink, I won’t let them book the next morning as a precaution. Many will already think of this themselves. And many – or their parents – will insist on paying anyway if they know they’re at fault.

Each pupil is worth an average of £900 to me, and a zero-tolerance approach would cost me a lot more than the occasional missed lesson does. Therefore, I do everything I possibly can to work around the problem. It’s only the ones I can’t fix who I let go. I treat last-minute cancellations as holidays, not as lost income. You simply have to accept that short-notice lesson cancellations will happen, but you have to consider what you will lose if you’re too driven by your terms & conditions. For me, with a 48-hour written cancellation policy (which I rarely uphold), alarm bells start ringing when cancellations reach about 10% of the likely income I’d get from a pupil over short period of time. That happens very infrequently – and these days I can usually fill vacated lesson slots even with less than 24 hours notice.

How easy is the job?

You’ll spend all of your time sitting on your backside, save from the occasional walk into and out of the test centre, so in that sense it is very easy. However, sitting down all day means that unless you get some exercise outside of the job, you will put on weight. And since you might be getting home around 8.30pm, having left the house at 9am, a trip to the gym or a 30 minute jog might not seem quite so appealing then as it does right now while you’re imagining the piles of money you’re going to be rolling in.Watch your figure

If you already suffer from back problems, go back and read that part about sitting down all day again. If you don’t suffer from back problems, be prepared to develop some.

You need to be on your guard at all times, watching both your pupils and other road users. Any learner can be driving along the straightest of roads, only to suddenly decide that – for reasons you may never be able to get to the bottom of – they ought to take an immediate 90° turn into a dark field that doesn’t even have an entrance, instead of continuing smoothly along the straight and fully illuminated “A” road that everyone else is on. I once asked a pupil why he had attempted such a dramatic manoeuvre on a straight 60mph road, and he answered “I honestly don’t know”.

Almost every experienced instructor will have had the pupil who, when you’ve asked them to “turn right” at a roundabout, has tried exactly that – to go round it counter-clockwise. Or the one who doesn’t even see the roundabout or 90 degree turn right in front of them. Or the one who decides that “follow the road ahead” means go where the car is pointing right now. Or the one who only hears you say “right” when you say “look to the right”, and instantaneously yanks the wheel in that direction (this is even more likely if you also make any sort of hand gesture indicating a particular direction). Or the one from a country where there is no such thing as “give way”, who executes an emergency stop every time they see another vehicle anywhere near them. Or the pupil who suddenly decides they shouldn’t have entered a roundabout or junction after all and slams on the brakes in the middle of moving traffic. Or the one who, while driving along at a steady 50mph, decides to change gear needlessly – and then either finds 1st by mistake, or pulls on the handbrake lever. Or the one who, when moving out into (or driving in) busy traffic, accidentally hits the brake instead of the accelerator. And so it goes on. Some of it just happens. Other times, there’s an underlying medical issue such as dyspraxia involved – sometimes diagnosed, sometimes it not (and sometimes diagnosed, but they haven’t told you about it even though you have specifically asked them several times before because you’re pulling your hair out trying to figure out why they apparently want to kill you every lesson).

Then there are pedestrians, Audi drivers, and – sigh – cyclists, who will think nothing of moving directly into your path, who have zero knowledge of the Highway Code, and zero regard for it even if they do, providing ample triggers for jumpy pupils to stamp on the brakes or fling the wheel towards parked cars. And don’t forget squirrels, pigeons, and other cute animals – the average pupil can spot a squirrel in full camouflage gear in a tree 500 metres away in the dark, and even though pedestrians on crossings might get overlooked, squirrels are worth at least an Emergency Stop.

Having to concentrate on all this leads to tiredness, usually at the end of a busy day when it’s also dark, thus adding to the overall risk. It all comes down to how well you can handle such problems, but the bottom line is that the job is both physically and mentally challenging if you’re not used to it. And some people get used to it.

Is the job stressful?

The first time you encounter any of the above behaviours you will shit yourself – I know I did. But I got used to it, and these days I’m ready for it (though pupils never completely lose the ability to spring surprises on you). As I’ve said elsewhere, this blog is one of my ways of relieving the stress.Stress ball

The only part of the job I still find genuinely alarming is when a pupil kicks off over something unexpectedly.  It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it’s a real downer. Believe me, there are some very strange people out there – perhaps due to undiagnosed issues again – and when you inevitably end up teaching one of them you have to be careful how you handle things.

I think part of the problem is that young people these days simply aren’t used to having their faults picked up on, much less discussed, and a few of them can overreact to the most innocuous comment or action (often translated to “you’re shouting at me”). It is their defence mechanism, and no matter how you approach the situation some will just blow their lids. When it happens, it is virtually impossible to smooth it out short-term, and you may even find that things are never the same between the two of you again. It happened to me once when I was teaching a pupil to do the turn in the road. We got on great, but on this occasion she stopped half way through and started to ask questions about which way to steer. People were waiting, and I said “come on! Get on with it! We’re blocking the road”. Once we were out of the way, she said “I don’t like being talked to like that”, and that was it.

Dilbert - Which?

Occasionally, though, you’ll get a real lunatic. My most recent example of that is the woman who had told me she thought she was being stalked. I took it at face value and advised her to contact the police, but she already had. When the police investigated the “suspect” it turned out to be a false alarm – just a courier driver who stopped in the same place each morning at the same time she walked her dog. I don’t think her accusation was overtly malicious – she’d just got the wrong end of the stick – but with hindsight, she apparently had issues in this area and was able to get the wrong end of this sort of stick with alarming ease. I realised a few weeks later, after she dumped me for “a female instructor”. When I phoned to ask what was wrong she told me that I “made her feel uncomfortable”. I was mortified – this has always been a bit of a phobia on my part, and my skin crawls even now when I think of what accusations she could have levelled against me. I had never even thought of her that way, but God only knows what she told her new instructor.

Then you have to manage people with “issues” (not uncommon), those who can’t afford the lessons (very common), those who are slow learners (but see themselves otherwise) and have booked their tests already just “to have a go” because they might get lucky (also very common), those who resent resent you suggesting that they should move their tests back (sometimes accusing you of trying to extract money from them)… well, you’re going to end up stressed however you deal with it.

Outside the car you have other road users. Some of them are so stupid that you seriously have to wonder how they passed their tests in the first place, let alone how they keep hold of their licences. As far as they’re concerned, L plates mean the Highway Code doesn’t apply anymore and they can get in front of you anyway they see fit. They will pull out or overtake dangerously at every opportunity, cut in where there’s nowhere to cut into, and tailgate you (sometimes on purpose, sometimes just because they’re genuinely crap drivers). They will sit behind you at traffic lights, hand paused over the horn in case your pupil moves off more slowly than they think they should (older female drivers are worst for this). Others will force their way past on narrow roads, even driving on the pavement to do it (couriers and postal drivers especially). Younger drivers will openly begin texting at traffic lights, even delaying moving off to finish the tweet they were engaged in. And only learners, of course, have to follow the speed limit.

Elderly homeowners in middle class areas seem to spend the better part of their retirement hiding behind their curtains, ready to race out (it’s amazing how fast old people can move when they want to) and get needlessly involved in whatever happens outside their house – such as claiming ownership of a corner or stretch of kerb. Others will report you if you stop and leave the engine running for more than 15 seconds. Some elderly drivers will deliberately drive up behind you and stop centimetres from your bumper if they see your reversing lights on (that happened once on a pupil’s test – the examiner’s verdict of “stupid cow” was very apt).  On the rougher estates, where people are all related probably without realising it (you know, the men have one big eyebrow and the women have scrunched up hair which pulls their eyes into slits) be prepared for things to be thrown at the car. Once, one of the local Neanderthals prostrated himself on the road in front of the car (we were actually reversing – they’re not too smart). And one year I had three punctures in the space of three weeks, which I narrowed down to a corner I used for reversing where fresh screws were being scattered on a nightly basis.

Lastly, there are other instructors. You’ll pull up on a half-mile long deserted street on a deserted industrial estate some time late on a Sunday afternoon to do a turn in the road, only to have some idiot ADI appear moments later and stop within three or four car lengths of you to do the same thing. The same thin happens in car parks when you’re teaching bay parking. You’ll be in a small car park that’s only big enough for one car to practice, and some idiot ADI will drive in and start to do the same. Even in bigger car parks, you’ll be keeping to one area, and other ADIs will be using every single bay preventing you from moving. Even in Asda (or Chilwell Park and Ride) late on a Sunday when it’s shut, the entire car park will be free, you start practising in a row of bays, and some twat turns up and uses the same row. I make it absolutely clear what I think of all of them.

So stress is there in bucket loads, and you can’t avoid most of it. It’s how you handle it inside that matters – as I said earlier, I have my blog and I can vent my spleen here!

Can you do too many lessons?

You have to face the fact that people choose to become ADIs for the money. The best ones also do it because it’s something they actually want to do to, but money is always the bottom line. It’s only a job, after all. So it is natural to want to be busy.Work overload

The problem is that if you are too busy, the quality of your lessons will suffer. If nothing else you will be tired and stressed, and if your pupils have crap lessons when they’re tired or stressed, what makes you think you’re any different? Your learners will pick up on poor quality lessons immediately, even if you don’t, so it’s vital that you know your own limits. Being too busy can easily affect your ability to retain pupils, which negatively impacts your reputation and recruitment of more work, thus increasing your stress even further.

Unfortunately, many new ADIs have their eyes fixed on that mystical £30,000 and doing 50 hours a week, and nothing seems to change that until the harsh realities set in. The truth is that if they could get anywhere near that level of work it would – if it didn’t kill them first – negatively impact their performance and health, and set in motion a downward spiral for their future earnings. Instructors who are genuinely able to work very long hours and maintain the quality of their work are in the minority in the first place, and are invariably those with more experience. Even fewer can do it week in, week out (I deliberately build in slack weeks here and there so I can have a rest).

So, yes. You can do too many lessons.

Is it legal to work long hours?

ADIs’ hours are not restricted in the same way as (for example) an HGV driver’s are, so yes, it’s legal for them to work long hours. However, the conditions attached to the green badge mean that an instructor mustn’t provide dangerous tuition or engage in illegal or unprofessional activities. If you are tired or stressed there is a very real danger that you might miss dangerous situations or even fall asleep – and that would have very serious legal implications. At best, you’d lose pupils and not get new work coming in. At worst, you could lose your licence to teach, end up in jail, or even be killed.

What amounts to “long hours” is different for everyone. Some may struggle to do more than 20-25 hours, whereas others might easily cope with 40. In my case, it was doing 40-hour weeks with one or two peaking at over 50 that made me decide to build in slack ones once I was established.

Can I make more profit if I reduce my overheads?

Of course you can. The real question is which overheads, and by how much? Driving instruction is a mature business, and any trick or USP which is likely to increase work or cut costs has already been tried, evaluated, and built into the costing model. As a result, what you charge, spend, and earn as profit falls into a fairly narrow pre-defined range. You can’t just go out and charge £40 an hour when everyone else is doing it for £23 and expect to stay in business. If fuel costs the rest of the country £1.20 per litre then that’s approximately what you’re going to have to pay for it; and if a typical instructor drives 10-20 miles per lesson, someone in the same location who tries halving that without a bloody good reason will find themselves back stacking shelves at Tesco in no time at all. All you can do is find the best balance between enough work and minimising your expenses within this mature framework. This is the basis of a simple, successful business.

Can I cut my fuel consumption to reduce my overheads?

Up to a point, yes. But realistically, only if you are wasting it in the first place. Fuel is the largest overhead that you actually have much control over.

Fuel costsHowever, remember what I said about this industry being mature. There’s not a lot of scope for major tweaking, and some ADIs often get it into their one-dimensional minds that they would make shed loads more money if they used shed loads less fuel, without understanding that the syllabus they have to train with commits them to a significant amount of road time. As I pointed out earlier, a typical driving test covers about 10 miles, and if instructors aren’t covering a similar distance on most of their lessons (allowing for their teaching area) then something’s wrong.

You can’t cut your fuel consumption to nothing by parking up by the side of the road talking. You’re guaranteed to lose pupils that way and not get any more. Some instructors still try it, though (including a lesser national school, which offers a “free” lesson which doesn’t actually involve any driving). I pick up loads of pupils who have switched instructors for precisely this reason, and they’re not all telling lies.

By reducing fuel consumption too much, you’ll end up driving pupils away, so what you might save in fuel, you lose several times over in lost income. That impacts future income through gaining a bad reputation. So the whole system comes crashing down because you tweaked it too much. Wise management of your resources can certainly minimise your fuel costs, but you can only go so far before it’s too far.

Can I get a cheap car to reduce my overheads?

It makes me laugh when I hear instructors claiming that their car “costs [them] nothing”. Unless they won it in a raffle, and had no maintenance costs resulting from age and day-today-use such as punctures, broken windscreens, new wiper blades, etc., then their car costs them money just like everyone else. Nissan Cube

In the real world a car has to be purchased or leased by the vast majority of instructors. Once you have it, it has to be replaced periodically and maintained while you have it. The vast majority of instructors cannot do this maintenance themselves, and have to take it to a garage. It needs oil top-ups, new tyres, wiper blades, and so on. And that’s before you even consider serious breakdowns and repair costs – which happen to everyone sooner or later. If your car is off the road you lose money from not being able to do lessons, or spend more money arranging for a replacement if it isn’t part of a lease agreement (and even if it is, the hassle alone will still result in at least some lost work while you deal with it). All of these are overheads which mean the car costs money above and beyond its material cost in the first place.

Even if you paid £10,000 for your car five years ago and mentally wrote off the whole ten grand back then, the reality is that that your total profit throughout the entire period of ownership is reduced due to the capital you invested. If you sell it for scrap after 5 years, that £10,000 has effectively cost you £40 per week since the moment you paid for it – and that is true, no matter what you tell the taxman and everyone on social media who will listen to you. Then you have got to replace it, probably by spending another £10,000 or so, and the whole saga starts again.

You can cut your initial outlay by either getting a used car, or perhaps by choosing one no one in their right mind would normally buy (the Nissan Cube, above, is for illustrative purposes only) that dealers are desperately trying to shift. You need to make sure you are comfortable in it yourself, as it will be your personal car as well as your school car (there are quite a few models out there that I simply can’t fit in without touching shoulders with my passengers).

Finally, you then need to consider the effect the car you drive has on how much business you attract. My advice is not to just get the cheapest car you can find without considering how its looks might affect your business.

Can I use an older car?

I’ve noticed that more and more trainee and newly-qualified ADIs are opting for significantly older used cars – often, the car they already owned before they decided to become instructors.Old Corsa or new?

