A Driving Instructor's Blog

ADI

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DoogleBooks LCD drawing and writing padEver since I became an instructor I’ve managed to get through a lot of notebooks. Anyone who does this job will know that you have to sketch a lot of things when you’re explaining stuff to pupils.

I started off buying notepads, but realised that was quite expensive – especially if you wanted the larger sizes. Then I turned to making my own, by ring-binding punched copier paper and using that. I discovered that normal two- or four-hole punching was no good, because the sheets could easily get torn with all the handling and jolting they get in the car, so I turned to spiral binding. That served me well for many years – but I was starting to feel my conscience nagging me over the amount of paper I was getting through.

A few years ago now, I tried using my laptop. It’s a Surface Book Pro with a detachable screen so it can be used as a tablet. With a simple sketching app, it was fine – but there was still the hassle of getting it out, booting up, then detaching the screen, then reattaching it and powering down when I’d finished. There’s no way I wanted my Surface loose in the car while it was moving and quite frankly – in some of the places you have to cover – waving a two and a half grand laptop around is not the smartest thing you can do.

Then I had one of my thoughts. It occurred to me that there must be something out there that could just be used as a drawing board, but which didn’t involve dirty rags covered in black marker from the dry-wipe boards some people use. That was when I came across LCD drawing pads. At the time I first tried them, they were usually 6 inch or 9 inch screens. I found a 10 inch one and it worked great. I still have it, in fact. But a couple of years ago, while still looking for something better, I came across DoogleBooks.

The main attraction at the time was its size – it’s a 12 inch screen, so about the size of a piece of A4 paper. It also boasted an erase function (you can erase parts of your diagram with an eraser on the stylus) and a bright screen – my original cheap import was quite faint, though still perfectly usable. It comes with a padded protective case and a separate eraser, a lanyard for the stylus, and some spare tips, and a few bits and pieces for kids rather than adults (and which I never did figure out what they were for).

It is powered by – believe it or not – a standard watch battery, which lasts ages (I’m still on the original after nearly two years). That’s because the device is not illuminated in any way, so doesn’t draw much power.

You ‘turn it on’ with a very small switch on the back, though this is a ‘lock’ function rather than a power button as far as I can tell. The stylus clips neatly into the frame (come to think of it, it was because the clip on the cheap one I bought snapped which got me looking again) and has a nice long lanyard so you don’t lose it.

Once powered/unlocked you just write or draw whatever you want. The width of the stroke is governed by pressure and angle of the stylus nib, so you can get thin lines or thicker ones as needed. If you want to start again, you just press the button on the left in the picture above with the trash can symbol twice, and the screen is cleared. The double-press is a safety feature so you don’t erase by mistake – see the next bit for why.

If you make a minor mistake, you can erase just part of whatever you’ve drawn or written. Press the other button until the red LED comes on, then use either the small rubber eraser on the other end of the stylus, or the larger rectangular one which is supplied – just like you would with pencil on paper. Once you’ve erased whatever you want, press that button again until the LED goes out and you’re back in drawing mode. Due to the proximity of the buttons, you can see why complete erase needs two presses. This selective erase does work, but be aware it does leave slight smudges behind – again, like you’d get with a pencil on paper.

It is not a computer. Anything you write or draw exists only on the screen for as long as it’s there. You cannot transfer it to a computer, since it is not a digital image – it is exactly the same as a pen or pencil drawing. If you write ‘CAT’, that’s just some shapes and lines – the tablet doesn’t know what you’ve written. If you erase something by mistake, it’s gone forever – there’s no undo feature. If you want to save anything, you can take a picture – pupils often take a shot of things I draw so they can look at them later, just like they used to when I drew on paper.

The device I used previously had a much fainter screen, and this meant that on evening lessons it could be difficult to see what you’d drawn. As I explained earlier, there are no backlights on these things, and they are literally the same as pen and paper – you can’t see drawings made using those in the dark, either. However, DoogleBooks has a much brighter screen contrast and you can see your drawings clearly with the interior light on. The photo above was taken at dusk with no lighting, and that’s the contrast you get.

