A Driving Instructor's Blog

TomTom Screen GrabIt was announced last year – sometime before the 4 December start date – that when the driving test began using satnavs as part of the independent driving section, the model the examiners would be using was going to be the TomTom Start 52.

I toyed briefly with the idea of buying one, but I’ve used standalone satnavs before, and the problems with mounting them and all the bloody cables has pretty much put me off for life. These days, if I ever need to navigate somewhere, I just use Google Maps in one of its forms on my smartphone. So I decided to give that a go in the weeks leading up to 4 December. Google was OK, but its choice of route can be somewhat creative, and it isn’t the most chatty of navigation apps. Plus, since it isn’t a full-blown navigation tool as such, storing routes is fiddly at best.

Then I came across the TomTom GO app for Android – this turns your phone into a  virtually complete TomTom satnav, with the added benefit of a high-res display. TomTom GO gives you 50 miles of free navigation per month, but that gets used up in a couple of hours on lessons. However, you can subscribe for about £5 per month, or £15 for a full year, and get unlimited navigation (you can also subscribe separately to other TomTom services). You get unlimited maps for this, and any updates are included. I bought the year subscription – it means I can have an absolutely up-to-date satnav for up to ten years for the same price as a standalone that would be out-of-date within a year.

As I pointed out in my article about the first month of the new test, the satnav can exacerbate any underlying issues learners might have with roundabouts and large junctions. Here’s why I think that is.

The voice instruction from the satnav for the route shown in the image above would be:

Go around the roundabout, third exit, Hucknall Road

(Edit: I am reliably informed that the DVSA satnavs now give an exit number and a direction – I’ll be damned if I can make my TomTom GO app do that, though.)

Without the satnav, the instruction might be:

At the roundabout, turn right, third exit

The phrase “turn right” is the critical part. With a satnav you have to create that instruction yourself by referring to the on-screen map and/or road signs. I’d never thought about it before, but looking back, pupils were simply not using road signs to any great extent because they never had to. Even with the original independent driving section, following signs to “somewhere” specific is much simpler than having to use the signs to work out where that “somewhere” is. And any problems are multiplied by the fact that every twist and turn of the satnav route involves a new “somewhere”. It’s a new pressure for the pupil to handle.

Any instructor will be aware that learners often struggle with roundabouts – sometimes, right up to their tests. One of the most common reasons for messing up on them is lane discipline. The examiner will usually mark it under “observation/use of mirrors”, but the real problem is that the learner has simply straight-lined. It doesn’t matter that they didn’t check their mirrors if they weren’t aware they’d switched lanes in the first place. Often, they can do the roundabout perfectly on lessons, but every now and then you’ll get one who botches it on test because of test pressure.

Someone whose ability to deal with roundabouts is this close to the edge in the first place is going to be under significant additional pressure if they have to follow a satnav route around them, and especially so if they have to deal with ones they’re not familiar with. This is still true, even if the satnav gives identical instructions to what a human would (see edited comment above).

How are pupils managing with the satnav?

Some of those I have expected to have problems have taken to it remarkably well. The biggest problem so far is with those pupils who only listen to the instructions and try to follow them blindly. However, they’re not test-ready, so it is a work in progress.

How should you use the satnav?

Look at the picture above. The main window shows the immediate route you are following. In the case of the roundabout shown here, that would appear in the main window about 300 yards before you reach it. The first satnav voice instruction occurs at that point, so you’d lose maybe another 100 yards while that is being given. That wouldn’t give you much time to get ready to deal with it unless you were really confident of where you were going.

The information bars at the top and bottom are the really important features. The bottom one tells you what road you’re on, and the top one tells you what you’re going to be asked to do next, how far away that is (it can be anything up to several miles), and the new road’s name and number. In this case, the satnav top bar will inform you that the next thing you’re going to have to deal with is a roundabout, and that it is a right turn. I think this one was about half a mile away initially. The distance counts down until the voice instruction is given, usually at about 300 yards (it can be 500 yards or 200 yards depending on the speed of the road). The road number is usually what will be painted on the road surface in the lane you need on large roundabouts, and it will also appear on the various road signs. The satnav repeats the instructions several times as you get closer.

You have to use that top bar to be able to plan ahead, especially if you’re not confident. You have to give yourself time.

So, why do people have a problem with that?

I have observed that some people can do every roundabout I ask them to do perfectly when I am giving verbal instructions, but the instant they try to follow a satnav route with those same roundabouts, there are problems. These problems occur to greater or lesser extents depending on the pupil, the roundabout, their confidence at complex junctions in the first place, and what is happening around them at the time. Having to do things independently, with more formal instructions from the satnav, is simply shining a light on underlying issues.

Doesn’t this mean that maybe not all those who passed their tests previously are fully competent with roundabouts?

Unfortunately, yes. Even with the best will in the world, instructors and DVSA have been producing candidates/new drivers who – in some cases – have to do roundabouts in what you might call a “robotic” way. And we’re only talking about certain roundabouts, even then. This would easily tie in with what we see on the roads, where a large proportion of the general, full driving licence-holding public doesn’t seem to have a clue on roundabouts.

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