You can still operate a driving school in one of these, but no matter what those who own them might claim the age and appearance of the vehicle you drive can have a significant effect on the work you attract – even though you might not realise it. The majority of pupils like new (or new-ish) cars and there’s no escaping the fact that a ten-year old Corsa looks exactly like a ten-year old Corsa, whereas a brand new Corsa doesn’t. The car you drive could mean the difference between success and failure for a new instructor.

Incidentally, I have noticed on forums and social networking sites that a significant number of instructors have purchased second hand vehicles and are having mechanical problems down the line.and asking for advice. Some are off the road for weeks. Perhaps they shouldn’t have listened only to things they liked the sound of before they took the plunge.

My advice is not to cut corners without realising the possible consequences.

What can I charge for lessons?

You can charge whatever you want. The real question is how much are people prepared to pay for lessons? And if you’re thinking of cutting prices, how much profit are you prepared to lose?

Money to burnThe average lesson price in the UK right now is somewhere around £26-£30 per hour. I hear that in some areas they can charge £30-£35 an hour, but I know if I tried that here in Nottingham my diary would empty overnight. So I effectively have an upper price I can (or dare) charge, and I am actually in the upper part of that range.

During the last recession, price-cutting took off as a tactic as desperate instructors tried to attract work which wasn’t there at the expense of other instructors doing exactly the same thing. The theory was that if you are cheaper than anyone else, you’ll get more work. But it isn’t as simple as that if you’re even half capable of running a business.

I repeat again that this is a mature industry. Profit margins are not great in the first place, and cannot be manipulated to any significant extent without having the whole thing come crashing down. Theoretically, if you were the only one doing it and were already charging the average for your area, dropping your price by £1 might well have the desired benefit with minimal impact on your profit. But as soon as others start doing it, you lose the benefit but retain the lower hourly rate – and without the benefit of more work, you’re now much worse off than before. Now you’re stuck – do you drop your price by another £1 (which will now seriously impact your profit even if it attracts work), or do you put your price back up (which will upset any pupils you have)?

Between 2010 and 2014 you would see cars advertising lessons for as little as £15 an hour. They couldn’t possibly have been turning a profit at that hourly rate unless their lesson quality was dire. None of them are around anymore. Throughout the same period my prices stayed the same and I came through it comfortably.

You need to charge the highest price you can get away with to succeed, and not the lowest possible to flirt with bankruptcy.


Working as an ADI

Should I start with a franchise?

My advice on this is simple. Yes, you should. And be very careful when people advise you to go independent, particularly if it’s straight after you qualify. The vast majority of new ADIs haven’t got a chance in hell of filling their diaries quickly enough to start earning a living, whereas franchise-based schools – especially the larger ones – are geared up to advertise. Although there are never any guarantees, there is a bloody good chance that a decent franchise will be a hundred times better at getting work than you are.

In my opinion, anyone who goes independent right from the start is crazy. Qualifying in the first place was a gamble, so why risk it all again doing something I know from experience may not work? You need lessons in your diary. Your name emblazoned on a sign-written car is superficial, and will not do that for you.

Should I start out independent?

Ask this on the forums and social media you’ll be swamped with “go indie” advice from people. The problem is that those people are a mix of established ADIs, ones who are struggling themselves, ones who have a sheep-like mentality and dislike franchises simply because its the done thing and they want to be part of the gang, and so on. Many will be doing this job for pocket money or as a retirement filler. Some don’t have mortgages or rent to pay, and have substantial private pensions. None of them know what your financial needs are.

If you need to establish yourself and get work quickly, doing it as an independent instructor is highly likely to be more difficult than it would be under a franchise brand for most people. I’m sure that there are some independents out there who genuinely hit the ground running when they made this choice, but I can assure there are a lot more ex-ADIs who didn’t.

It’s your choice. My advice is not to risk it unless you fully understand what will happen if you get it wrong.

Is it cheaper being independent compared to working on a franchise?

There’s no doubt that if you had a guaranteed 30 hours (or any other amount) of work per week in your diary, you’d be better off as an independent instructor. This is quite simply because you’d have lower overheads. However, the difference is nowhere near as great as the forums and social media would have you believe.

A franchised instructor might be paying £200 a week for his car (and that includes pupil supply and vehicle back up). An independent will be paying at least £30-£40 a week as an absolute minimum, but probably more like £60-£80. Don’t believe them when they say they ‘don’t pay anything’ – they do, and it’s in the region I have just stated. It’s still cheaper – but not £200 cheaper. When you add on other costs an independent has to cover, which a franchise includes as part of the package, the difference equates to a couple of hours of work.

If you need to be earning sensible money to get a living wage, going independent immediately after you qualify is a huge risk. Going independent later is something you can consider if you know you are generating enough work by yourself.

Can a franchise guarantee that you have work?

The short answer is no – no one can guarantee that. However, it isn’t that straightforward. As I said earlier, you cannot be certain of being busy all the time no matter how well-established you are. However, before the lockdown there were pupils by the truck load in most areas, and if a franchise or local school was “guaranteeing” work it was probably because most of them could. So don’t dismiss the claim out of hand.

Right now, in the middle of the pandemic, everything is messed up. The signs are that there are even more people desperate to learn to drive. However, we’re almost certainly going to hit a recession at some point, and everything could change. Just bear that in mind.

Which franchise do you recommend?

I don’t recommend anyone. You have to make your own choices because there will be risk involved whoever or whatever you choose. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you to stay away from large schools or franchises per se – they’re just wrong. Many hold a grudge for some reason, or are simply regurgitating what they’ve heard others saying.

Also be careful when you hear people complaining about notice periods. Ideally, choose a franchise which has an easy cancellation policy. That means read the agreement before you sign, and ask about it. These comedians you see complaining are usually trying to break the agreement they signed, and blaming the franchise company. I can guarantee that at some stage you will be whingeing about your terms and conditions, pupils cancelling at short notice, and others wanting refunds. Franchise companies have the same problem with franchisees.

The people I see complaining about how hard it is to get out have usually tried to do so in an extremely unprofessional way. They then start making accusations which are not true in order to shift blame to the franchiser. They will have a ready audience for this, and that’s usually where you start to hear things that are simply untrue – often several years down the line.

Should I choose a local or a national franchise?

It’s up to you. Many newly-qualified ADIs baulk at signing to “big names” and choose local schools instead. I once knew of someone who chose a small franchise simply because it meant he could remove their artwork (it was magnetic) from the car they supplied him with when he wasn’t working! It doesn’t matter what the school name is. All that matters is they provide you with pupils – and in my opinion, the national schools might be better at that – especially when times are hard – because they can invest more in advertising.

Also consider the lesson prices charged by your franchise. Local ones tend to have lower hourly rates than the national schools, and while that might mean they can ‘guarantee’ work right now, you need to calculate what that will do to your profits at the lower hourly rate. And don’t forget ‘special offers’ (BOGOFs, block discounts, free first hours, etc.). Who pays for that? Some larger national schools finance it through the franchise fees paid by their instructors, whereas others (and the smaller local schools) tend to expect the instructor to cover it. Consider then scenario where you have ten new pupils assigned to you, each with a ‘free hour’ that you’ve got to cover. How will you handle that?

Why do people say bad things about franchises?

They’ve either had an experience that they aren’t happy with, or they know (or have heard of) someone who has had that experience. The simple fact is that the large national schools simply can’t afford to be as bad as some people claim they are – especially if they are a premier brand. Bad experiences are usually nowhere near as one sided as the teller would like you to believe.

RED driving school is a perfect example. The first thing a new ADI learns is that RED must be hated at all costs. It all stems from a time 15 years ago when a school with that name advertised instructor training profusely, and made claims of huge potential earnings. That was enough to rankle people by itself, but there were lots of cases where people had foolishly committed their life savings to train as driving instructors, then quickly decided they didn’t want to do it anymore. But they had signed a contract, for one thing, and in many cases were trying to get out a year or more down the line. That meant exaggerating things to make it sound like they were the injured party.

That RED went into administration years ago. It was bought by a venture capital outfit, who retained the name and is not the same company at all. Instructors who train and work with RED give it good reviews except in a few cases when they’re trying to terminate their contracts early. So the old myths persist.

It’s the same with BSM. BSM used to charge something like £320 a week for its franchise, and was a favoured target for all those experts who were running a driving school with a car ‘that didn’t cost them anything’. BSM was bought by the AA almost as long ago as when RED went bust, and I believe that its franchise is now around £200, like the AA’s is.

Just be careful before you sign up to long contracts with anyone, then you’ll have much less to complain about later. Read the small print. An initial 12 month contract would be reasonable, thus allowing you to become established. After that, you want a short notice period of no more than 3 months if you decide to leave. If you sign up for 12 months, then try to leave after two, it really is you who is at fault for not doing your homework.

Why do people have these bad experiences?

Usually because they haven’t planned ahead properly when they decided on this career. I’ve seen a several examples in forums recently where someone was trying to get out of their RED contract due to ‘lack of work’. In all cases, the person in question mentioned they had kids (in one case, a child with special needs), so clearly couldn’t work either enough hours or at the right times to earn a living wage. In all honesty, they shouldn’t have gone into this job in the first place. But here they were, creating new repositories of anti-RED propaganda, as everyone else joined in with the ancient history they’d heard about. That’s how it happens, so be careful taking it at face value.

As I’ve said elsewhere, you cannot expect to just turn on the tap whenever you want pupils. It’s nice when you can, but you can’t rely on it – and you shouldn’t. Pupils have to fit into your schedule, and if that’s restrictive then it’s inevitably going to cause problems. You need to understand what being self-employed means, with both the risks and the expectations.

Having kids to feed and support is just one example, but it does show how badly some people have thought this career choice through if they have a huge personal burden of some sort to manage, and one which involves their finances and/or time constraints, and then they take on a minimum term franchise contract on top of it. A 12-month contract is likely to have a value of around £10,000, and if you want out half way through, like it or not you are liable for half that amount if you choose to break the contract.

You should not be signing any sort of financial contract under these circumstances (including car leases and loans) unless you are fully aware of what you are doing. Just remember that you cannot make a full salary working part-time hours.

Franchises are too expensive!

Independent ADIs frequently claim that that they pay £200 less per week than an instructor whose franchise costs that much. They are totally wrong, and merely illustrate their lack of business understanding. The difference in most cases between franchise and independent is less than £100.

Consider this. Would you prefer to be independent paying (let’s say) £60 a week for your car and £60 for fuel, and doing 15 hours of lessons? Or would you prefer a franchise at £200 a week plus £120 for fuel, with 30 hours of work?

Many people only see the numbers as written, and conclude the first option is best. But in that first example your annual wage would equate to about £13,000 (without advertising costs), whereas the second it’d be around £22,000 (and that’s assuming the same premium lesson price, which the independent might not be able to charge).

I repeat. Independent is only cheaper if you have the work!

But you have to work a lot of hours for nothing to pay the franchise!

This is completely false. You have to work ‘for nothing’ to pay your overheads no matter how you do it, and both franchised and independent instructors have overheads. However, the franchisee will be paying maybe £100 extra per week at most – which requires four hours of lessons to cover. However, you might well have twice the number of lessons as a result of paying that extra £100. You’ll be getting close to £400 more per week as a result of investing that extra £100. It speaks for itself.

If you have lots of work, and no sign of it dropping off, independent is undoubtedly the best option, since you will be £100 better off each week. If you are struggling, it definitely isn’t the best option, since you’ll be several hundred pounds worse off.

Franchised ADIs only work weekends because they have to

This is a variation on the ‘too expensive’ argument, above, and is completely false. All ADIs have to work several hours a week to pay off their overheads (dead hours). Franchised instructors have to work four hours more to pay off their overheads, but are likely to earn up to £400 more as a result. The people who make this claim simply don’t have a clue about their own business, let alone anyone else’s.

Personally, I work weekends a) because I can, and b) because by doing so I can earn between £250 and £400 more than I would if I didn’t. I do it because I want to – and because there’s a big market for people who want me to – and not because I have to.

I repeat: if you have lots of work, independent is financially the best option. If you don’t, it isn’t.

Franchised instructors have to work half the week to pay off their franchise

Another variation on the ‘too expensive’ them, and also totally wrong. As explained above, a franchisee has to work maybe four hours more to pay off their franchise overhead, but they can earn up to £400 more per week as a result.

Franchises are no good if you want to work part-time

You can get a headboard-only franchise for £30-£40, which would be covered by just two hours of work per week. Everything else you’d have to pay for anyway – part-time or full-time. Franchises can be a good idea for those starting out part-time with a view to growing their business. Even a full franchise is still workable – as long as you ignore those silly claims above.

The fact is, no matter how you do it, you’re going to have overheads to cover. And apart from fuel, all the others are fixed and don’t change much depending on how many hours you work.

Independents can get their own pupils without paying a franchise to do it

Of course they can. It’s a wonderful theory. And if it turns out to be true, then going independent is definitely the best way on the financial front. But if it turns out not to be true, you’re going to be screwed once you can’t afford to carry on anymore. Just remember that more instructors have problems sourcing and maintaining a supply of pupils than don’t.

I’ve seen various threads on social media recently where people are asking about pupil referral companies – people who advertise driving lessons, then farm them out to instructors who are registered with them. The surprising thing is the number of independents who are already using such companies and offering up advice. I have no problem at all with these outfits, and if it gets work for instructors, all well and good.

My point is that if it were really as easy to get your own pupils as the independents keep saying, there wouldn’t be a need for these companies. But clearly, there is a market for it. And since you have to pay for these referrals, you’re effectively franchised without being signed to a franchise! It’s a little bit hypocritical, really, since these instructors will be going around trotting out all the ‘indie is best’ rhetoric, yet they are paying others to do the work for them – which is exactly what a franchise is.

Independent ADIs can charge more

This is another wonderful theory. In reality, the last official survey on this showed that on average, indies charge at least £1 less per hour compared with the larger schools for their standard hourly rate.

It’s even better when you look at some of the indie websites out there. I’ve seen people on social media claiming they charge top dollar for lessons, but when I’ve hopped over to their websites it turns out they have block-booking discounts that bring a £25 per hour stated price down to as little as £17 per hour! Nearly all of them offer discounts of between £3 and £5 off their standard hourly rate. You are not charging £25 per hour if you’re giving £5 discounts to most of your pupils.

The only offer I make is that anyone block booking ten lessons gets one extra hour free (that free hour is the last one to be taken and has no monetary value). It means I can scale the offer as I increase my prices periodically. I don’t advertise it, and only bring it up if I have a phone enquiry and they ask about discounts, or when it comes to paying for their first lesson.

The bottom line is that any special offer is lost revenue, and big discounts need to have huge paybacks, otherwise you’re just throwing money down the drain.

