A Driving Instructor's Blog

The ford near OxtonI saw this question posed on a forum a while back, the premise being that if you have been trained properly, you could pass your test at any test centre in the country. It comes up regularly.

Many instructors jump on board with it like starved chihuahuas on pork chops, because we all know how better than everyone else they are. It’s a nice theory, and one which should work – in an ideal world. But we don’t live in an ideal world, and there are several flaws in the idea.

First of all, even passing your test at the test centre you know like the back of your hand is far from guaranteed. The national pass rate is about 45%, and even after we eliminate every person who shouldn’t have been at a test centre just yet, it still wouldn’t be close to 100%. The best and most well-prepared drivers can get caught out on the day on roads they know well for any one of a hundred different reasons.

Secondly, even Godlike driving instructors would have problems driving in some unfamiliar areas around the country. Nottingham doesn’t have any particularly awe-inspiring features, but a relatively simple one like the Nuthall roundabout – following the A6002 from Stapleford towards Hucknall, for example – would be enough for an experienced but unfamiliar driver get in the wrong lane and be required to do a late change (perhaps on the roundabout itself). There’s no signage on approach to tell you what lane to use in advance, and it’s only when the road suddenly widens from one into four lanes that road markings appear (if you can see them under all the traffic). The lane allocation is not what you’d expect if you were following the usual roundabout principle in the Highway Code, and it’s a very busy M1/city centre junction with surprisingly short light sequences. Any late lane change during the day will definitely require someone to slow down and let you in (or not if they’re driving an Audi, BMW, Merc, or if they live in Strelley), and that will inconvenience the overall flow at the lights. Even the Godlike instructor would fail if that happened on a test – and since it is on the Watnall test routes (with many more situations like it across all three Nottingham test centres), what the hell chance does a novice driver have if they haven’t been shown how to do it, and practiced it often?

Then there is the general area itself. Taking an extreme case, Mallaig in Scotland has often been cited as having the highest pass rate in the country. This isn’t because the drivers who take tests there are better than anywhere else, but is almost wholly as a result of the fact that Mallaig is a tiny fishing village in the middle of nowhere. It has something like 10km of roads in total, no dual carriageways, one small roundabout, and a total population of under 200 in a village of 67 dwellings (and about 1,000 inhabitants in the total catchment area). It is 140 miles away from the nearest motorway, and only a few miles north west of the place where Connor MacLeod was born in Highlander. And it does around 20 tests a year – that’s one thousand times fewer tests than are conducted in Nottingham, which is by no means at the other end of the spectrum from Mallaig (parts of London probably hold that honour).

Even given the apparent simplicity of the road network there, there’s still no guarantee that someone from, say, London would automatically pass in Mallaig without practice, and I suspect that Mallaig’s occasional less-than-perfect pass rate in any given year is partly down to outsiders thinking they can pass there after reading about it, even though they can’t drive properly anywhere else.

There are no certainties in driving, and definitely not in driving tests. If there was, there would be pass rates of 100% by the bucket load, and instructors would be boasting more zero-fault passes than you could shake a stick at. The best you can say is that the odds of passing shift from whatever they would have been if you change things. Taking a test in an unfamiliar place will almost certainly shift them down, and a simpler road network is likely to shift them up. But unless everyone heads to Mallaig, the degree of simplification would be minimal, and would merely introduce new roundabouts and weird junctions for some learners to get into a panic over.

Lastly, no one who claims their pupils would pass no matter where they took their test has ever evaluated it. It’s impossible to do so, since you can’t test the same pupil in different places. Everyone is different, and every test is different – even if it uses an identical route to the one before it.

Sometimes my own pupils get it into their heads, when trying to book a test sooner than is available at the nearest centre, that going for one elsewhere would be a good idea. I only deal with Nottingham, so if they come up with Sutton in Ashfield, Loughborough, or Leicester (and they do), I refuse outright. If I don’t know how to get there without looking it up, they can forget it. I’m more amenable to the idea if it’s another Nottingham one, but not if they only do one hour lessons and a simple round trip is more than 30 minutes or so in good traffic. I will also usually put a block on it if they want the test within a couple of weeks and haven’t driven the area before.