It’s been one of the best things I’ve bought in a long while. I actually have a spare in reserve, which came about because the original Amazon order never arrived, and the owner of the British company which sells them sent out a replacement. Several weeks later, the other one arrived – God knows where it had been – and when I offered to return it the owner said to keep it as a gesture of goodwill!

They now do several different models, mainly aimed at kids, with different screen colours. And whereas the only frame colour available when I bought mine was cyan (which is actually my least favourite colour in the whole world), they now do them in a range of colours. Just be careful to choose the ‘’partial erasure’ one unless you want to save a couple of quid and lose a bit of functionality.

It’s infinitely better than using a dry wipe board. There’s no mess, and it is ready to use the instant you take it out of its case. Unlike dry wipe systems, when you erase, you erase – no ink getting stuck in scratches, which always happens with dry wipe markers. And the stylus lasts oodles longer than a marker pen. And there’s no thick pads of drawings to dispose of when you’ve filled up a notepad.

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

Wearing glasses with face coverings on test

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

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

If your pupils wear glasses

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

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

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

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

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

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

The GOVERNMENT. Not DVSA.

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

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

But people paid for a two-year certificate

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

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

Do YOU agree with it?

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

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The Jen Fog fogging machineRegular readers will know I have referred to JennyChem before, mainly in my article about smearing windscreens. I buy their brand of TFR.

I got an email from them today announcing the launch of their new defogging machine, which claims to do anti-viral sanitising as well as removing tobacco and pet odours. It can be used in cars and for treating small living spaces. It’s called The Jen Fog.

At £145, it’s quite a bit cheaper than other fogging machines, and it comes with 5L of the fogging liquid. Each treatment takes about 20 minutes.

The fogging liquid itself costs £17.50 for 5L. You can even choose between unfragranced, Cherry, Tea Tree and Pine, Strawberry, and Bubblegum scents.

The machine has a 400ml reservoir, and each fill will treat up to 30 cars. So a 5L bottle will be good for up to 375 treatments!

Those numpties looking at buying things to clip on to their air vents should invest a little more – actually, only three times more, because they’re being ripped off with those dinky things – and buy the real McCoy. If anything is going to sanitise the car properly, it’ll be something like this – which is much more cost-effective than some of the prices for ‘refills’ I’ve seen being bandied around social media.

If anyone is interested, these are the datasheets for the FogSan fluid, and it has been tested and confirmed as a viricide.

Datasheet

Product Spec Sheet

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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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COVID SOM imageJust saw this in the news. Driving lessons can recommence from 4 July 2020.

I’m now going to have to let most of my pupils go, since I cannot start immediately as I am still isolating to protect my elderly parents. And it’s too soon, anyway (we can’t socially distance, and far too many new cases of the virus are still occurring daily).

On the plus side, there will be no more idiotic social media posts about ‘when can we go back’ and ‘well, technically, we never had to stop’.

And the official DVSA email has now come through.

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Covid-19 on blackboardQuestion: Can I start doing lessons yet?

Answer: There is no Law which directly says you cannot. As in, there is no Law which specifically states ‘driving instructors must not give lessons’. This is probably why your grocer, your hairdresser, your mum, your nan, the police, DVSA, some weirdo you met in the park last night, all your Facebook ‘friends’, and any one of the millions of other people you have repeatedly asked the same question of hasn’t given you the answer that you want. And you’re not going to find the answer by resorting to ‘alternative news’ websites operated by anti-vaxxers and non-qualified ‘medical advisors’.

Obviously, you have a problem with simple logic. But let me try to help.

COVID-19 kills people. Even if it doesn’t kill you, it can kill others. And it does – quite a few of them so far, in fact. Unfortunately, whether or not it does kill you if you catch it can vary in probability from quite unlikely all the way up to virtually guaranteed. The problem is that you don’t know where you are in that range until you try it. And among the higher primates, that is generally regarded as a high-risk strategy, and one to be avoided unless you want to get on the wrong side of Natural Selection.