Independent ADIs earn more

This is simply not true, as worded. If an independent has the same number of hours work as a franchisee, and if they charge the same hourly rate, then the indie will be about £100 better off per week. But as I have explained above, it is the ‘ifs’ which make all the difference. All the evidence suggests that many independents are not charging the same hourly rate, and they are not delivering the same number of lessons per week. Some are, of course, but many aren’t.

The bottom line is that some independents will be earning more than some franchised instructors, and some franchised instructors will be earning more than some independents.

Why are ADIs self employed?

There’s no rule that says they have to be. In the past some people have tried to employ salaried ADIs, and until recently (I can’t remember who it was), there’s was at least one place that was still doing it. The problem lies with the fundamental costing model.

If people are only prepared to pay, let’s say, around £25 for driving lessons, then anyone teaching them has to use that in their business model. Cars all cost roughly the same, fuels costs the same, and all other costs are roughly the same – for everyone at any point in time. Therefore, if an instructor delivers 30 hours lessons each week, he will have an annual salary of about £25,000 after paying all his overheads. This arrangement is pretty much fixed – let’s call all it ELEMENT ZERO.

If you introduce another layer of management in all this by employing instructors, there are suddenly many more overheads to cover. Offices, staff, advertising, and so on. All of that has to be paid for from somewhere, yet the ELEMENT ZERO part is fixed – pupils will not pay massively more than £25 per hour, there are fairly definite fixed overheads to deliver lessons, and the instructor needs a certain wage. But now you’ve added a Limited Company with premises to pay for, as well. Who is going to lose out in all this?

Mercedes tried it by offering lessons in ‘high-end’ cars to ‘high-end’ earners. They recruited normal instructors, many of whom developed ‘high-end’ opinions of themselves, and stayed in business for a few years. But in the end they gave up, because it simply wouldn’t work financially.

The basic principle here is that ADIs are self employed because of ELEMENT ZERO. Overhead costs are at the lowest possible that way. Having a franchise or car-leasing stage in the chain is about as far as you can push things before it becomes unprofitable.

Should I start part time after I qualify?

Starting out part-time makes sense on paper. In theory, you can start slowly and gradually build from there – and that can work for some people. The problem is that if you do start that way, it’s almost certainly because you intend to keep your salaried job while you grow. But the trouble will start with the first enquiries. What if they are for lessons at times you’re doing your other job? You’ll have to turn them away unless you have a very understanding employer (and it’s possible you might, though very unlikely). And what about taking those enquiries while you’re doing the other job? They’re going to come in at all times of the day, so will your boss mind? In many cases, will your boss even know you eventually intend to hand in your notice?

Start out part time by all means – but make sure you fully consider the feasibility of doing so before you go ahead.

Which advice should I listen to?

Use your own common sense as much as you can. Don’t listen only to negative information, and don’t assume it is always right – it often isn’t. As I’ve explained in this article, you now know how much you can charge for lessons, how much a car will cost (various options), how much insurance will cost, and so on. So work things out for yourself.

If you’re going to look for more online advice, be wary of sites with information dating from more than 3-4 years ago (and especially if it is from 2008-2011). Those will usually have been written by bitter people sticking the boot in on the big advertisers of the time – most notably RED Driving School – and who were suffering badly from the effects of the recession.

Your main concern is to get work – and no one can tell you if you’ll succeed or not. It is the risk you take if you decide to enter this industry. For that reason, you need to choose the route that is most likely to provide that work.


Training to Become an ADI

How do I become an ADI?

There is a guide on the GOV.UK website which will help. You need to be over 21 and to have held a full car driving licence for at least three years. There are certain situations which could prevent you becoming an instructor – in a nutshell, unless you have a totally clean driving licence and absolutely no criminal convictions or pending court cases you may be refused entry on to the Register. If you have any sex- or violence-related offences on your record, you may as well forget it. As far as the middle ground goes, the acceptance criteria have been dumbed down since I qualified, so who knows?

Firstly, you will need to have a criminal records check (or CRC, now the DBS – Data Barring Service) carried out. At the original time of writing this costs £6 – but my advice is not to bother if you clearly will not be accepted on to the Register, or unless you’re prepared to lose the £6 if you end up being refused (some people still apply even if they have horrendous criminal records or stupid numbers of points on their driving licences, then complain when they are rejected). When you have your CRC you can apply to join the Register, and once you’re on it you can start your training (though I can’t see why you couldn’t start training before – you just wouldn’t be able to take any of the exams, and if you were refused then it would be money wasted).

What if I’ve been banned previously?

I don’t know for sure. If it was recent, I would guess you have little chance of being accepted on to the Register. If it was a long time ago, then you might.

Some endorsements remain on your licence for up to 11 years if they were serious crimes you committed. However, I’m not sure if the Registrar looks any further back than that – or even if they allowed to.

What Is Involved?

You will need to pass three exams:

  • Part 1: The theory and hazard perception test
  • Part 2: The test of your driving ability
  • Part 3: The test of your instructional abilities.

The national pass rate for Part 2 in 2014/15 was 54.4%, and for Part 3 in 2013/14 it was 32.3%. The Part 1 pass rate is about 50%. These data come from different official documents, hence the different years, but they still provide suitable guidance. You can see that a lot of people fail.

Let’s do a bit of maths using these numbers. If 100 people joined the Register as PDIs, according to the statistics only 50 would pass Part 1 and move on to Part 2. Of that 50, only 27 would pass and move on to Part 3. Finally, of those 27 only 9 people would pass Part 3 and qualify as ADIs. That’s an overall success rate of less than 10%.

The maths isn’t quite that simple, though. You can take Part 1 an unlimited number of times, and you’re bound to pass eventually. You just need to ask yourself if it’s worth it if you fail more than a couple of times. Once you have passed Part 1, you can take Parts 2 and 3 up to three times each within a two-year period of passing Part 1. You are not bound to pass Parts 2 and 3. The overriding point here is that becoming an ADI is not a foregone conclusion, nor is it cheap. Failing at some point is more likely than passing – even if the overall probability of passing is not quite as low as 10%.

How long does it take to pass?

Theoretically, you could book each test as soon as you’ve passed the previous one and – assuming you pass each first time – go from joining the Register to having a green badge in just a few weeks. There’s no rule that says you can’t do it this quickly. You don’t actually need to invest much money in primary study material (just these three items, though other materials may be of additional value).

The theory test one is available as an app, In reality, you will need training for each of the practical tests, quite possibly more than one try with at least one of them, and waiting times for the tests can be several months depending on where you live. Doing it over a period of between 6-24 months is most likely, with the bias towards the longer end of that.

Some companies do ‘intensive’ courses, where you do all the training and exams over several weeks. My views on intensive courses are well-documented – they aren’t suitable for the majority of people, and even if the candidate gets a pass out of it at the end, do they really know what they are doing?

If you take your time, you’ll be better prepared for each test. If you rush, the chances of failure will be higher. You only get three tries at each of Parts 2 and 3 within the two years after passing Part 1. Fail a third time on either, and you have to wait until the two years is up, then do the entire application process again. It’s a terrible way to invest a couple of thousand of your money if you increase the risk of failing.

Why are ADI pass rates so low?

I certainly wonder that, especially about Part 1. Someone who is even partly suited to the job should get 100% on that every time, so a 50% failure rate strongly suggests that a lot candidates are massively out of their depth. Parts 2 and 3 are much harder – especially so for unsuitable candidates.

Do only good instructors pass the tests?

Unfortunately, no. Remember that the main reason most of us decide to become ADIs is for the money first, and because we want to teach people second. For a lot of people, money is at the top, but wanting to teach might be so far down the list that they haven’t even considered it. It sounds cynical, but it’s true. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of newbies struggle to pass, then give up because they simply couldn’t handle the job – yet if they’d have been able to see beyond the £££ signs right at the beginning they could have saved themselves a lot of money and stress. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing you can never be particularly good at it (don’t kid yourself: you can’t), and your pupils will pick up on that immediately. And that kills your chances of success.

Do business skills matter?

A complaint I often hear when I take on new pupils is that their last instructor would take a block booking payment from them (over £200 in banknotes), and then repeatedly cancel lessons, be “double booked”, or be “unavailable” – ignoring texts and phone calls. In most cases, the instructors who do this are not intending to defraud on purpose. They’re just out of their depth from a business perspective. What happens is that they’ll already be struggling financially. Along comes a pupil with £200 cash in their hand, and they’ll snatch it away to fill part of the hole in their bank balance. The problem now is that for the next ten lessons – perhaps spaced out over 5-10 weeks – that pupil is effectively non-paying. So they would much rather give lessons to other pupils who are paying on the day. So they become difficult to get hold of. Even worse is if that pupil decides to jump ship and get a refund, the instructor hasn’t got the spare cash to provide it.

I have always been acutely aware of the effect block bookings have on my own cash flow, and how it feels to have no “current income” from lessons. I have always ensured that any money paid in advance didn’t get spent before the lessons had been taken. Other people don’t have the same scruples, though. Ironically, those who do it might actually be good instructors. They’re just crap at the business side of things.

Although it isn’t confined to independent ADIs, it is more prevalent among them (sorry, but it is). The bigger the school, the less likely it will be to tolerate its name being sullied, and the nationals like AA and BSM will get rid of instructors who do so repeatedly. With the lesser schools and locals, there is possibly more of an issue, though some private franchises are at least as strict as AA/BSM. Not long ago, I had a pupil whose mother explained that they had lost money to a local school when an instructor “retired” still owing lessons, but the school said it wasn’t their problem since the ADI was no longer with them (frankly, if they had any decency at all, they’d have refunded it out of their own pockets – it was only a handful of lessons – and taken their “retired” instructor to small claims). There have been others I’ve taken on who’ve had similar experiences and who have lost money with local instructors simply not delivering what they’d been paid for.

So, is it easy to qualify?

It depends how you look at it. Even if you’re not cut out to be an instructor you might sail through the tests. Conversely, even if it’s your calling you might struggle to pass. And vice versa. And I’ve already mentioned the national ADI pass rates.

If you’ve done your homework and really want to give the job a go, think of it as a challenge,

How much does it cost to become a Driving Instructor?

It will vary from person to person. There are two main ways to go about the training.

If you do it by yourself (referred to as “pay-as-you-go”, or PAYG), Part 1 is something you can do in your spare time, and apart from the cost of the exam (£81 at the time of writing) and suitable training materials (say, around £30 for books and an app) it won’t cost much. Part 2 will almost certainly need professional tuition, which typically costs £30 or more per hour, and ten hours would cost around £300 plus the exam (£111). Finally, Part 3 is likely to require at least 40 hours of professional tuition (£1,200) plus the exam (£111). All that adds up to about £1,800 – though realistically, most people will require more training than what I’ve mentioned here, and will most likely need more than one attempt at one or more of the exams. A worst case scenario might see you paying closer to £3,000 on training – perhaps even more. You’ll have people tell you this is the best and cheapest way – mainly because pretty much the only alternative is training with a franchise, and we know how clueless some people are about that.

So, as I said, the alternative is to pay for a complete training package from a training company – usually one of the franchise companies. This was how I did it many moons ago, and I have no real complaints other than for the fact that the small company I was with went bust while I was training (it was common at the time, but much less so these days), and I finished off privately. These days, full packages typically cost around £2,500-£3,500. And don’t forget that however you train, if you qualify you’ll have to apply for your Green Badge, which currently costs £300.

Either way can work. And either way can fail. Both ways for the majority of people will cost a significant amount of money.

Can you do it without paying any money except for the exams?

Yes, though it is a high risk path. A few people seem to manage it if you can believe what you sometimes hear. But it is only a few.

I feel that doing it this way says a lot about someone’s motivation and reasons for wanting to be an ADI. They can’t be serious about it if they’re prepared to risk at least £300 (if they pass each exam first time) to over £700 (if they take the maximum possible tries and fail (and I assumed only two goes at Part 1 in that).

Realistically, over 99% of people would fail if they tried this way.

Should I train with a franchise or independently?

The choice is yours. There is absolutely no reason why a large driving school offering a training package should be any better or worse than an independent individual or small company doing the same, or one charging pay-as-you-go.

There most definitely are some cowboys around, and they can be solo trainers as much as the training schools. The worst culprits seem to be outfits you’ve never heard of before, or solo trainers who have seen what they think is a way to make money by charging more to train ADIs than they could when they were teaching learners. An outfit whose cars you never see on the road would be a bigger potential risk.

Large schools like RED, BSM, and The AA are not cowboy outfits, so be very careful listening to people who tell you otherwise. Their “advice” tends to be coloured by their own experiences, which are usually a little biased and not usually due to as much of a fault with the school in question as they claim.

Becoming an ADI isn’t easy, and many people struggle with the exams. The last person they will ever blame is themselves, just for not being good enough, so they target their trainers instead. Training packages tend to based around a set number of hours, and struggling PDIs often find they need many more hours than than that.

Do you get trained in how to be self-employed?

It depends on who you train with, and whether or not they include this as part of the package. I don’t know what it is like now, but based on my knowledge and understanding of the past, some do, but most don’t. The ones who do cover it quickly, and it’s not “training” as such, just the transfer of basic information – you get told you need to do your own tax returns, what sorts of things are expenses and what are income, and that you can do it yourself or pay for an accountant. You aren’t shown how to do a self-assessment return or given the names of any accountants. Personally, I found it not to be rocket science. Some people will, though.

Do I need to use an ORDIT-registered trainer?

No, not at the time of writing. You don’t actually have to use any trainer at all.

ORDIT stands for Official Register of Driving Instructor Training. It is fair to say that if your trainer is ORDIT-registered, then there is an increased likelihood that the training he or she delivers is of a high standard. However, it is absolutely no guarantee. Just as poor-quality ADIs can pass their tests and remain on the register of driving instructors, the same is true of instructor trainers on ORDIT.

DVSA hopes to make ORDIT registration compulsory in the future.

How did YOU do it?

After I lost my job, I decided that I was never going to work for anyone again. I started looking into teaching – something I’d been attracted to since I left school. As a chemist, science teachers were in very short supply, and it seemed like a possible way forward. However, it would have involved working for someone, and it became apparent that bureaucracy in teaching is probably worse than the hell I had had to endure to get me here. And quite frankly, teaching had changed so much since I was at schools that I don’t think I could have handled modern day kids without risking punching one of them – which I believe is considered unacceptable these days.

Then, I saw an advert in my local newspaper for becoming a driving instructor. I have always enjoyed driving, and the idea of being able to teach it was very appealing. I had an interview, signed up, and went from there. The company I trained with used to get a lot of bad press, but I only ever had one problem with them – when they went bust (as many did back then)! I finished off my training privately using the instructors who had been put out of work by the bankruptcy, and qualified about two years after I’d started.

