A Driving Instructor's Blog

Transport

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The Audi LaneIt’s funny, but ever since I became a driving instructor I have often explained to my pupils about the “caterpillar effect” on motorways. This is where you will be travelling along at a steady 60 or 70mph, suddenly to be faced with a wall of traffic at a complete standstill. You’ll be wondering what has happened – and be lucky if you move more than a few metres over the next 10 minutes or more – when suddenly everything starts moving again and there’s no sign of what might have caused it. Then, if you’re on a long journey, it could happen again some time later – perhaps several times. It’s like a huge caterpillar, in the sense that you have chunks of motorway moving freely, and others at a standstill, and these alternate along the network – just like a caterpillar moves.

What causes it is people not driving either at the speed limit, or exceeding it, by more than about 10mph either way. A slower driver will cause cars behind to have to slow down, and the laws of physics mean that each car slows down a little more than the one in front, so eventually someone has to stop. It might only be for a second, but the same laws of physics then mean that each subsequent car stops for longer. It happens both when a normal driver encounters a slower one, or when a speeder encounters a normal driver.

Obviously, less confident drivers will usually be in one of the inner lanes, and the faster ones in the outer lanes. It usually starts in the Audi lane (the one on the far right), and then quickly spreads as the Audi (or BMW) driver moves over to try and get past, and begins to encounter all the Miss Daisys on the opposite side.

Now, to me, the most obvious fix would be to ban Audis, BMWs, and old people from the motorways. Then we could all drive at 60 or 70mph in peace. But the Americans reckon that Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) would address the problem better.

In the USA, they use the term “phantom traffic jam” – a term I can’t get my head around, because the traffic jam is actually very real when you encounter one, and it has been caused by the very real situation of people driving badly. The article I’ve linked to says that drivers cause the problem themselves due to their “delayed reactions having a ripple effect”. It’s a rather naïve and politically-correct assessment, since I’ve already pointed out quite correctly that it is mismatched speeds that are the problem and, if anything, it is over-reaction, lack of experience, and bad attitude which causes it. In other words, crap drivers.

ACC uses radar to detect what’s in front of it and adjusts the car’s speed accordingly. Hopefully, it is a few notches better than reversing sensors which are great both at detecting things which aren’t important (blades of grass and twigs on bushes), and missing things which are (lorries, metal barriers, and other big heavy things which are not in the sensor plane).

Given that the typical Audi driver is likely to set their standard cruise control at 90mph, I suspect they’d be switching ACC off the minute it tried to take them below 80mph.

I still think my solution would work best.

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Ford Focus oil change messageThis article was originally written a few years ago, but it has become extremely popular, and gets hundreds of hits a week.

It all began back in 2016, when I got a message on my brand new Ford Focus TDCi Titanium centre display telling me that it was due for an oil change. I wouldn’t have minded, except that it was only on 5,500 miles and my official service points (set by my lease agent) are every 12,500 miles.

I spoke with the local dealer and they said just to book it in so they could reset it. I wasn’t too keen on that, since visits to the dealer inevitably mean at least half a day in lost lesson time.

I didn’t for a moment think it was anything other than an erroneous message. There is an oil warning lamp on the dash which I would never ignore, but centre display messages are a different matter entirely. I mean, how many of us have been driving up a 40% slope only to be advised to change the gear to 4th, 5th, or even 6th? The car just won’t do it. Before I quite realised this, my first action was to buy an OBD II monitor tool so I could check/reset the message myself, but the OBD found no faults, and there was nothing to reset. I should have realised this – and the oil change warning remained stubbornly visible.

Then I did what I should have done in the first place and Googled it. It turns out Ford has a system which gives and oil change warning at various points based on how it thinks the car is being driven. No fault is logged, since the trigger is software-based and is “calculated”. Apparently, you used to be able to set different trigger points manually (in America, at least), but there is no such option in the UK that I can see.

Since 2016, and across at least four other Focuses, I’ve had it come on at as low as around 1,000 miles, and at other silly points shortly after a service. None of my pupils (or me) drives it that badly, of that I’m certain.

How to reset the oil change warning

Resetting it is incredibly simple – though completely undocumented by Ford. All you do is:

  1. Turn on the ignition (or push the start button with the clutch up)
  2. Press the brake and accelerator fully down

After a moment, the centre display will tell you that the reset is in progress. Keep the pedals down until it informs you that reset is complete. No more oil change warning! From what I understand, this applies to all Focus models from MkII onwards.

Does this work on other Ford models?