If they persist, a quick drive around the relevant area is usually enough to get them to change their minds. Once they’ve seen all the lorries and roads full of potholes around Colwick, the Nuthall and IKEA roundabouts for Watnall, or the Long Eaton roundabout for Chilwell, most decide to stay where they were before. Sometimes, the grass on the other side isn’t quite as green as it once seemed when you’re walking over it barefoot.

Which test centre do you recommend?

The nearest one. If a pupil can only do one hour lessons, and lives in Long Eaton, with the Chilwell TC five minutes away, and we’ve done most of our lessons around Long Eaton, Chilwell, Beeston, and Bramcote, they’re not booking a test at Colwick, which is a good 30-40 minutes away, solely on the grounds that their mate (who lives there) passed at it last week. Not without a big discussion, anyway. I once did a test at Colwick with someone who lived in Long Eaton (we’d done many of the two hour lessons over there, mainly at night), and on test day it took us over an hour and a half just to get there – we arrived a few minutes late. Fortunately, she passed.

If they really want to use a different test centre, they can do longer lessons to make sure we can familiarise with it.

So, you just teach people test routes?

I’ve written hundreds of times about the distance I cover with pupils on lessons. Someone who I have been teaching from the start will have been on the A46 with me, and many will have been down to Leicester and back on the M1 if they do two hour lessons. They’ll have been on single-track roads, driven through a ford, dealt with horses and nut jobs with a Spandex fetish on country lanes, and quite possibly have seen Southwell Minster. All of them now know where (and what) Newstead Abbey is, and will marvel at how much of Sherwood Forest has fewer trees than a football pitch does. All of them will have passed through at least some of the villages of Papplewick, Wysall, Rempstone, Widmerpool, Wymeswold, Tollerton, and many others, for the first (and possibly last) time in their lives. I did one this week, and we covered over 40 miles in an hour and half lesson.

But no matter where they have driven with me, the test will be conducted within a very tightly defined area, and driving through the ford near Oxton – while useful in its own right – isn’t going to help them stay in lane when they have to deal with the Virgin roundabout in Colwick. Nor is it going to help get it into their heads that when the bus lane ends heading back to the test centre, if they don’t move into the left lane, they’re likely to panic and mess up big time when they realise the lane they’re in is now right-turn only, and the examiner said to go straight ahead at the lights. The ford won’t help them finally grasp that driving on Marshall Hill Drive cannot be done in third gear unless you’re doing 30mph all the way up it, and that those Give Way signs at the top mean that when get there you should take your foot off the gas and be careful of vehicles coming the other way. It won’t help them understand that when people are walking across the road in front of them in West Bridgford town centre, it’s most likely because they’re on one of the seven zebra crossings over about 300 metres, and that it might be a good idea to slow down and stop for them. Oh, and the ford won’t teach them that no matter how many times they try, they can’t go straight ahead at that first mini-roundabout in West Bridgford, because the pretty red signs with a white bar across them say so.

In short, the ford near Oxton has no direct bearing on the outcome of their test. All that other stuff does, and it would be insane not to spend more time on that than on the fringe stuff. I mean, it’s no bloody good if they can drive through a ford, but still don’t see or react correctly to pedestrians in built up areas.

I’m teaching them how to be novice drivers. They can gain 30 years of experience… over the next 30 years by themselves. They’re not going to get that in the three months they’re with me.

People doing intensive courses have to use different test centres

I have my own views on intensive courses, but if you do them and have to book wherever is available, then that’s your affair. I’m not convinced that the test centre used should be dictated by the timescale involved in the first place, but even more so when it is just to avoid taking lessons (which it usually is with mine when they do it). Lack of familiarity with an area is unlikely to go in their favour.

Most test routes are intended to be at least a little challenging, taking in steep hills, one-way streets, heavily pedestrianised areas, and so on. I would lose pupils if I hadn’t shown them these features and they encountered them for the first time on their test. I’d lose even more if a particular individual had issues with certain things, and I hadn’t spent time on specific and more troublesome examples of them on test routes across several lessons to put things right.

Some pupils might not be fazed by unfamiliar territory. But many more are.

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