I was fortunate. While I was training I was working as a consultant in my old capacity for someone. I set up as self-employed then, and for a short time I was also a director of a company set up by the company I was consulting for. When that finished, I did a stint in technical support for Dixons/PC World (admittedly, working for them) until I passed Part 3. This meant I could keep the wolves from the door.

So, I used a pay-up-front training package to become an ADI, but did a bit of pay-as-you-go at the end.

Training Packages are a rip-off

No they’re not. Some can be, but that’s true of many things. You have to remember that becoming an ADI is quite difficult, and as I’ve already explained, many trainees are really vastly out of their depths.

Packages tend to be based on fixed numbers of training hours spaced out over a period of time. The irony is that whereas most PDIs probably expect to do it in half that time, the reality is that many would likely need half as much again to be test-ready. This is usually the crux of any issues – the trainee expects too much, then gets all shouty when it becomes apparent they need more help.

The quality of the tuition you receive is directly down to the instructor providing it – not the company he is working for. You can get good and bad instructors – or ones you just don’t work well with – whether they are delivering a full package through a school, or PAYG training on an independent basis. The school they are associated with is completely irrelevant under normal circumstances.

Complete training packages don’t work

Yes they do. Any problems are almost always down to the candidate’s weaknesses rather than the trainer’s.

When I was training, my lessons were a mixture of one to one and two to one sessions. A one to one session might last between 2 and 4 hours, and a two to one would last 4 hours – two with me in the hot seat, and two with me watching someone else in it. Interaction between all parties was encouraged, so the times when you were watching were still part of the lesson. However, I remember at the time being struck by how unsuited some people obviously were – and it definitely wasn’t because the trainers were doing a bad job. They’d cancel lessons or just not turn up, and then start whining about how poor the company was when it couldn’t fit them in for another week or two.

Should I train with a local trainer on a PAYG basis?

There’s no inherent reason why you shouldn’t – it is as viable an option as the pay-up-front route I mentioned above. It isn’t something I have direct experience of myself, though definitely need to be wary of those telling you it is cheaper than a full package, because there’s a very good chance it won’t be. It’s only cheaper if you qualify in the shortest amount of time and pass all your exams first try. Most don’t, and then the PAYG costs start to ramp up, whereas the pay-up-front package was probably all-inclusive.

How do I know if I would be suitable?

Be honest with yourself. If you don’t like the idea of the training with potentially tricky exams to pass, and a periodic check test/standards check (which is effectively an “exam” you have to pass regularly in order to remain as an ADI), don’t like driving, or if you are nervous working face-to-face with people (to give just a few examples), there’s a good chance you won’t enjoy being an ADI – and that’s well over half way towards failing in the business once you get going. Don’t let the dream of earning big bucks cloud your judgement, because if you aren’t suitable – and yet still qualify – you’ll be lucky to earn £3,000 a year, let alone £30,000. All that money spent on training will be wasted.

Some people – the vast majority of the population, in fact – are not cut out to be instructors. You should face the fact that you might be one of them.

Is now a good time to become an ADI?

In 2020? Well… it’s hard to say. This time last year it would have been a resounding yes, but with the proviso that Brexit might affect things. Right now, it’s just a resounding proviso that Brexit is imminent, the government is doing its damnedest to make it the worst possible Brexit… and now we have COVID-19 and whatever that does to the economy in the medium term. My own personal view is that Brexit is going to f**k things up to the power of ten, and now COVID-19 might compound it. But I am holding in there. Beyond that I can’t say – and nor can anyone else, so if they do just ignore them.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it. But if we enter any sort of deep recession then it will be extremely hard.

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Flip-flops - the most inappropriate driving shoesOriginally published in 2019, so references to ‘recent’ apply to 2019.

With the weather we’ve had recently, there’s a good chance you’ll have had pupils turn up half naked for their lessons ready to sweat all over your seats (one of mine has been bringing a towel to sit on after I ribbed him about wetting the seat). Then, five minutes later, they’re moaning about being too cold because you have the aircon turned on (assuming you’re not a tight-arse who refuses to turn it on to save fuel).

One issue which comes up regularly throughout the year, though, is what they have on their feet.

At the most basic level, a new driver has got to learn how to control the pedals, and especially the clutch. To do that, they’ve got to be able to feel it – which they can’t if they’re wearing big, clunky shoes. Running shoes are probably the worst for this, because they’re specifically designed to absorb shock (and therefore any light touch on the pedals), but any kind of shoe with a platform is going to make clutch control harder. This is especially true if the pupil hasn’t driven before, and even more so if they’re one of the types who is going to have problems in this area anyway.

I had a pupil a few years ago who was one of the jumpy kind. One day I picked her up directly from work, which meant she had ‘forgotten’ her driving shoes. She was wearing platformed Doc Martens – literally, with a four inch chunky heel and bulldozer tread underneath. I abandoned the lesson after less than ten minutes before someone was killed, and drove her home. In a similar vein, I remember once seeing a woman get out of a Mini Cooper wearing massive goth boots with wedge soles that were at least three inches thick (below the knee, she was a ringer for Karloff’s Frankenstein). You cannot drive safely in those. Period.

I always advise pupils to wear flat soled shoes with a thin profile. Anything thick is going to make life difficult, and it drives me crazy when one turns up for their very first lesson in designer running shoes, with the extra thick sole and a concealed wedge heel.

Speaking personally, I absolutely hate it when they want to drive barefoot. My reasoning behind this is that I know from direct experience that you can stub your toe or even cut your foot on the pedals if you hit them in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it bloody hurts. Car manufacturers don’t seem to put much effort into ensuring the undersides of the pedals free from burrs or sharp edges. Furthermore, there is no way most people can brake as hard barefoot as they could in shoes. And if it’s more than half an hour since the car was last valeted, the floor mat will have grit on it, and the last thing you want is to have to execute an emergency stop in your bare feet only to discover something sharp stuck on your sole.

Having said that, I had one pass recently who drove barefoot. I let her do it (after telling her off the first time for trying to stow her shoes in the footwell) after I’d done my usual test in this situation: the Emergency Stop. If they can execute an Emergency Stop barefoot to the standard I expect, then they can drive like that if they want (though I still don’t like it). And she could. However, at the same time she had referred a friend to me who was in the same Halls of Residence, and she couldn’t. One day a few months ago, she came out to a lesson wearing huge furry slip-on slippers (‘why’ was a long story which I’m not sure I fully understand even now). She immediately knew they were not good for driving and asked if she could drive barefoot.

I said that I didn’t mind (because her friend did it), but I was concerned about how well she would be able to operate the brake in bare feet. I asked her to brake firmly while we were stationary and to tell me how it felt. She said it hurt, and she didn’t think she’d be able to brake hard if she needed to on the lesson. Problem solved, and we rescheduled – with the additional light-hearted warning not to come out with the wrong shoes again.

I can think of loads of examples where pupils had previously worn sensible shoes, then come to lessons wearing different though not necessarily inappropriate ones, and had a stinker – just because the shoes are different! Small differences can have a huge effect on some people.

Pupils with larger feet also need to be careful. Anything much above size 9 or 10 doesn’t work well if their shoes have long toe caps, because they’re likely to start catching on the cowling above the pedals. Winkle pickers are a no-no if you have large feet in many normal cars, and since they often have absolutely no grip (just a thin, shiny sole), the risk of the wearer’s foot slipping is also greater.

Very wide- and loose-fitting shoes – Ugg boots spring to mind – are also potentially dangerous, because if you try to slam on the brakes there’s a good chance you’ll make contact with the brake and gas pedals at the same time. And it does happen – it happens sometimes even with small-footed people wearing sensible shoes, so throwing Uggs into the mix is just asking for trouble. The same is true when someone insists on wearing some sort of hobnailed boot two sizes too big as a fashion statement – they’re too bloody wide.

Probably the most dangerous shoes for driving, though, are backless types. Mules, backless sandals, and flip-flops. It’s not necessarily anything to do with the heel thickness – though it can be if they’re platformed – but the fact that they can slip off. I mean, think about it. You can potter about as much as you like in summer wearing flip-flops or mules, but try to run and it’s 50-50 whether they will stay on, and 50-50 whether you end up flat on your face on the pavement or road. They present the same risks in the car if you have to move your foot suddenly to brake – with the additional chance that they will fall under the pedal and prevent you from depressing it fully. They could even get tangled up sufficiently to prevent you being able to brake at all. And don’t dismiss that out of hand – I once had a loop in a shoe lace double bow get itself completely over the clutch pedal (God knows how) so I couldn’t take my foot away or lift it high enough to declutch, and when I slipped the shoe off it swung under the pedal and stopped me declutching fully anyway. Shit happens, as the saying goes.

Strap-on sandals are not so bad, though the open toe arrangement still means you can catch your foot more easily if the sandals are particularly large and oversized (which many are these days).

And it goes without saying that trying to drive in high heels is just plain stupid. The heel messes up how you have to operate the pedals, and you cannot get anything like the same force if you really needed it. Many high heels have shiny soles with little grip, which makes matters even worse.

It isn’t illegal to drive barefoot, nor are any specific types of footwear banned or even mentioned in the Highway Code. The only reference is in Rule 97 (partial quote):

Before setting off. You should ensure that

  • clothing and footwear do not prevent you using the controls in the correct manner

However, DVSA has been quoted separately as follows:

Wear sensible clothing for driving, especially on a long journey. Suitable shoes are particularly important. We also would not recommend driving barefoot because you don’t have the same braking force with bare feet as you do with shoes.

My comments above are based purely on my own experience and knowledge, and they agree completely with this DVSA advice. And so do various other organisations.

I wear flip-flops and never had a problem

This stupid argument makes me angry – especially when it is coming from ADIs.

Everyone knows that if you have a set of expensive crystal glass goblets you shouldn’t drop them. If you do, they’re likely to smash. However, someone somewhere will undoubtedly have dropped one by accident one time, and it will have bounced on the carpet or the arm of a chair, and survived. This does not mean it is OK to drop or mishandle delicate glass goblets. It just means you were bloody lucky.

As I said above, if you try and run in flip-flops or mules, they’re easily likely to come off or send you sprawling (possibly both). The chances of that happening are roughly the same as they are of you getting away with it. If personal injury is one of the possible outcomes, then those odds are not good. If death for you or a passer-by were a possible outcome, they’re catastrophically bad.

There’s no evidence flip-flops are dangerous

You really shouldn’t just say what comes into your head before you’ve fact-checked it. Back in 2016 the insurance company, Sheila’s Wheels, did a survey – and it was of enough people to have statistical significance across the population –  which showed inappropriate footwear was responsible for as many as 1.4 million accidents a year in the UK. Of those surveyed, 60% admitted to driving in ‘inappropriate footwear’. A third said that this involved sandals and flip-flops. And a quarter said they still did it in spite of their previous mishap. About one twentieth to one tenth had actually had an accident as a result.

It doesn’t matter that more people have accidents opening a tin of beans, or taking a sheet of paper out of their printer. Those things have nothing whatsoever to do with driving a car. What matters is that flip-flops are demonstrably dangerous when worn for driving.

I drive in high heels and don’t have a problem

There is no way you can drive as safely in high heels as you can with sensible flat soles. Period. It is a simple scientific fact based on the change to the way you have to apply leverage to the pedals when a high heel is extending and deforming your foot length. Having to brake hard in an emergency situation is going to be a lottery if there is the chance of your four inch heel making contact with the floor before you’ve got the brake on hard enough, or if it snags on the mat.

Remember the example I gave above, of the woman in the goth boots? Three inches of plastic increasing her leg length by 10% and suppressing all feeling of the pedals? Driving in high heels is no different – possibly worse – and anyone who suggests otherwise is a complete idiot, even if they have “always done it”. That’s the risk you’re taking each time you drive in heels.

Pupils will drive in those shoes when they pass

That’s their problem. Your job is to try and educate them in what’s right and what’s stupid while they are with you – not to encourage them in dangerous practices.

I advise all of mine to keep a pair of driving shoes in the car when they pass and not to risk it with heels. Beyond that, it’s up to them.

It’s not against the Law to wear flip-flops

Well, you’d probably still be arguing the toss even if it was. But the fact that it isn’t specifically against the Law doesn’t mean it is the sensible or right thing to do. That it isn’t specifically against the Law means that you doing it is your problem as you struggle with simple common sense. But if you’re encouraging others to do it, then you have become the problem.

But you let people drive barefoot

And I don’t like it. I only give in if they can prove to me that they can do an Emergency Stop properly. As it is, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number who have done it out of many hundreds I have taught. Quite frankly, I wish they would make it illegal to drive barefoot or in inappropriate shoes.

What shoes do your wear?

Deck shoes. I suggest to my male pupils they drive in something similar if they have any issues on lessons. I suggest to the females that ballet pumps with a firm sole are worth a try. It’s surprising how many times I explain – diplomatically – that a driving lesson isn’t a fashion shoot, and people should be comfortable ahead of looking like they’re going to an opera.

Why shouldn’t you put your shoes or bag in the footwell?

If you brake, whatever is down there will move forward. The only place for it to go is under the pedals. So if a kid on a bike rides out in front of you and your bag has moved under the brake or clutch, one of you will be in hospital (or worse) and the other will be up on a careless driving charge (or worse) and about 99% of the way towards becoming an ex-ADI.

Putting your shoes or bag in the footwell isn’t a problem

I have a tidy bag on the back seat of my car for a good reason. On more than one occasion during my driving lifetime, sharp braking has resulted in a bottle or book sliding under the seat and straight under the pedals. The design of the car footwell and the universal laws of physics guarantee that loose objects will end up there if you brake hard. Shit happens.

Storing anything in the footwell is dangerous. I regularly get people wanting to put their shoes, handbags, and even an umbrella (surprisingly common) down there. I simply won’t let them. Because I know from experience how dangerous it is.

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Questions people ask search engines to find the blog. And my answers that I use with pupils, along with links to articles I’ve written on the subject previously.

Why is it important to know different terminology?

The full question was ‘why is it important to know different terminology when instructing?’

Everyone is different, with different levels of intelligence, linguistic skills, and so on. Something as simple as referring to a clock face might be a problem for people who have only ever known digital clocks on their smartphones. Or if someone didn’t have a good maths education, referring to an angle or turn in degrees will have them flummoxed. And if you have a degree in English language, using polysyllabic words (that’s one right there) that aren’t used very often on the web will come across as meaningless to many.

It’s always vital to check someone’s understanding, and to find a different way of saying it if they simply don’t get it the first time. One of the best parts of being an instructor – for me, at any rate – is trying to find the right buttons to press and switches to flip that turn on the lights in people’s heads.

Why shouldn’t you use the handbrake in an emergency stop?

The question asked was ‘what are the dangers of using the handbrake in an emergency stop?’