You’ll have to try it and see. Logic would dictate that Ford has implemented the same procedure on all its current models. However, when you consider Ford’s indexing system at the back of the User Manual, logic isn’t something they seem to waste much time on, and there’s every possibility that the reset procedure is totally different on other models. If you try it and it works, drop me a line so I can add the model here.

How soon should I get my oil changed when the warning message comes on?

For a Focus, if your car is under the manufacturer’s warranty then I think they allow 1,000 miles on top of the normal service points (but check that with your local agents). My lease company allows me the range of 11,500-13,500 to book it in for a service. Whatever your local agent allows, outside of that might affect your warranty, so I say again: check with them before assuming anything.

Of course, if the oil change warning message appears before 12,500 miles (or whatever your service points are) then you can safely ignore it (or reset it, as explained above). It isn’t a sensor warning, just a software-based calculated value. If the oil warning dashboard light comes on, though, you mustn’t ignore that.

You shouldn’t ignore the message because you could damage your car

Someone wrote to me, making this point. As I have explained above, the alert (it isn’t a warning) is calculated based on how the in-car computer thinks you’re driving. Frankly, when it comes on at around 1,000 miles when you’ve only had the car a few weeks, or several days after it has had a service, and the oil definitely isn’t old, yes you can ignore it.

My lease agent sets the service points at every 12,500 miles. They will not allow me to have it serviced any earlier (±1,000 miles). I know that Ford talks of 7,500 mile service points, and that’s fine. If you have a private vehicle then follow their advice. But if the warning comes on at any other time before that you can safely reset it – if nothing else, until you can get it in for its service.

 

Disclaimer: I take no responsibility if an oil change really is due and you ignore it.

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A 1976 garage fuel price listFinding an absolutely definitive answer to this isn’t easy. In fact, I’ve found it impossible. However, by piecing various things together, it is possible to come up with a plausible explanation.

It seems that it began in the 1930s, in America. At that time, fuel cost as little as 10 cents per gallon, and considering that cars were quite hungry back then, garages realised that by offering fuel at even a tenth of a cent less than a competitor they were likely to draw in more business. That tenth of a cent represented a significant percentage of the price per gallon back then, so the consumer also benefitted significantly.

You have to realise that garages buy in fuel in huge quantities, and it isn’t priced or taxed in round figures. Also, the profit each garage makes from every gallon (or litre) of fuel it sells these days is very small. In the UK, if fuel was advertised at £1 per litre on a forecourt, the garage in question would only make about 2p profit. The remaining 98p pays for duty, VAT, production and transport, and the overheads of the garage.

So, in 1930s America, garages started showing forecourt prices in fractions of a cent to attract business. I’m fairly certain that even back then, if a price was shown as 10⁹/₁₀ cents (they used fractions and not decimals), there would have been people who religiously worked out how much fuel to put in their cars to avoid the inevitable rounding needed when it came to paying. After all, you can’t actually pay 10⁹/₁₀ cents and realise the cost benefit compared to a competitor, but buy 10 gallons and you have a nice round $1.09 and the full discount.

As time passed, the cost of fuel rose. The benefit to the consumer of pricing in fractions became less, but to the people involved in the supply it was still relevant because the tax on fuel ran to three decimal places, and average prices in any given state to four or more when trying to compare individual garage prices. The car owner might be filling up with a measly 10 gallons, but garages and refiners were dealing with thousands and millions of gallons, and the extra decimal places. But this is where marketing took over.

It is well known that the average buyer will see a £4.99 price tag on something in a different light to one which says £5. In a very fuzzy way, one of them is a whole pound cheaper unless the casual buyer stops to think about it. Well, this works with fuel prices, too. A forecourt price of £118.9p is seen as £118p.

In 50s America and later, as prices rose, the marketing benefit of retaining fractional prices took over, and it has been that way ever since (except perhaps for the adoption of decimals instead of straight fractions).

The UK has always charged in fractions, though the £-s-d monetary system did have ½d and ¼d denominations, which meant actually paying the fractional prices was possible. However, even immediately after decimalisation in 1971, non-denominational fractional prices were used. The picture above is the price list on a London forecourt in 1976 (the days of leaded and unleaded petrol), and it clearly shows fractions of 0.1p, 0.5p, and 0.8p being used – only the 0.5p could have actually been tendered, since there was a ½p coin at the time. It’s also interesting to note that garage prices didn’t start being overtly advertised until about the 70s. Up until then, the price was set on the pump dials, and the picture above shows how crude the system was even in 1976 – a time when the price of oil rose from $3 a barrel in 1973 to $12 in 1974 (a result of the 1973 Oil Crisis). Marketing thus became very significant from the 70s onwards, and now every garage has illuminated signs showing the price.