Now, this is where it is going to get really hard for you to understand. The COVID-19 virus itself is small – much smaller than anything you can imagine. You’d be able to fit more than 30,000 of them across a single French Fry that you’d get with, say, your Happy Meal. They are not physically stopped by anything other than a completely solid and sealed barrier. The simplest way of imagining them is by thinking what happens if either you or your pupil farts on a lesson (or if one of you is particularly odoriferous). Let’s call it the ‘Fart Factor’. Both of you can smell it no matter how much the culprit denies doing it, and neither of you can do anything realistically possible to avoid smelling it. If that fart (or BO) were COVID-19 wafting around, then smelling it means you caught it.

In order to reduce the spread of this fart-like COVID-19, it is important that close person-to-person contact is restricted and – wherever possible – eliminated. That is why we have the ‘2 metre rule’ to keep people away from each other if they meet, and the ‘isolation’ principle otherwise. Two metres is about six times the distance a French Fry travels each time you move it from your tray to your mouth. It is therefore considerably further than the distance between you and your pupils when you’re in your car.

You may have heard talk of reducing this separation distance to 1 metre, or even half a metre. In a car, you are as close as a few centimetres at least some of the time – particularly when a pupil decides to take evasive action over a squirrel they might have seen in a tree 200 metres up the road, and you have to intervene.


Question: I used to clean my car anyway between pupils, so what’s the problem now?

Answer: You used to clean your car because of colds and flu, a build up of gunk from excessive use of hand cream by some pupils of a certain gender on the gear knob, or possibly bad smells left by others with questionable hygiene. At a guess, you’ve probably still had colds and flu in spite of all your cleaning, so it didn’t work. Did it? You might already be able to see where this is heading.

Even that build of gunk on the gear knob is actually there before you can see it. All you did with your precautions was shift the risk – maybe, and only by a little – in your favour. And as we’ve already noted, it wasn’t enough. You still caught colds, and possibly even an interesting skin disorder in some very rare cases. Well, that initially invisible gunk could easily be a coating of COVID-19, and scraping or wiping it off obviously carries an increased risk of exposure above and beyond the fact you were in the car with someone who had it in the first place.

I refer again to the fact that COVID-19 kills people. There’s no vaccine right now, and it is not a cold or flu. If your cleaning precautions fail with COVID-19, keep your fingers crossed there’s no bullet in that particular chamber of the gun you’re now holding to your head. And maybe spare at least a passing thought to all the other people you will now have put in the same situation.


Question: Does an antibacterial sanitizer kill viruses?

Answer: Well, viruses are not actually ‘alive’ in the same way as bacteria are, but the simple answer is yes – most of them. What happens is that a good sanitizer which contains alcohol will ‘denature’ the shell around many viruses and destroy them. This might be less effective for something like Norovirus, which is resistant to alcohol, but it will destroy COVID-19.

However, the whole process relies on actual – and relatively prolonged – contact between the alcohol and the virus. COVID-19 doesn’t turn and run at the mere sight of a bottle of sanitizer. So the $64,000 question is always going to be: did I miss a bit?

I stress that this only applies to alcohol-based sanitizers containing at least 60% alcohol. It does not apply to that hypo-allergenic, vegan, organic citrus-based product with Ylang Ylang and Tea Tree Oil in it in the pretty bottle your Wellbeing coach on Instagram advised you to buy (probably from her).


Question: Does bleach kills viruses?

Answer: As above, the short answer is yes. However, be aware that bleach is also toxic to pretty much everything else, and can cause serious burns if not diluted properly. These burns can lead to permanent nerve damage and also serious eye damage if any gets in those. It also causes breathing problems, especially in people who already have respiratory issues. From a safety perspective you need to be asking if your cleverly devised ‘risk assessment’ has truly considered all the risks – as opposed to having been deliberately constructed just to give you an excuse to start working again –  before sticking bleach in spray bottles and squirting it around inside the car.

Also be aware that bleach can cause an allergic skin reaction in some people even at normal dilutions, the outcome of which can still lead to nerve damage. Skin allergies can develop over time, and don’t always occur immediately. And the long-term effects of bleach on the plastics and fabrics in your car are unlikely to be of the positive variety. Bleach at any concentration should not be used as a hand-sanitizer.

You ought to consider all this before concluding that Domestos is cheaper than alcohol-based hand sanitizer.