Modern cars have antilock braking systems (ABS). When you hit the brake hard (as in the Emergency Stop), a computer under the bonnet can detect when the wheels lock (i.e. stop turning) – if the car is still moving when this happens, it will skid. So the ABS automatically releases the brakes then grips again repeatedly until the car stops moving. This brake-release cycle is the ABS, and it repeats about 15 times every second. You can usually feel the pedal vibrate when the ABS has kicked in. Basically, ABS stops the wheels from locking (the clue is in the name).

If you are skidding with locked wheels, you have no control over where the car is going. Momentum, gravity, and the road surface make the decision for you. But since ABS allows the wheels to move a little, you can still retain some steering control when it kicks in. ABS operates on all four wheels and is hydraulically controlled.

The handbrake does not go through the ABS system, and it typically only acts on the rear wheels. It is also usually a manual system involving a cable. That means that if you pull it hard enough to lock the wheels, only the rear ones are affected and the back of the car skids and spins out. This is extremely dangerous, and can happen even at low speeds if the road surface is slippery.

On modern cars with electronic handbrakes (parking brakes), the system is slightly different. However, the car won’t let you apply the parking brake if you’re moving fast.

The handbrake is only intended to hold the car still when it is stopped, and should not be used for braking to a stop because of the risk of locking the wheels. Even in a modern car, applying the parking brake while the car is still creeping slightly (which it will allow) could be enough to slip into a gate or wall if the surface is, say, icy and on a slight slope.

Also be aware that no brake lights come on when you use the hand/parking brake, so if you brake using it, anyone behind is likely to react late and end up in the back of you.

When should I use the handbrake?

Many modern cars have advanced braking aids, such as ‘hill start assist’ and ‘foot brake assist’. They also have electronic handbrakes which are operated by a switch rather than a lever, and which disengage automatically when you pull away.

I have thought long and hard over the last five years about whether to teach people with these aids turned on (you can usually disable them). Initially, I had them turned off, but now they are becoming so common there is an increasing likelihood that the cars pupils buy once they pass will also have them fitted. So I now use ‘hill start assist’ and ‘foot brake assist’ on my lessons.

The sole purpose of the handbrake (or parking brake, as I now call it, since you don’t use your hand to apply the braking force) is to prevent the car from rolling when it is stopped or parked. Bear in mind that when the hand/parking brake is applied, the brake lights do not illuminate.

When does a signal benefit others?

The actual question was ‘what does it mean to signal only if it will benefit others?’

If you’re turning left or right, or even just changing lanes, my advice to learners is just to check your mirrors and signal, then carry out the manoeuvre if it is safe to do so. However, if there is no one around who is going to see that signal (i.e. to benefit from it), then it is not strictly necessary.

I’ve written about this before, but the upshot is that when turning left or right, in the vast majority of cases at the point where you should apply the signal you cannot possibly know if there is someone who will benefit or not, because they will be approaching from the road you want to turn into – almost always out of your view at that point – and you simply won’t know. That’s why I advise my learners always to signal for turns, and not to try and get smart about it.

The situation is slightly different if you’re just switching lanes, for example. In that case, if you can see that there is no one behind or in front of you who is going to benefit from you signalling your intentions, then you have a good argument for not doing it. The problem is that it’s only a good argument if you are right – and learners are less experienced and more likely to get it wrong. Furthermore, if they signal to change lanes on their driving test when it is absolutely not strictly necessary, no fault will be recorded (though that’s not the case on the ADI Part 3 test). But if they don’t signal and the examiner thinks they should have, it could easily be marked as a serious fault.

The same is true when pulling over and stopping, and when moving off again. If there is no one who could possibly benefit from signalling, you don’t need to do it. But the questions you might need to address are: ‘do those pedestrians need to know – even though they’re 100 metres away?’; ‘is there anyone in that van in front of me?’; ‘might someone I can’t see yet be coming the other way as I pull out from behind this parked van?’; and so on.

It can be a tricky call even for an experienced driver. For learners it is trickier still. There is no single answer, as every situation is different, but for learners it is better to play it safe rather than take risks. As long as they have done all the necessary checks, signalling when it isn’t strictly necessary isn’t a problem.

It’s also worth clarifying the original question. No one has said you must only signal if it will benefit others (well, not unless you’re going for the Golden Anorak with RoSPA or IAM). The point is that a signal is only necessary if it will benefit others, and for 99.9% of the driving population it’s better to be safe than sorry.

What do ‘S’ and ‘D’ mean on the driving test report?

On your driving test, there are three categories of fault. A driver fault (often called ‘a minor’), a serious fault (the ‘S’), and a dangerous fault (the ‘D’). You can get up to 15 driver faults and still pass, but get a 16th and you fail. You cannot get any serious or dangerous faults and still pass.

You cannot have all 15 driver faults under the same heading. For example, if you move off without checking properly (your blind spot, let’s say), if no one is around you will probably get a driver fault for it. If you do it again (and no one is around), you may still get away with it – if you’re lucky. But do it three or more times and the examiner is likely to convert it to a serious fault (one examiner once told me he went on ‘5 strikes and you’re out’, but this is not official and you cannot assume all other examiners are as lenient).

That same fault could easily be marked as a serious one the very first time you do it if someone is approaching and you don’t see them. It could be marked as a dangerous fault if the approaching vehicle is so close that there’s a chance of a collision.

Personally, I think that not checking properly should always be at least a serious fault, because if you don’t check properly you wouldn’t know if anyone was there or not, and the only difference between it being seen as a driver fault or a serious on test is that you were lucky that there wasn’t anyone coming.

How long does it take to learn to find the bite?

A recent search term was “how long to learn the bite on a new car?”

It depends on the driver. A typical beginner who has never driven before can easily pick up clutch control in just a few minutes. And over the next few hours will polish that skill as they move on to wider skills. However, it is far from rare to have people who are always going to have issues even after they pass (I can think of quite a few over the years).

As for a new car, my own experience is all I can go on. Before I became an instructor I bought a nearly new car. At the time, I only did a couple of thousand miles a year at most, and when it went for its first MOT after two years the garage told me the clutch was worn and would need ‘replacing soon’. In fact, I drove it for another four years or so, until the clutch started to slip and I had to bite the bullet.

When I went to pick it up, I couldn’t move it without stalling. Over the years, the position of the pedal where you obtained the bite had gradually risen as the clutch wore down, and I’d gotten used to it without realising it. Suddenly, the bite point was right at the bottom of the pedal’s travel – just as it will be in most new cars. My leg had a memory, and this new position came as a big surprise to it, as it tried to go higher and causing a stall. I just about cracked it in the two mile drive home, and a couple of days later, my leg was fully trained.

These days, each time I get a new car I notice no difference.

Why do I keep stalling my petrol car?

I get a lot of visitors asking this, or something very similar.

Quite simply, unless there is a definite fault with the car (which is unlikely), you are not putting enough gas on or you are lifting the clutch too quickly. It can easily be a combination of both of these, with the first making the second worse, and so virtually guaranteeing a stall.

The problem often stems from the fact that you were taught to drive in a diesel car. Most diesel engines are much more difficult to stall than petrol ones – it’s to do with the torque. It is possible that in order to teach you quickly, your instructor didn’t teach you to apply gas until you were moving. This would have been fine in their car, but as you have discovered, all they did was teach you to drive their car – and not the one you’ve now bought.

The lower risk of stalling a diesel engine would also have masked any clumsiness you may have demonstrated in finding the biting point. If you came up a bit fast or a bit too far, the diesel would take it, but a petrol car just stalls immediately if you do it the same way.

With my own pupils, I teach them firstly to find the bite smoothly and gently on a hill using no gas (and I do that in both diesel and petrol cars). If they can move and then hold the car still without braking or stalling, they will know the sort of pedal control they should be using. Then we learn to do the same by setting gas first, then moving it and holding it as before. Finally, we move on to accelerating away up the hill smoothly. Most pick it up quickly, but some take a few practice sessions to master it. In most cases, once we’ve done the exercises, we put it into practice at traffic lights and junctions, and that provides the fine tuning.

Bear in mind that if you have bought an older car, or one which hasn’t been serviced recently, it may be much more sensitive to stalling. Just remember: you need to put some gas on, and move off smoothly.

Why do my wipers smear?

Someone found the blog on ‘wipers smear after car wash’. I get a lot of hits on this.

Quite simply, it’s because you’ve got oil, wax, or something else on the glass or wiper blades. It only takes a little on either of them, and it gets spread everywhere. New cars often have a film of some sort on the glass, and this causes the same problems. None of it is that easy to get off, though there is a way.

In short, you need to get hold of some traffic film remover (TFR). I buy mine from a company called JennyChem. TFR Ultra Special is the one you want.

The car wash is notorious for putting it on because many use a shampoo with wax in it already. Or they put some water repellent on, which has a similar effect. Make sure you clean your wiper blades, and the space at the bottom of the windscreen where the wipers sit when not in use, otherwise it just smears back on when you use them.

What is the stopping distance in a tunnel?

It’s the same as anywhere else. People get confused by Highway Code Rule 126, which says you should leave at least a 5 metre gap between you and the car in front if you have to stop. It’s to allow free movement for people who may have to evacuate, and for the Emergency Services. It’s a separate issue.

Since visibility in a tunnel is often reduced, and people are more likely to do something stupid, it makes sense to leave greater clearance between you and the car in front while you are moving in case you have to stop suddenly. But stopping in a tunnel is no different to stopping anywhere else.

How far from the kerb when doing parallel park?

People often ask how far is too far from the kerb when parallel parking (or stopping normally).

The examiner isn’t going to get out with a tape measure or anything. In terms of doing it on your lessons, if you’re between not touching it and about a tyre’s width from the kerb – perfect! Two tyre’s widths – pushing your luck, but probably OK to the examiner. Any more than that, absolutely rubbish – and assume the examiner would think so, too.

The same goes for stopping at the side of the road. If you’re more than about two tyre’s widths away, then as far as I am concerned – if you were on a lesson with me – then you’re too far. And the examiner will almost certainly think the same.

Some examiners are extremely lenient and might let it pass even if you were wider than two tyre’s widths away, but don’t count on it. They might also let you get away with doing it once if the other attempts are OK, or if you have driven a really good test but only mess up a little on the parallel park. As I say, don’t count on it.

Some years ago, traffic wardens were out with tape measures in Nottingham and ticketing people who were more than 18″ (about 45cm, which is almost half a metre, and a bloody long way however you look at it) away from the kerb. Just use that as  rough guide as to what’s OK and what might not be, because it ties in with what I’ve already said.

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This is an older article. It has been updated several times to maintain the link to an up to date DL25. However, note that since November 2019, DVSA has switched to using an electronic version of the DL25 via iPads during the test. There is no longer a paper record created during the test.

What happens is that the candidate is told whether they passed or failed, a debrief is given the same way it always has been (referring to the faults displayed on the iPad), and a copy of this same results list is emailed to the address given when the test was booked.

It’s a straightforward exercise getting the pupil to email or text you a copy if you really need it. Quite frankly, in most cases you don’t – you can refer to the pupil’s copy the next time you see them, and you’ll already be aware of what they failed for by listening to the debrief.

For the time being, the original DL25 is still available for you to print off, and using these on your lessons is still perfectly valid. I have a laminated one I refer to.


This link (click the image) points to the official PDF DownloadDVSA DL25 form. All pages of the DL25 are included in the file.

A blank DL25 consists of a front marking sheet (DL25A) and two carbonless copy pages (DL25B and DL25C) underneath. There is an explanatory sheet (DL25D) at the back.

The examiner gives the candidate the back two sheets (DL25C and DL25D) at the end of their test, whether they pass or fail. They also get a Pass Certificate if they pass the test.

DL25B has a back side, which the examiner completes back at the test centre. I haven’t a clue (or any concern about) what happens with DL25A and DL25B within the DVSA once the test is closed.

DL25C (the candidate copy) also has a back side, detailing the appeals and complaints procedure. DL25D is also double-sided.

The PDF file contains all sides of the relevant pages.

The test report is explained in detail in this article.


Can instructors use an iPad when doing mock tests?

The short – and correct – answer is no, they cannot. There’s no point arguing about it: you can’t.

When a candidate is on their test, they are not classed as a learner driver. Therefore, the examiner is not the supervising driver. That is why the examiner is not breaking the Law by filling in an iPad form.

However, when they are on lessons, pupils are still learners, and that means the instructor is the supervising driver. It is illegal for whoever is in overall control of the car to use a handheld device while the car is moving (or if the engine is on, even if you’re stationary, if you’re going by the letter of the Law),

Personally, I have never understood the fascination many ADIs have with “mock tests”. The only test that matters is the real one – because it is conducted by someone who is specifically trained and authorised to administer them. Anything else is just play-acting. This is even more true when the test conductor insists on dressing up in hi-vis jackets and farting about with a clip board, when they’re either going to mark more harshly than an examiner would, or more leniently simply because they’re not examiners and can’t mark properly. While staging this performance, they are still the supervising driver.

Having seen paperless tests in action, I can assure you that filling in a DL25 by hand is not going to ruin the impression you give during your mock test pantomimes.

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Fogged up windowsThis is an old article from 2013, but it is due an update. When I originally published it, one of the show-me-tell-me questions was:

Show me how you would set the demister controls to clear all the windows effectively. This should include both the front and rear screens.

At the time of updating, the relevant show & tell questions (they changed the name) are:

When it’s safe to do so, can you show me how you’d set the rear demister?

When it’s safe to do so, can you show me how you’d demist the front windscreen?

For the windscreen – that’s the one on the front of the car – the universally correct answer would be that you’d switch the airflow to blow out of the vents on the rear of the dashboard up at the windscreen, turn up the fan speed, and increase the temperature of the air from these vents. That would work for any car, although the actual knobs to twist and buttons to press will vary from model to model.

For the rear window, you’d turn on the electric heater that warms those little metal wires stuck to, or embedded in, the glass. There will be a button somewhere on the dashboard that turns it on and off.

You will note that the original broad question has now been changed to two rather more specific ones. This is relevant, because most newer cars also have air conditioning, electrically heated front windows, and often a button labelled as “MAX”, which turns everything on to demist all the windows very quickly at the same time. One press and you turn on the front and rear window electric heaters, the air conditioning, and redirect the hottest air possible at the windscreen (and often the side windows, as well, if your car has that feature).

When asked the original show-me-tell-me question, operating the MAX button was a perfectly correct response – as were playing around with the air flow controls, using the heated front windscreen if you had one, and turning on the rear window heater. However, with the much more specific Tell questions currently used, pushing the MAX button isn’t strictly the right response to either of them. It is also worth noting that whereas the original question would have been asked whilst stationary, if either of these new ones are asked, it will be while the candidate is driving. Ever since they started doing it this way, I’ve had nightmares about people fiddling with buttons and dials while taking a bend and losing control (I know the examiner would prevent that, but at the very least it would result in a test fail).

