Originally 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.