Question: Do face masks work?

Answer: Viruses are not stopped by normal face masks (aka surgical masks’). All these do is catch some/most of the larger droplets of moisture (containing the virus), and this reduces the number of virus ‘spores’ being circulated beyond the mask. It doesn’t eliminate them. And of course, until they become inactive, the mask is still contaminated with them when you fling it on to the back seat and it dries out, while you put a clean one on

All you have to do is try one while you’re wearing glasses and see how easily they steam up. Well, that ‘steam’ could easily contain viruses, and that’s where the Fart Factor comes into play again (including what that dirty one on the back seat is doing while you continue your lesson). Also consider that the ‘steam’ is coming from the other person in the car too, and if your ‘steam’ can get out, theirs can get in through the same channels. And vice versa.

You need proper respirator masks to give any serious protection against viruses. At least an FFP2 or FFP3. These are single use, like surgical masks, but create a tight seal around the nose and mouth, and have a small enough pore size to stop viruses. They’re difficult to breathe through as a result, and the tight fit makes them uncomfortable – especially worn over long periods. And they cost about £3 each – if you can get them. In theory, you can wear one for up to 3 hours, but if you take it off at any point you ought to use a new one.

Proper respirators can cause facial skin damage if worn repeatedly and/or for long periods.


Question: Does having the windows open reduce the risk?

Answer: If you’ve ever driven at moderate speed with the windows fully open, and had empty plastic bags on the back seat for any reason, you will probably have experienced what can happen. The bags can get pulled into a vortex – a bit like a tornado – inside the car, spin a round for a while, then get sucked out of the windows. Let’s call this one the ‘Vortex Factor’.

If you’re desperate to return to work, you might be tempted to conclude from your ‘risk assessment’ that yes, having the windows open reduces the risk. But just ask yourself what happens while that vortex – this time containing invisible COVID-19 spores stirred up from old masks and things – is still inside the car, and before it heads for the windows. And think further about what happens when the vortex is less as a result of the windows being only slightly open, so it never bothers with a full exit. Think Fart Factor.

The last week has seen many torrential downpours around the country, and these look set to continue for the next week at least. It’s what often happens in summer in the UK. If it rains, and the car windows are open even a little, you get wet. If this concept is still too difficult to understand, I will write a separate article on why rain is wet, and why it gets in through open windows.

The short answer is that having the windows open could actually increase the risk in one way, even if it could potentially reduce it in another. At best, the two just cancel each other out – but I would think the increased risk carries more weight than the reduction. And you’ll get wet if it rains.


Question: Do those wing-dang-doodles you plug into the USB socket work?

Answer: People have started looking at fitting ‘air purifiers’ in their cars. Such a device would have to process all the air before it was passed on to you to breathe to be of any use. And I mean all the air. You see, air is an ideal Fart Factor medium, and it is very difficult to keep one bucket of air containing a fart away from other (clean) buckets of air, unless the buckets you use are completely sealed – much like in a balloon. In order to implement this for a human, said human would need to be in a completely sealed suit, and have the purified air fed to them inside the suit via hoses from the processing unit. One bucket of air would be good for two, maybe three deep breaths, and this is why scuba divers have tanks of compressed air with them underwater, since two or three breaths tends to limit how much exploration of the ocean depths is possible. To filter air on demand – and especially to the level of filtration needed to remove viral particles – means the processing unit would need to be at least the size of a large suitcase. And you’d still need to be inside a sealed suit to use it, otherwise it would be pointless.

If you can guarantee that each and every COVID-19 ‘spore’ passes through something which ‘kills’ it before it get’s anywhere near your nose, mouth, or bare skin, any device which claimed to do this would be an ideal investment. However, something the size of a mobile phone clipped on the dashboard (or kettle-sized under the seats) wafting Tea Tree Oil and Ylang Ylang into the car is unlikely (as in ‘it can’t’) to be capable of doing so. And it doesn’t matter what they put in it – essential oils, alcohol, bleach, Plutonium – it simply cannot work.