Arguably, operating the MAX button is a satisfactory response to either question, because it will achieve the desired result. But it is technically not the correct response if you’re being pedantic about it, because it does several other things at the same time.

It makes sense to understand all the controls rather than just blindly push buttons and twist knobs. If nothing else, if you inadvertently turn the car into a sauna, you ought to know how to turn the temperature back down again – and you’d be surprised by how many people can’t work out for themselves that if you turn something on by pressing a button or flicking a switch, you can usually turn it off by pressing the button again, or flicking the switch the other way. It also means that if you respond to the examiner’s question by pressing the MAX button, you’ll probably be able to recover if he specifically asks you to demist either the front or back – but not both.

How does the air-blower demist windows?

It involves a bit of science, but it is enough to know that hot air will demist windows, whereas cooler air probably won’t.

The reason it works is down to relative humidity. Air can hold water vapour as a gas, but if the amount of vapour reaches the maximum that the air can hold, it precipitates out – condenses – as water droplets. That’s the “mist” on the glass. The problem is that the maximum amount of vapour the air can hold before condensation occurs gets less and less the colder the air is. If you refer to water vapour in air as the “humidity”, then the amount of vapor relative to the maximum possible is the “relative humidity”. In summer, a relative humidity (RH) of 70% might feel horribly sticky and sweaty – but there’d be no condensation. In winter, you can easily get 100% without feeling it because there’s a lot less moisture there– but since there’s no room for any more vapour in the air, any extra causes condensation to take place. Think of it as a bucket overflowing, where the colder it is, the smaller the bucket is.

What happens is that on cold mornings, with the air at – or very closer to – 100% RH, as soon as you get in the car, breathing and perspiring, you overflow the bucket and condensation takes place. You see it on the glass as mist, but everywhere feels slightly damp. When you initially turn on the heater, it is blowing cold air, and if anything you get even more misting. But as the car warms up, it starts to blow warmer air. This warm air can hold more water vapour, and it evaporates the mist as it blows across it and keeps hold of it.

What does the air conditioning do?

Air conditioning (A/C) units pass the air over a radiator filled with coolant – just like what you have in your fridge at home. If you look back at what I said about humidity, above, you can probably work out that if you cool very moist air, you send it above 100% RH. The excess moisture – and if you cool humid air at 30°C down to 8°C, there’ll be a lot of it – condenses out (usually as a pool of water under your car in summer if you’re stopped), and much cooler and drier air is blown into the car. You can play around with the temperature of the air that is blown in by passing it over the heater radiator, so you have crude climate control.

Since it removes moisture, A/C is extremely efficient at demisting and preventing further misting.

How do the heated windows work?

In a similar way to the air blower. As they heat up they create an area around the metal wires which is warmer and so the mist evaporates back into the air. They work best in conjunction with the car heater, which heats the bulk of the air in the car, and which can then keep hold of the vapour, preventing condensation. They work even better with the A/C, because it strips the vapour out and dumps it outside the car. The MAX switch activates everything in one go.

How do you control these features?

It varies from car to car, but for the heater blower, there will be several rotary controls usually located in the centre of the dashboard and below the level of the steering wheel.

Heater controls

One of them controls the speed (and noise) of the fan, one controls the temperature (blue is cool, red is warmer), and another allows you to select which vents and grilles the air will be blown through (at your feet, at your face, at both, or at the windscreen – possibly with other combinations).

Higher spec cars may have digital temperature displays, and some will have independent control for each side of the car. Some will even have controls in the rear for back seat passengers.

Heated Front Window Symbol

Heated Rear Window SymbolThe heated rear window button will have an icon like the one on the left, and the heated front windscreen will have one like that shown to the right.

The air conditioning will be activated with a button or switch marked A/C, and the MAX button (which activates all of these features) may also have one of the window icons.

Isn’t the heated windscreen for de-icing?

Not specifically, no. It serves the exact same purpose as the heated rear window – to demist. However, every demisting feature in the car can also de-ice if necessary. Even blowing cold air can lead to de-icing if it isn’t too cold, because the air passing through even a cold car is still warmer than that outside. However, a heated front window is noticeably useful at de-icing since that’s the very window that needs de-icing the most.

Having said that, a heated windscreen is only good at melting frost or dislodging a thin layer of rimed ice. If you think it’s going to get rid of a couple of inches of snow, think again. It doesn’t actually get that hot – if it did, it could cause the glass to shatter.

Why do my windows steam up in summer if it’s been raining?

That’s because water cools as it evaporates. If it’s already humid when it rains, the air passing over the windscreen evaporates the rain drops, so you get cooling around them. The humid air inside the car is then above 100% RH close to these spots on the windscreen, and condensation occurs. You usually see it around spots of rain.

You can also get it if you’ve had the A/C on. It cools the windscreen right down, so when you turn the A/C off and humid air gets back in, the cold zone near the glass sends the RH there above 100% and condensation occurs. In this case, misting is more uniform, but often concentrated on the lower part of the windscreen where the A/C has been blowing.

So what should I tell the examiner on my test?

Your best bet is to answer the question he’s asking you. If he asks how you demist the back window, operate the heated rear window switch or button. If he asks how to demist the front, either demonstrate how to redirect the air flow and increase the temperature and fan speed, or operate the heated windscreen button or switch (if your car has it).

In Nottingham, examiners have not been querying use of the MAX button, so use it by all means – but just make sure you know how to activate just one of the features as necessary if your examiner presses you on the subject. You are being tested on “safe driving for life”, so you ought to know what the buttons do anyway – you’re going to need to if you pass.

Since these questions are asked while you’re driving (and since you’ll be driving when you use them once you pass), be careful not to stare down and lose control of the car.

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They’re at it again. Someone has asked for advice on car leasing, and one of the replies (answering the wrong question, anyway) has stated that someone on a franchise pays £1,000 a month, whereas if you buy your own car and go independent, you save £1,000 a month.

How many more bloody times? NO. YOU. DON’T!

However you obtain your car, you have an ongoing cost associated with it. Unless you’re driving a 15 year old banger that never goes wrong, needs no maintenance or servicing, never has anything wear out or get a nail in it, and doesn’t need insurance, you are probably paying at least £250 a month for it all told. If it’s less than about 8 years old, this overhead cost could easily be £400-£500.

It isn’t just about how much you are paying for it per month if it’s on hire purchase. Or how much you initially paid. You have to factor in depreciation and having to replace it periodically, any maintenance, insuring it (lots of complaints about insurance hikes lately), getting dual controls fitted/removed, repairs, and so on. It isn’t costing you “nothing”. It’s costing a lot more than nothing.

Even if there is someone out there who has a banger, and does all their own servicing and repairs, they still have to get hold of parts and consumables. The equipment they use to do the work has got to be paid for somehow. And so does the time it would take them to do it – how on earth can you be a full time ADI if you are also a part time mechanic?

There is absolutely no such thing as an instructor car that “costs nothing”. But there are a hell of a lot of ADIs who don’t understand this.

I’ve explained it before in the article Should I Become A Driving Instructor?

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HandbrakeSince I first wrote this article, things have changed somewhat. More and more cars now have electronic handbrakes, along with other brake-assist functions. Where a car has a manually operated lever (the classic handbrake), refer also to this article on whether or not to push the button when you apply it. Although I have hitherto referred to it as a “handbrake”, with the electronic system becoming the norm there is now good reason to switch to the alternative (and more correct) term of “parking brake”, so that’s what I’m going to do from now on.

I was originally prompted to write this article after I saw a “debate” on a defunct forum about using the parking brake. It was started by an ADI whose pupil got a driver (“minor”) fault for not using it at a junction. The ADI in question was obviously convinced that DVSA was at fault, even though he had neither sat in on the test or listened to the debrief. The possibility that his pupil had actually done something wrong didn’t enter into it.

Driving: The Essential Skills (TES, 2015 edition) – which is effectively the syllabus that learners should be taught from – says:

You should normally apply the parking brake whenever the vehicle is stationary.

Apply the parking brake according to the instructions in your vehicle’s handbook and put the gear lever into neutral when you’re stopped at traffic lights or queuing behind other vehicles, unless the wait is likely to be very short.

Your foot could easily slip off the footbrake if, for example, your shoes are wet or if you’re bumped from behind. You could then be pushed into another vehicle or a pedestrian.

Always leave a safe gap between your vehicle and the vehicle in front while queuing, especially on a hill. This will give you room to manoeuvre should the vehicle in front roll back.

In vehicles fitted with automatic transmission, the use of the parking brake is even more important. The parking brake will help avoid

  • the possibility of the vehicle creeping forward
  • the vehicle surging forward if the accelerator is pressed accidentally while in ‘D’ (Drive).

Bear in mind that although this is from the current version of TES, it is now at least five years old. As I said above, things have changed a lot in the last few years (an updated version is due to be published soon). However, as far as the manually operated parking brake is concerned, the important bit here is that you “should normally apply the parking brake whenever the vehicle is stationary… unless the wait is likely to be very short”.

It couldn’t really be much clearer. You are going to be marked on the use of the car’s controls on your test, and if you don’t use the parking brake in a situation where really you ought to then you will pick up at least a driver fault. If you roll backwards or forwards significantly on a gradient, for example, you are likely to pick up a serious or dangerous fault – especially if there’s someone you might hit.

On the point about putting the car into neutral, I really only advise my pupils to do this this if they know what they’re doing. Modern cars usually have an auto-shutdown feature (the engine stops when you go into neutral and take your foot off the clutch, then starts up again when you put the clutch down), and this is an eco-driving feature. However, at the moment you can’t fail your test on eco-driving, but you most certainly can for not using the controls properly, not moving off promptly, or stalling in the worst situation imaginable (e.g. .on a railway line, in the middle of a busy junction, or at the set of lights that only lets four cars and a couple of Audis and a BMW through). Many learners have enough trouble finding the correct gear every time as it is, especially when they are nervous or panicked, so absolutely the last place I want them to find 3rd instead of 1st is in any of those places.

With some temporary traffic lights, or in very heavy and slow-moving traffic where you are a long way back in the queue at a junction, there may be a longer wait, so there is a good excuse to go to neutral and rest your legs. The same is true at level crossings, where you can calmly get ready as the train passes and the barriers begin to rise. The decision about whether to put the car into neutral or not is the driver’s. Just remember that it isn’t a fault (yet) keeping it in gear at traffic lights, nor is it a fault putting it into neutral – but  screwing up when you try to move off probably would be. You simply do what is most appropriate – and what is easiest for you to deal with.

DT1, which is DVSA’s internal SOP for examiners, used to make several references to use of the “handbrake”, but these are no longer there. However, they are implied by virtue of what TES says, because the examiners expect to see driving close to what TES advises. TES makes several direct references to the parking brake:

General… REMEMBER, when you park your vehicle, always leave it in gear and make sure that the parking brake is fully on.

Emergency Stop… Unless you’re moving off again straightaway, put the parking brake on and the gear lever into neutral.

Turn in the Road…  It may be necessary to use the parking brake to hold the vehicle if there’s a camber in the road [during turning]… Apply the parking brake if necessary, and select first gear [before moving off].

Parking… Before you leave the vehicle, make sure that it’s in gear and the parking brake is applied firmly.

Parking Facing Uphill… Leave the vehicle in first gear, with the parking brake firmly applied.

Parking Facing Downhill… Leave your vehicle in reverse gear, with the parking brake firmly applied.

In addition to these, any time TES says that you should stop – at junctions, or when dealing with animals, for example – possible use of the handbrake is implied. The decision is the driver’s, with the proviso that not using it when you could is not a fault, but not using when you really ought to probably is.

At junctions, when I was driving cars with manual parking brakes, I advised my learners to be aware of the gradient – is it up or down? Not using the parking brake on downward-sloping junction does not carry the same risks as not using it on an upward-sloping one. Initially, when it started being supplied as standard on my cars, I avoided using hill start-assist (which holds the brakes for a short while after you release the brake pedal) because I knew my pupils wouldn’t have it when they started driving on their own. But that was over five years ago, and now there is a good chance most will have it on any car they buy, so I leave it turned on – but explain and demonstrate how it works, just in case they get a banger which doesn’t have it.

My most recent car is the first one I’ve had which has an electronic parking brake. It also has a foot brake-assist function (where the footbrake stays on even if you remove your foot from the pedal). There’s nothing I can do about the parking brake, but I thought long and hard about the foot brake-assist (which can be turned on/off) before deciding to use it on lessons. I still make sure that my pupils use the parking brake at the right times, but the foot brake-assist means using it considerably less.

One thing about the electronic parking brake is that it impacts the “show me” question about testing that it is working before driving. With a manual/old-style parking brake, the procedure is to apply the foot brake to prevent the car rolling, then release the parking brake and apply it again, ensuring that it pulls tight and doesn’t hit the stop at the end of its travel. With an electronic parking brake you can’t do that, so the procedure I teach now is to apply the foot brake as before, manually disengage the parking brake using the switch, then engage it again and feel for the pedal movement which tells you it has gripped.

At some stage, most learners will ask something along the lines of how long they should be stopped for before using the parking brake. Some ADIs can’t work with variables, and after using the line “when a pause becomes a wait” they apply a number – for example, a pause is under 3 seconds, a wait is over that. That’s nonsense, and there is no way you can say that more than 3 seconds always needs the parking brake. It depends on the situation.

Remember that your foot can slip on the pedals. I had a pupil pass her test not long ago who stalled during her manoeuvre because it had been raining and her foot slipped off the pedal.

Finally, there is the matter of brake light dazzle. Ignore anyone who tells you that it isn’t an issue, because it most certainly is. Modern brake lights can be very bright indeed, and at night – especially in winter, with longer nights – and when it is raining, the brightness can be both painful and dangerous, because the resulting contrast means it is more difficult to see dark objects, such as pedestrians and cyclists. It becomes even more relevant with foot brake-assist, since the brake lights stay on even when you take your foot off the pedal. I teach my pupils that they need to be aware of this and use the parking brake more frequently at night. After all, if I can be aware of the problem and use the parking brake accordingly, there’s no reason why my pupils can’t if I’m doing my job properly.

Will I fail my test if I don’t use the parking brake?

The parking brake is there to help prevent the car rolling backwards (or forwards) into bad situations, and to make it safe when parking.  Although you are unlikely to fail your test simply for not using it in a given situation where perhaps you should have, if you do end up rolling backwards or forwards (i.e you’re not in control) your chances of failing increase significantly. A good example would be when you stop at a pedestrian crossing to let people cross. If you’re at the front of the queue, and especially if the pedestrians include children, just think what could happen if your foot slipped or someone bumped you from behind. In this situation – and certainly on your test – not using your parking brake is potentially dangerous and the examiner could easily mark it accordingly.