People often argue that the practice of showing prices to a tenth of a penny is some sort of scam. In reality, at its worst it is simply a marketing ploy, and no different to advertising things at £4.99 instead of £5. I mean, when you buy something at either £4.99 or £5, are you actually getting five pounds-worth of value? The answer is only “yes” if you are buying at cost price, because as soon as someone adds value (by processing it) or their profit margin it becomes a question of “how long is a piece of string?” Fuel has value and profit margins added at multiple stages, and I doubt that anyone in the UK knows what the true day-to-day cost price of a litre of fuel should be based on the unrefined crude oil price. In other words, 0.9p (or 0.7p or 0.5p) tacked on the end of something with a price that fluctuates sometimes daily by 1p or 2p (sometimes more) has no objective financial meaning to either the consumer or anyone else involved in the supply chain.

If fuel is advertised at 118.9p per litre, it doesn’t matter if you see it as 118p or 119p, you’ll still be charged at 118.9p equivalent. If another garage is advertising it at 117.9p, then it is 1p cheaper – whether you’re suckered in by the marketing people or not. Only the price difference between garages (or the price change at a single garage) really matters to the consumer.

Another way of looking at it is what that 0.9p actually means. In my car, if I fill up from empty a difference of 0.9p on each litre would equate to about 40p at current prices. However, as I have mentioned before, pumps have to be accurate to between -0.5% and +1%, and that means that I can quite legally be supplied with up to 30p worth less fuel or 55p worth more.

And the bottom line is that even if the tinfoil hat brigade got its way, 118.9p would become 119p – not 118p – and that would mean paying 5p more on a full tank.

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MotorwayIt’s about 50 years overdue, but after the recent yes-it-is-no-it-isn’t nonsense, we now know once and for all that from 4 June 2018 learner drivers will be allowed on motorways.

They will only be allowed on with a qualified ADI, and the car they are in must be fitted with dual controls.

It’s worth emphasising that: you cannot go on the motorway with mum, dad, Kyle (who passed before you), or anyone else who hasn’t got a green ADI badge stuck in the window. This means PDIs – trainee driving instructors with pink badges – also cannot take learners on motorways.

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Driver Location SignsI originally wrote this back in 2012, but it has had a run of hits lately so I thought I’d update it.

Although the official line suggests otherwise, I’m sure these signs were around long before I became a driving instructor, and their exact purpose was always a bit of a mystery to me.

You’ve probably seen them. You get them mainly on motorways and they consist of a rectangular sign with yellow writing. There is the name of the motorway, a letter (A, B, J, K, L, or M), and a number. On the M1, for example, if you’re heading one way the letter will be ‘B’, whereas heading the other way it will be ‘A’. The numbers change by 0.5 between each sign.

I had guessed that they had something to do with being able to pinpoint precise locations, and that the signs were 500m apart so the number therefore represented a distance in kilometres. I hadn’t seen them explained anywhere, but it wasn’t until I started teaching people to drive – especially on Pass Plus motorway lessons – that I bothered to find out more.  The trigger was a pupil who knew someone who was a paramedic, and who had been told that these signs “marked the distance to the end of the hard shoulder”.

That explanation didn’t make any sense. It was obviously wrong, since the signs appear even when there is no hard shoulder, and the numbers had no connection whatsoever with the end of it when there was.

Part of the difficulty in finding out what they were for was not knowing what they were called. They don’t appear in the current Highway Code, and Googling for “signs with yellow writing on motorways” or something similar didn’t help (certainly not at the time I became interested , anyway). I emailed the local Police traffic department and that was where I discovered they were called Driver Location Signs.

It turns out that they are “new signs on motorways” as of 2008. That still bugs me, because I’m damned sure they’ve been around longer than that, but maybe I’m imagining it. The Highways Agency has confirmed to me that they were “trialled as early as 2003”, but my memory says they were around even in the 90s. But that doesn’t matter.

Wikipedia covers them in more detail. The AA in slightly less detail. And this one is probably the most detailed.

They consist of three lines of text. The top line is the route name (e.g. M1, M6, M25, etc.). The second line is the carriageway identifier, A or B, and in spite of what The AA says they’re not necessarily London-centric (i.e. just think in terms of ‘A’ being the carriageway going in one direction, and ‘B’ the opposite carriageway going the other). If there are parallel but physically separated carriageways, those running with A are labelled ‘C’, and those running with B are labelled ‘D’. The letter ‘J’ denotes a slip road OFF carriageway A, and ‘K’ a slip road ON TO it. The letter ‘L’ is the slip road OFF carriageway B, and ‘M’ is the slip road ON TO it. Other letters can apparently be used at complex junctions. Finally, the third line shows the distance in kilometres from a known point (usually the start of the road), and is called “the chainage”.