So thanks to the Vortex Factor, you’ll be breathing plenty of the ‘nasty’ air at the same time. Yes, such a gizmo may well ‘kill’ the spores if any pass through it – though given that it probably costs about as much as a handful of Happy Meals, that is far from guaranteed (as in ‘it isn’t’) – but I honestly can’t see them being fitted into hospitals and other settings anytime soon.


Question: Do Perspex dividing screens work?

Answer: If someone coughs directly at you, or tries to spit at you, yes. They stop them coughing or spitting directly in your face. However, due to the Fart Factor and the Vortex Factor, they cannot stop viral ‘spores’ circulating around the car. So no, they do not eliminate or ‘stop’ the virus.

Some insurance companies will not allow them, although some apparently do. The issue is maintaining control of the car. You see normal driving instructors – as opposed to the ones with enlarged frontal lobes who can apparently control the car, the pupil, and the overall lesson just by a few pulses of their lobes – occasionally need to take physical control away from the pupil to prevent harm coming to the vehicle and other road users. It is hard to do that when there’s a bloody big plastic screen in the way.

The solution to this problem for some seems to be that you simply have a big hole cut in the Perspex so that you can reach the steering wheel, thus allowing greater influence from the Fart Factor and the Vortex factor, and completely negating the original purpose.

Then there is the issue of ‘sanitizing’. Your fancy new screen has now given you a new surface area in the car of between 3-6 square metres. It has also made some of the existing surfaces (i.e. between the seats) even more difficult to access than usual. And it has introduced a lot of very fiddly nooks and crannies that were not there before that you will need a Q-tip or toothpick to get to.

Perspex (or acrylic) can be attacked by bleach, and the surface becomes ‘crazed’ (small cracks, which make it go cloudy). So your Domestos idea will need to be shelved, and you’ll be using a ton of alcohol sanitizer instead. Hand sanitizer contains other ingredients that prevent your hands drying out, and these may also attack Perspex. If nothing else, they’ll leave an oily film behind, leading to more cleaning.

Finally, and even if your insurance has cleared it, there is the ‘what if?’ question. As in, what happens if you do have an accident and your arm is through the hole at the time (which it likely will be under such circumstances)? The jolt of an impact alone is likely to snap it like a twig as your body weight is thrown around and your arm is levered against the Perspex. And if compression of the vehicle occurs, the Perspex will snap and turn into a giant pair of scissors and a variety of very sharp daggers – with your arm right in the middle of it all.

It’s a hell of a risk over something which doesn’t bloody work in the first place – unless you get a lot of people who spit at you, or you’ve allowed someone in the car even though they have a chronic cough.

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I just saw this video posted by Jeremy Vine on his Twitter feed. For anyone who doesn’t know, Vine is the cycling equivalent of a Born Again Christian. He never gives up in his crusades. And they are legion.

There are two incidents in the video. The first – which he circles – is where a car pulls out into the cycle lane, forcing him to have to deviate slightly from the cycle lane (ironically, his Twitter feed shows another video where he’s in and out of the cycle lane avoiding puddles). That’s wrong on the part of the driver.

But in the second case, HE is in the wrong. The Highway Code says:

Rules for cyclists (59 to 82)

Rule 72

On the left. When approaching a junction on the left, watch out for vehicles turning in front of you, out of or into the side road. Just before you turn, check for undertaking cyclists or motorcyclists. Do not ride on the inside of vehicles signalling or slowing down to turn left.

Vine was in complete contravention of this. The car was in front of him all the time. It indicated well before turning, so Vine – as the big nuts, all-seeing, all-knowing űber-cyclist he believes he is – would have known exactly what it was intending to do. Instead, he pumps on without slowing even a fraction and attempts to undertake it. The only possible alternative for the car driver, had she known he was trying this, would have been to slam her brakes on to let Vine pass – with the risk of someone slamming into the back of her. She should not have been put in that situation by someone blatantly disregarding the Highway Code as it applies to them.

Vine cleverly captions her comment on the video: ‘Oh my God. I didn’t see you at all’. I know what my response would have been, and part of it would have rhymed with ‘clucking bat’.

It’s really coming to something when cyclists who do things like this believe they are somehow in the right. And they seem prepared to put their lives at risk trying to exercise it.

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