If you stop facing up a steep slope, common sense says the parking brake will help you avoid rolling backwards when you move off again (obviously, hill start-assist and foot brake-assist would change this as long as you know how to use them). However, if you choose not to use it and remain in control then it won’t be marked. Remember, though, that your right foot will be on the brake, and if you get the timing wrong and lift the clutch too far before you’ve switched your right foot to the gas pedal then you will stall – which means you’re not in control – and then you’ll have to try to stay in control and avoid rolling back all over again as you restart the engine and give it another shot. Just use the parking brake.

It is perfectly OK to make use of any special features of the car, such as hill start-assist and foot brake-assist. You should still use the parking brake for any lengthy stops.

When should I use my parking brake ?

Whenever it would help prevent the car from rolling backwards or forwards.

It can also help you avoid stalls if you don’t have hill start-assist. If you have the parking brake on, it means you can set the gas and find the bite ready to move off quickly. If you’re holding the car still using the foot brake, you’re likely to get your timing wrong and lift the clutch too much before you’ve set the gas properly – which increases the likelihood of stalling. You’ll get better at being able to do that with time (though you’ll probably soon be driving a car with the various brake-assist features), but certainly to begin with – and for many people this includes even the point at which they’re at test standard – using the parking brake will help you avoid stalling in many situations.

As I said above, it’s perfectly OK to make use of any special braking features of the car, such as hill start-assist and foot brake-assist, but use the parking brake for any lengthy stops.

When is it compulsory to use the parking brake?

It isn’t (except when parking and leaving your vehicle). You should use the parking brake whenever it would help you prevent the car from rolling backwards or forwards when it isn’t supposed to. In theory, it would be possible to not use the parking brake at all on your test (even more so if you have hill start-assist and foot brake-assist features on your car) and still not get faulted for it. However, the reality is that there will be times when not using it is just asking for trouble, and much will depend on the kinds of roads you’re driving on.

Use the parking brake if you’re dealing with steep hills, where the risk of rolling back is going to be very high. With new drivers, a roll back is often accompanied by a stall as they panic and lift the clutch too quickly. Not using the parking brake might not be recorded as the fault, but the stall probably would be, and if it is followed by more stalls or causing a hold up for traffic behind, that’s almost certainly going to go down as a “serious”.

Using the parking brake wisely is good practice. You won’t be doing your test at night, but you’ll almost certainly be driving at night once you pass, and understanding the significance of brake dazzle is important. Using the parking brake is therefore something you’ve got to be prepared to do.

Is it a fault if I don’t use the parking brake?

If you don’t use the parking brake when you perhaps ought to a few times on your test, it probably won’t be marked. If it leads to other issues then it might. If you don’t use it when you really should, you’re just asking to be faulted. Use it if you need to.

An experienced (and good) driver will use the parking brake less than a new (good) driver because they’re likely to be able to hold the bite better. Someone who is not so good with holding the bite – no matter how much experience they have – really ought to use the parking brake more.

Do I apply the parking brake first, or put it in neutral first?

In most cases it doesn’t matter. Common sense says that the safest way is to stop the car with the foot brake, apply the parking brake, then put the car into neutral (you can take your foot off the foot brake then). But no one is going to penalise you for it if you put it in neutral first as long as you don’t roll or lurch (or do it while the car is still moving)

Just remember that learners (and new drivers) are more likely to lift their feet when they stop, and if they get muddled with their foot timing they may run into problems, which are made worse if the parking brake isn’t on and the car is still in gear. At least if the parking brake is on, the car won’t go anywhere.

Why should I use the parking brake at junctions?

Primarily, to prevent you from rolling backwards or forwards where this would be undesirable. In addition, sitting with the footbrake on means your brake lights are on, and in modern cars – especially at night – that dazzles people behind you, and is inconsiderate.

If you’re going to be waiting for any length of time beyond a pause, consider using the parking brake. That’s what it’s there for. Not using it when you ought to is as lazy as it is wrong.

What is the rationale for using the parking brake?

Use it to help prevent the car rolling backwards or forwards when that would be dangerous or inconvenient. Use it at pedestrian crossings – especially if you are the first car in the queue – so that if someone went into the back of you and/or if one of your feet slipped the car would not surge forward.

My friend told me you don’t need to use the parking brake on flat roads

Your friend is wrong. You use the parking brake to secure the car when it needs securing. It can still roll – or be pushed into a roll – on flat roads. In any case, most roads have a camber (a curvature to help water drainage), and ruts and undulations, which means they’re not flat at all.

Do you use the parking brake in an automatic car?

Yes, and anyone – including driving instructors – who tells you otherwise is wrong. TES says:

In vehicles fitted with automatic transmission, the use of the parking brake is even more important. The parking brake will help avoid

  • the possibility of the vehicle creeping forward
  • the vehicle surging forward if the accelerator is pressed accidentally while in ‘D’ (Drive).

You may get away with it on test if you don’t use it at all (just as you may get away with it in a manual car), but if that’s the way you’ve been taught then you’ve been taught wrong.

What if my car has “hill start assist”?

Hill start-assist is feature on modern cars (it’s actually been available on automatics for some time), where if a gradient of more than a certain amount is detected, stopping with the foot brake then releasing it doesn’t result in a roll back. The brakes hold for a short time until you find the bite. It can be disabled in most cases, but it can also be useful.

My friend told me that hill start-assist prevents the car from moving if someone drives into the back of you, so you don’t need the parking brake

It makes me mad when I hear rubbish like this. That is NOT what hill start-assist does. It’s intended to stop the car rolling back when on a gradient above a certain amount. It only works for a short period of time before the car DOES roll back. In any case, if someone does run into the back of you, your car is likely to skid and be shunted forward even if the brakes are firmly on.

Should I use the parking brake at every set of traffic lights or every junction?

No. Use your common sense. If you’re likely to roll then use it – especially if you’re not confident holding the car on the bite for a few seconds on upward slopes. This is less relevant with foot brake-assist if you have it.

Should I use the parking brake at every pedestrian crossing?

Again, no. Use your own common sense. But above all, be absolutely certain that you are not endangering pedestrians crossing in front of you. If you are first in the queue and people are on the crossing, it makes a lot of sense to use it. If you’re further back and no one is moving up behind you, there is less need. If it’s night time, consider brake dazzle on the driver behind.

Should I always use the parking brake at STOP junctions?

The short answer is no. You do not have to use the parking brake at every STOP junction.

However, you MUST actually stop – the examiner has to fail you if you don’t – and it is very common for learners to think that they HAVE stopped when they haven’t. I often have my pupils argue that they did stop when I know for a fact that they didn’t (I even have video footage of one failing his test because of it, and he swore he’d stopped). Even when they do, I’m not always convinced that they did it on purpose, and if the conditions been slightly different they might have continued rolling (they sometimes admit to that when I Q&A them over it). Therefore, you might want to think about using the parking brake at STOP junctions to make sure you really have stopped.

I am not saying that you must use the parking brake at STOP junctions. Just that it might help you if you do.

I failed my test for not using the parking brake at a STOP junction

I wasn’t there, but I would lay odds that you didn’t actually stop. You just think you did – that’s a very common error. Remember that “STOP” means STOP. Slowing right down and creeping – no matter how slowly – is not stopping. By Law, you have to come to a complete stop at the line of a STOP junction. If you don’t, you are breaking the Law, and you automatically get a serious fault (and therefore fail your test).

Also remember that every driver is supposed to stop at the STOP line. It doesn’t matter if you stopped behind the car in front, then moved up once he’d driven off. You have to stop at the STOP line.  STOP junctions are there for a reason – even the ones some ADIs complain about – and usually it is because you are emerging on to a fast road, one where visibility of oncoming vehicles is affected by hills/bends/buildings/etc., or maybe it’s a tram route.

Stop at the line, then lean forward and creep slowly until you can see.

You are wrong to teach people to use the parking brake at STOP junctions

Yep, that’s a comment that’s been levelled at me by several dummies out there. One such comment came from the moderator of a now-dead forum, which specialised in querulous misinformation. If my pupils can stop reliably, then move away when it’s safe, that’s fine. But all of them get the explanation of what will happen if they don’t do it properly on their test, that it is illegal not to stop, and potentially dangerous.

I explain clearly that although it isn’t mandatory, using the parking brake would be a good way to make sure they did actually stop. More recently, now that I have foot brake-assist on my car (which shows a green icon on the console display when it engages), I make sure my pupils see that it comes on to confirm they have physically stopped before attempting to emerge. And I do teach that to all of them.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with using the parking brake at STOP junctions if you don’t have any other advanced features available, especially if you have trouble recognising that you’ve actually stopped.

What if I don’t see the STOP sign?

That’s a totally different issue, and nothing to do with the parking brake. The sign is distinctive and usually very clearly placed. Furthermore, there is a solid white line across the road, and “STOP” written in big white letters just behind it. If there are any issues with the clarity of the junction, your instructor should have gone through it with you, and you should have been able remember it and compensated for it on your test (and any other time afterwards).

Why is it a STOP junction? I can see it’s clear

They don’t install STOP junctions just for the sake of it. There aren’t that many compared with normal junctions at the best of times, so there must be a reason, usually restricted visibility. Around my way, the half dozen or so that I can think of off the top of my head include:

  • there is a hill on the road you’re joining where you can’t see what’s coming up it
  • there is a rise on the road you’re joining and you can’t see what’s coming over it, and the speed limit is 40mph (which equals 60+ for Audis)
  • there is a bend on the road you’re joining so you can’t see what’s coming unless you stop and then creep out slowly
  • the road you are joining is NSL and has bends on it
  • there are buildings right up to the edge of the road and you can’t see until you creep out slightly
  • you’re crossing or joining a tram line
  • the junction has had a lot of accidents in the past
  • and various combinations of all the above

Don’t kid yourself that you can see it’s clear. Just stop for the piddling two or three seconds it will take to make sure it’s safe and don’t be a smart aleck. Every boy (or girl) racer in the country thinks they know best – unfortunately some of them appear to be ADIs – until they become one of the statistics they have been sneering at.

I failed my test for not using the parking brake at a normal junction

Again, I wasn’t there, but something else must have happened to attract the serious fault. Most likely, you rolled backwards or forwards when you shouldn’t have, or perhaps something was happening behind you (a pedestrian walking, for example) whom you could have rolled into.

If you genuinely didn’t roll and nothing else was happening to warrant using the parking brake then you have been treated unfairly. Proving that would be extremely difficult though.

Should I always use the parking brake at roundabouts?

Someone found the blog with the question “if you have to give away [sic] at a roundabout why is it very important to use the handbrake?” The answer is the same as above: it isn’t mandatory, but use it if it will help. You do not need to put it on every time. Personally, I hardly ever use the handbrake at roundabouts – but I do sometimes.

When does the parking brake begin to bite?

In a new or recently serviced car the manual/old-style parking brake will probably move about three ratchet clicks before it is fully engaged (it isn’t an issue with the new electronic parking brakes). So the obvious answer is that it starts to bite as soon as you begin to pull it. However, the cable will stretch over time, and the brakes will wear down, which is why some cars require four, five, or sometimes more clicks to engage the parking brake. In this case, it is fair to say that until the slack has been taken up the brake will not bite as quickly.

I suspect this question was asked because someone is worried about not taking the parking brake fully off. Basically, avoid driving around with the parking brake on even by a single notch.

Why does my car move when the parking brake is on?

In the latest models, with electronic parking brakes, if it doesn’t automatically release then it won’t let you move (I’ve tried). The manual/old-style parking brake isn’t designed to hold the car still if you’re trying to drive it forward – it’s just to stop it moving when it is stationary, and the brakes will slip quite easily if you apply enough forwards or backwards force to the car. In most cases, you’ll be able to drive off (albeit with a little difficulty), but this is bad for your brake pads/shoes.

If you can hear the brakes creaking (i.e. slipping slightly) when you have the parking brake on when you’re stopped on a slope then it isn’t on enough. If you hear the same noise when you find the bite, then the brake either isn’t on enough or you’re finding too much bite (possibly both). Usually, applying the foot brake firmly then applying the parking brake gives a stronger braking action.

If you still have problems with slipping, get the parking brake checked out at a garage. It may have a fault.

Is there any danger in moving a short distance with the parking brake on?

Obviously, trying to drive off with the parking brake applied is wrong. It results in greater wear and tear on the car, and increases the chances of stalling. The car will not accelerate as quickly as you might need it to. Leaving the handbrake on can easily be a serious fault on your test.

The new type of electronic parking brake releases automatically when you move off. If you’re on a hill and don’t use enough gas, it won’t move at all and will stall (I discovered all this when I was getting used to having it for the first time).

Will a loose parking brake still hold the car?

It depends. The manual/old-style parking brake is used to pull a cable which then causes brake pads to press against the wheels (simplified description). If the cable is stretched and the lever can be pulled all the way up to its stop, then there might not be enough tension to apply the brakes enough to hold the car. On the other hand, if the lever still pulls tight – even if it goes up five or six clicks instead of the typical three clicks – then it probably will.

If the lever itself is loose – or even if the cable seems a bit stretched – it is worth getting it looked at, because it could fail completely at any time (it’s happened to me a few times over the years).

This doesn’t apply to the new electronic parking brake.

Is leaving your parking brake on a serious fault on test?

Assume yes. Even if you get away with it once or twice, it is still a potentially serious problem. In most cases you will get a serious fault. Note that it isn’t an issue with the new electronic parking brake, which releases automatically as you pull away.

Is it wrong to use the parking brake and foot brake at the same time?

The foot brake is used to slow down or stop. The parking brake is the anchor that holds the car still when you are already stopped. Using the foot brake while you’re stationary and the parking brake is applied is just pointless, so in that sense yes, it is wrong. However, it isn’t a serious problem (but bear in mind brake dazzle at night).

Conversely, using the parking brake to stop the car means no brake lights come on, and people following you might not realise you are braking. Applying the parking brake while you are still moving – even if you are using the foot brake to slow down – is dangerous because it can lock the wheels and cause you to skid, especially if it is wet or icy on the roads. Doing it is likely to attract a serious fault on test.

Note that the new style of electronic parking brake sounds an alarm if you try to apply it while you are moving at normal speeds. If you engage it at very low speeds, the car stops dead, and that could be a problem if people behind aren’t paying attention.

I put my parking brake on but my car still rolls back/forward

You either haven’t applied it tightly enough or there is something wrong with it. This isn’t an issue with the new style electronic parking brake unless there is a fault with it.

With the manual/old-style parking brake, I found that it was the generally the girls who had the most issues applying it tightly enough (or subsequently releasing it) to stop rolling back, especially on steep hills. Yes, some boys had issues, but since it was down to simple left arm strength, it affected the girls the most (sorry, but it’s true). Applying the foot brake firmly before applying the parking brake helps get a better grip. Also, don’t push the button in – use the ratchet click, so that the brakes don’t drop down a notch when you let go of the lever.