The signs can only be a maximum distance of 500m apart, which is what they normally are, but if there is an obstruction they can be 400m or 300m apart (this explains why they don’t all end in 0.5 km). And they CAN be seen on some newer and very long dual carriageways. There’s a lot more to their placement, but this is a basic summary.

The AA likes to have them quoted when people report breakdowns. I have always assumed that they’re most useful to the emergency services.

There is a Highways Agency leaflet which explains them in simple terms, available to download from Greater Manchester Police.

Knowing what they are and how they work – and being able to explain it – is going to be important when we are eventually allowed to take learners on to motorways (in 2018, if that comes to pass).

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RobberThis article was originally published in 2013, but it’s been popular recently so I have updated it. I’ve also written a more detailed explanation about why fuel is priced in tenths of a penny, here.

I’ve noticed that sometimes – and I stress sometimes – the petrol pumps at my local garages jump by 1p after I’ve finished filling my car. I usually notice it if I’m trying to put a round number of pounds worth of fuel in – so if I’m aiming for £40.00 I’ll just hit it, and when I get inside the amount payable is £40.01. Looking on the web, other people have noticed it too, and they are putting it down to some sort of scam. But is isn’t.

There is a simple explanation – given here by Leicester County Council Trading Standards. They say:

Q. When I put the petrol nozzle back the meter clocked up one penny when I was not delivering any fuel, is there a fault on the pump?

A. Sometimes the price advances when you close the nozzle and return it to storage. This can be caused by the hose swelling slightly which allows a fractional amount of fuel to pass through the meter. Because of the high price in petrol only a very small amount of fuel is needed for the price display to change by 1 penny therefore this problem is much more prevalent now than it used to be. One penny’s worth of fuel only equates to a very small amount and is well within the permitted tolerances of -0.5% and +1%. However if the price increases by more than 1 penny please let Consumer Direct know on 08454 04 05 06.

Those tolerances mean that for every 1,000mls (litre) of fuel you pump, you can legally get anywhere between 995mls and 1010mls. If fuel costs £1.20 per litre, that means you might get 0.6p less fuel than you paid for, or 1.2p more. On a full tank in a standard car, that works out at up to 24p less or 48p more fuel than you actually paid for, respectively. I stress again that this is perfectly legal, and is due to the reliability and accuracy of the pumps. Coventry Trading Standards explains it this way. As Trading Standards say, it is well within all the legal tolerances.

A tick over of 1p is insignificant within this legally acceptable range.

Most of the time it is perfectly possible to put an exact value of fuel in and it doesn’t click over. In fact, it happened more back in 2013 – when the price of fuel was up around £1.40 a litre – than it does in 2017 (I haven’t noticed it recently). And yet people are still convinced that there’s a small bloke wearing a striped jersey and a mask sitting inside the pump doing it on purpose. It isn’t a scam, and it isn’t deliberate. It’s just a combination of maths and science.

If you’re worried about it, don’t put piddling amounts in your tank – fill the damned thing up once a week instead of putting a tenner in every other day. One penny on a tank full is a lot less significant than it is on each of four lots of £10.00. And it means you won’t keep snarling up the forecourts for the rest of us as you pay for it on one of your bloody Visa cards.

And one more thing – a tip, really. You often find that the nozzle has got well over 1p of fuel sitting in it when you lift it out of the holster – so turn it upside down to drain it into your tank before you pull the trigger. And do the same thing before you put it back. That should be enough to stop all the sleepless nights you’re having over those pesky 1p muggings you reckon you’re getting – you’ll be getting someone else’s fuel for nothing!

Why do pumps always jump by 1p?

They don’t. They just do sometimes, for the reasons I’ve explained above.

It never happens when I put in 20 or 30 litres of fuel, instead of £20 or £30

Actually, it can. But because of the 0.9p or 0.7p they tag on to fuel prices, aiming for a specific price instead of a quantity puts you close to the tick over point, whereas aiming for a round volume probably puts you somewhere half way between two points. Pumping 20L at 119.9p per litre will give a nice round £23.98, whereas £20 works out at 16.6806L of fuel. That 0.6ml is going to get rounded up.

It’s definitely a scam

No it isn’t. Do you really think they designed them with a line in the software that says:

if (ran == 0) then price = price + 0.01;

The 1p is just an occasional rounding up. It is not a scam.