This isn’t an issue with the new style electronic parking brake.

Can you be too weak to apply the parking brake?

I have had a few pupils who seem to have problems applying and releasing the manual/old-style parking brake. In more than one instance I have advised them to exercise with dumb bells at the gym. I’ve never had anyone who cannot apply/release the parking brake at all, though.

One way of looking at it is that if you can’t apply a manual/old-style parking brake in a car, then you shouldn’t be driving it. Electronic parking brakes eliminate this problem.

How do I stop the car rolling in traffic if my parking brake isn’t working?

I can’t believe that someone found the blog with that search term! Your car ought not to be on the road if the parking brake is broken, and you probably shouldn’t if you have to ask questions like this! Get it fixed.

If your handbrake goes, can you keep it in reverse?

Yep, some jackass found the blog on that search term! Get it fixed, idiot. It’s illegal to drive the car if the parking brake is broken. Technically, your insurance is only valid if your car is roadworthy, so you’re effectively driving uninsured.

Do your brake lights some on with the parking brake ?

No. That’s one good reason why you should stop the car using the foot brake – so people behind know what’s happening.

If you’re stopped, brake light dazzle isn’t going to cause an accident, is it?

Driving at night and having to put up with dazzle can lead to tiredness or loss of concentration or awareness. Having bright lights shone unnecessarily in your face in uncomfortable at best, but can potentially lead to more dangerous situations. Anyone who says that brake lights don’t dazzle is wrong. They DO dazzle – especially on modern cars with high-intensity bulbs and LEDs.

Anyone teaching pupils to avoid using the parking brake – and thus, not to think of those around them – really shouldn’t be instructing. Brake light dazzle IS a significant issue, and pupils need to be made aware of it. Holding the car on the footbrake for too long, and especially at night, IS a sign of a bad or inconsiderate driver, quite possibly one taught by a bad or incompetent ADI.

Should you use the parking brake when skidding?

Jesus H Christ! NO. It will lock the back wheels and you’ll skid even more – probably into a tree or another car. If you have to ask that, I suggest you don’t drive in snowy or icy conditions.

Someone found the blog on that exact term in March 2018, just after the heavy snowfall.

Why shouldn’t I use the ratchet when I apply the parking brake?

You should look in your car’s manual – in most cases, in modern vehicles, the advice is to use the ratchet. Applying the parking brake with the button pressed is an old-fashioned approach. I’ve written more about it here.

I hate it when I pick up pupils who have been told to use the parking brake every time they stop.

Well, good for you. However, once you’ve been doing this job for a while, you’ll realise that many new drivers are almost as bad as some ADIs when it comes to twisting what they’ve been told. So the concept of deciding whether to use the parking brake comes down to either always doing it, or always not doing it. They have often developed that habit themselves as a “just in case” strategy, and haven’t actually been taught to do it. Since it isn’t actually a fault if they do, a decent instructor won’t have tried to stop them if their driving is otherwise sound.

TES makes it clear that you should use the parking brake where it would help you prevent the car from rolling. Using it unnecessarily doesn’t attract a driver fault unless it leads to holding others up or taking too long over something. However, not using it when you should can easily be identified as a fault in its own right.

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This crops up from time to time, and someone recently asked me if the same rules applied when giving refresher lessons to full licence holders that apply to learners.

When teaching a learner for reward (i.e. if you’re being paid), you must be an ADI, and you must display your badge.

It’s also worth noting that ‘reward’ refers to any sort of remuneration, so if someone was giving you a discount for a service they provided, you’re still doing it for ‘reward’ and are on dodgy ground if you’re not an ADI. Same goes for gifts or ‘contribution to petrol’ (that last one is funny, because a typical lesson might only use a couple of £ worth of fuel at most, and yet people take ‘contributions’ of £20).

Most of my work is with learners, but every now and then I get a full licence holder who wants a brush up, needs to be assessed for medical reasons or perhaps age-related insurance issues, or ones who have had an accident and are now apprehensive and need some reassurance.

I’m an ADI, so the issue of reward doesn’t come into it for me, but if I am doing the lesson in their car I do not move my badge out of mine and into theirs. I checked on this years ago, but when the topic came up again recently I could not remember how I’d found out, and I couldn’t find any online information that clarified it either. So I did what I usually do and asked DVSA directly. I emailed them as follows (summarised):

I am fully aware of the rules regarding payment for lessons (i.e. you must be an ADI and on the Register, etc.) and displaying your badge when teaching learners.

However, what is the situation where a full licence holder has asked for refresher training. Do the same rules apply?

Does the law relating to giving driving lessons apply equally to training given to FLHs as it does to tuition given to provisional licence holders?

DVSA replied (summarised):

I can confirm the rules only apply to learner drivers and not full licence holders. You do not need to be qualified as an ADI to provide instruction to full licence holders therefore a badge will also not need to be displayed.

So there you have it. Anyone can give refresher lessons to people who hold a full (and valid) licence, and they can take payment for it. They are not breaking the Law if they do. Furthermore, an ADI does not need to keep moving their badge around if they are doing such a lesson in the FLH’s own car.

I’m giving refresher lessons to someone in their own car who I taught previously – do I need to display my green badge?

No. DVSA has confirmed absolutely categorically that you only need to display your badge if you are teaching a provisional licence holder (i.e. a learner). In fact, you don’t even need to be an ADI to give refresher lessons, and you wouldn’t be breaking the Law if you were being paid for it.

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Borders graphicThe system we have in the UK is that if you hold a full non-UK licence from a non-EU country, or a country which does not have a reciprocal arrangement with the UK, you can drive on that licence for up to 12 months.

The clock starts ticking from the moment you set foot in the UK. It doesn’t stop if you go home again, and it doesn’t get reset at any time. Oh, and you can’t go back home, get a full licence, then come back and drive for a full 12 months on it. The clock is started as a result of your first entry into the UK – not the entry of your licence.

The purpose of this arrangement is to give you time to apply for a UK provisional licence, take driving lessons, and pass your test. Unfortunately, many see it as an excuse not to do anything for another 12 months – then get desperate.

Many years ago, while I was still a relatively fresh ADI, I had a new pupil who was from Pakistan. He had a job with a big pharmaceutical company based in the south of the UK. On his first lesson I asked to see his licence, and he handed me a pristine Pakistani one (green card). Alarm bells rang immediately, and asked him how long he’d been in the UK (two years). I then asked him when he had obtained this licence. He told me he went home earlier in the year (about three months previously) and got the licence then. I told him I didn’t think he could drive on it and – in his presence – called the main police station in Nottingham to seek clarification. As luck would have it, the guy who answered on that Saturday or Sunday afternoon was ex-traffic police, and he told me he thought I was right, but went to fetch the handbook to check for me. That was when I heard the full detail I have already given, above. In this learner’s case, he needed a UK provisional licence and didn’t have one, and the lesson obviously didn’t go ahead.

Some designated countries (and the whole of the EU) have those “reciprocal arrangements” I mentioned. The full list is here (and although it is dated 2013, it is still correct at the time of writing). People who hold full licences from those countries can exchange them for a full UK one without having to take a test. The exchange is like-for-like – an automatic licence from Australia would get exchanged for an automatic licence in the UK. And the original licence must have been obtained in one of the reciprocal countries – not one near by, or with a similar sounding name or geography (i.e. North Korea is not the same as South Korea, USA is not Canada, Hong Kong is not China (nor is Singapore), and so on).

Ignorance of these rules – real or pretend – is not going to get you anywhere if you get stopped by the police. I know for a fact that there’s a fair number of older non-UK drivers, who have been in the UK for quite some time, who still drive on their “international licence” by virtue of going to visit family in their home country once a year, thus believing they’re resetting the counter. They only get away with it because they haven’t been caught yet – and I know for a fact that there are some who have been caught, and who therefore can’t fall back on “pretend” ignorance any more, but who carry on driving nonetheless. Sorry, but it’s true.

As driving instructors, our only professional responsibility is to make sure the people we teach are licensed to take lessons with us. Anything beyond that is a personal matter, and climbing on to a soap box to bemoan the dangers of allowing foreigners to drive in the UK at all, without (or before) passing a test, has nothing to do with our day job. Don’t forget that we are foreigners when we travel outside the UK, and if you think we should bar anyone who hasn’t passed a test in the UK from driving here at all, then expect to have your (or your kids’) future plans for camping or skiing holidays seriously curtailed in return.

This has been the system used for many years across many countries. It doesn’t result in carnage, and apart from the usual mad rush to get a licence at the end of the 12 month window, it works reasonably well. For us as well as “them”.

They can go home and drive for another 12 months in the UK

NO THEY CAN’T!

I got this directly from the police when  I had one once who had obtained his Pakistani licence when he went home for a few weeks earlier that year. I suspected when he showed it to me that there was something wrong, because he lived and worked in the UK, and had done so for the previous three years.

The police confirmed from their official manual that the clock starts ticking as soon as someone enters the UK, and does not get reset if they leave the country. In this guy’s case, the clock ran out over two years earlier and his 3-month old Pakistani licence was meaningless. He needed a UK Provisional and was classed as a learner.

I doubt that the system would check someone who had left the country for several years then re-applied to come back, so they might get away with it – but most non-UK nationals or dual-nationals won’t, because they are officially resident here. If they do it, they’re driving illegally – they’re uninsured, for a start.

Foreigners can fail a test and still drive. That’s wrong.

Look. It’s the system. How many current UK drivers would pass the test if they took it right now, without additional training? How many ADIs would?

It’s worth looking at the DVLA’s official position on this before spending the rest of your working life believing something else. I wrote to them and specifically asked what happens if a non-UK/non-EU full licence holder takes and fails a test within the 12 month window. Their response was:

A non GB licence holder can still drive for up to 12 months regardless of a UK test failure.

Is that clear enough? ADIs are always whinging about how one of their pupils was unfairly failed for things like not looking in their blind spot even though no one was nearby, or braking hard at a junction, but that they’re otherwise good drivers. Like it or not, the test is a series of hoops the candidate has to jump through, and if they miss one, they fail. The difference is that a learner has never driven unsupervised and has never been licensed to do so, whereas those holding licences from other countries usually have. There’s a big difference.

And don’t forget that when a UK driver visits another country, they expect to be able to get a hire car if they want one and visit all the tourist sites. A UK driver in Europe, the USA, or anywhere else is no different to a foreign driver in the UK. It’s the system.

If you’re teaching a foreign driver, just concentrate on your job and teach them. Get them through their test.

Trying to get them off the roads is a personal issue, not a professional one.

Foreigners may never have driven on the left

No. And foreigners in other countries – foreigners from the UK – may never have driven on the right. Yet many thousands do it every year. It’s the system.

The driving test isn’t specifically about driving on the left or right. It’s about being able to drive safely enough to get a licence. It’s all very well giving examples of the bad examples you may have experienced or heard of (or even imagined might happen), but a lot of non-UK drivers holding full licences are perfectly safe on the roads.

Of course, some aren’t. But as I suggested previously, some of our own learners fall into that category.

Professionally, we should concentrate on teaching our own learners. If you want to embark on a personal crusade, keep it separate.

I’ve seen people fail their test and drive away from the test centre

If they have a full licence from another country and are still within their 12 months, they are not breaking the Law. It’s the system. I repeat what the DVLA has told me:

A non GB licence holder can still drive for up to 12 months regardless of a UK test failure.

If they drive away on a Provisional licence unaccompanied then they are breaking the Law. It’s a totally separate situation, and one that isn’t confined to non-UK drivers.

Even EU drivers are unsafe

Look. Try to understand this. The people who come to you are not representative of the entire population of the universe. They are merely representative of the type of people who have issues with their driving.  Crass, all-encompassing statements about EU (or any non-UK) drivers are just wrong. The ones who approach you obviously know they have issues, otherwise they wouldn’t have.

Foreigners have always driven here when they visit – certainly within your lifetime. The vast majority are exactly the same as a Briton driving abroad – and we’ve always done that.

There are some UK drivers – people who can trace their family tree back virtually to the Saxons – who are crap drivers. They’re probably less “foreign” than you are. It happens. And they’d be just as crap driving in France, Spain, the USA, or anywhere else. The same is true for some people who were born in other countries. Driving is a human skill, not a racial one.

The UK test is stricter than everyone else’s

You can’t have it both ways. First, it’s about driving on the left, now it’s about British superiority.

Britain doesn’t have the “hardest” test – not even within Europe.

In my own experience – and that of a lot of other ADIs if what I have read is correct – people from countries where obtaining a licence is easiest tend to realise they’re going to have problems and take lessons when they get here. Not all of them, of course, but a fair few.

I’ve had full licence holders from Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Peru, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, USA, Gambia, Nigeria, Kenya, Senegal, Zimbabwe, and some others I can’t recall right now come to me for lessons because they’re terrified of our roads.

If someone has a full licence from any country, and doesn’t give a damn about how they drive, they won’t come anywhere near you in the first place. So if they do, it’s either because they don’t have a licence, or because they know they need some guidance. And if they vanish once you explain how much work is involved… well, as I said previously, it’s a totally separate issue, and has nothing to do with allowing foreigners to drive for 12 months on their full national licences.

I never see them again when I tell them they won’t pass the test

You’d never see any learner again if you told them that. I was under the impression that ADIs were supposed to be positive when dealing with their customers.

Perhaps you should take a step back and consider that maybe your attitude to “foreigners” is clouding your judgement when you take them on.

When someone comes to me, and once I’ve assessed their driving, I explain to them what is required to pass the test, and that they’re not there yet (assuming that they aren’t, although many aren’t far off). I explain that there’s no chance of passing the test by luck unless you’re close to the required standard, so it is important to fix any specific problems. I stress to them that we’re going to do it in the shortest possible time, because driving lessons are expensive. I never tell people how long it will take, because I simply don’t know. If someone is no better than a beginner, they usually already know they’re not ready (and, usually, they do, no matter what you’ve convinced yourself of otherwise). One or two might believe differently – usually, the older drivers – but the majority don’t.

If someone insists on booking a test in spite of all that, I simply tell them that they can’t use my car. If they disappear as a result, I concentrate on my other pupils, because that’s my job.

If they pass, they’re not insured to drive away from the test centre

Neither are UK learners. That’s why I explain to any of mine – no matter where they come from or what colour their skin is – that if they go for their test in their own car (and a small number do), they need to phone their insurance company before they drive away just to be on the safe side. If they’ve spent all that money on learning to drive, they will listen. Any who don’t are not automatically “foreign”.

It’s their responsibility – not yours. And the problem is not confined to “foreigners”.

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