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Bill and Ben - Flower Pot MenThis came in via the Google newsfeeds. It seems that Bill Plant driving school went into administration on 27 April 2017. It has since been bought out by Ecodot, which is:

…a specialist in car vehicle preparation and dual control vehicle hire. Our main services are, Dual control vehicle hire, Alloy refurbishment, Porfessional (sic) Valeting services and Body Repairs

I would have used an image above which related directly to Bill Plant, but from past experience I know that they’re a bunch of prima donnas who threaten court action unless you’re saying anything good about them. Of course, such behaviour makes it even more difficult to say anything good about them.

The reason for the titsup is given as being due to:

…exceptional costs associated with a change in operating model.

Or, in other words, they were a bunch of incompetent prima donnas. Most of the other belly-ups in the driver training industry went bust during the economic downturn during the last decade and the early part of this one. Bill Plant has managed it during a period of economic growth, and that doesn’t bode well for their future.

This industry is not high-margin. Driving lessons can only cost so much before learners won’t pay for them, and at the moment almost everyone is charging the same (in the region of £25 an hour, give or take a few quid). Similarly, instructors who work on a franchise will only pay so much before they walk away, too. The amount they pay for the franchise lines the pockets of the franchiser, who is at the top of the pile, and that franchiser will not be happy unless he or she is pocketing enough to keep a new X5 on the driveway. A kind of status quo is established, whereby the only loser is the instructor – lesson prices can’t go up by much, and the franchiser will still want to increase profits year on year, so the franchise fee goes up. It’s a simple Law of Nature.

It makes you wonder what the numpties did to their “operating model” to screw things so badly. I wonder if it had anything to do with introducing BMW X1s as tuition cars – the prices of which range from £23,000 to £35,000, which is at least double (and up to five times) the price new of most instructors’ tuition vehicles? If it did, I can’t see Ecodot – which is apparently now trading as Bill Plant Driving School Ltd – keeping them. Someone somewhere in the chain has to pay for the overheads.

As I say, this industry is not high-margin, and anyone who buys a top marque as an overhead and then delivers lessons costing the same as they would in a vehicle costing a quarter of that is not going to stay in business long without someone on the outside pumping them money intravenously. Having hubby (or wifey) supply the financial drip feed to their other half is one thing, but for a limited company it’s a different matter altogether.

Ecodot isn’t big enough to pump money in indefinitely, and I can see big changes coming.

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Bus LaneThis BBC story reports that bus lane enforcement cameras make £31m per year in fines. One particular lane, in Newcastle, made £1.5m on its own – and that’s after you consider that the BBC contacted 160 local authorities for financial data.

The fun part is where a spokeswoman for Newcastle said:

We would firmly stress that bus lanes are not there to generate income – they are there to help us to manage our road networks efficiently.

Liar. Bus lanes CAUSE congestion, and they have done so since the day the first one was introduced. You have to be a complete idiot (or pathological liar) either not to realise that, or to argue the point. So sticking cameras on them can only be to make easy money.

A prime example in Nottingham is the A52 Derby Road heading into the city via the Priory Roundabout. It used to be three lanes in merging to a single lane going out, past Wollaton Park. There was always serious congestion during rush hour. Then, they turned the left lane into a 24-hour bus lane, and suddenly three lanes of traffic was forced into just two, with still just a single lane leading out. The only benefit was to buses, which were now able to skip about three-quarters of a mile of gridlock and force their way back in at the roundabout (“force” being the operative word when Barton, Indigo, or YourBus are involved). Since much of the congestion was caused by buses stopping for extended periods of time on the single lane side (all the stops are next to the University, and you can imagine the difficulty most students are likely to have getting on a bus), having them all get down there more quickly made the congestion even worse. Admittedly, it doesn’t have cameras on it, but there are plenty that do.

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MotorwayActually, it’s only a small section of the M1 – near Sheffield – but the media likes to distort these things.

I wrote about this subject a few years ago. That was at a time where they had only recently been talking about raising the speed limit! My main point was that although cars emit less pollution when driven at 60mph instead of 70mph, they they take longer to pass through a given area at 60mph, so the reduction in pollution is pretty much negligible. It’s a case of comparing a quick but pungent fart with a longer, less smelly one.

The other thing I think I mentioned is the stench when you drive on the M1 past Sheffield and the wind is in the right direction. And it doesn’t come from cars – it’s from the factories around there, and a smell like that isn’t going to contain anything that is good for you.

An even greater irony this time around is that London is currently in the grip of an extremely poor period of air quality. They haven’t quite got round to blaming it on cars and lorries yet – that’s been done before – but at the moment the most direct blame has been placed at the feet of pretentious people burning wood during the cold weather (though that detail seems to have been removed from some reports).

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