A Driving Instructor's Blog

Mr VirusIf you’re sitting comfortably, a little story. Once upon a time not that long ago, Mr Virus appeared. There is no vaccine to deal with him right now. Mr Virus tends to kill quite a few of the people he visits – at the time of writing he has more than doubled the normal weekly death rate from all causes in the UK even compared with a ‘bad flu’ season. Until there is a vaccine for him, he is still out there, doing his virusy thing. He cares not for country borders or skin colour and, being about 45,000 times less wide than a French fry, he cares not for physical barriers, either. Not unless they are very special or very solid ones. He can drift in the air, and he can remain ‘live’ on surfaces for some time. Although he tends to hit those with ‘underlying conditions’ hardest, he has shown quite clearly that he can hit anyone. People with ‘conditions’ tend not to be born with a neon sign on their forehead proclaiming the fact in the first place (though it is a personal choice for the individual to decide if they want one retro-fitting at a later date), but Mr Virus cares not for specific vulnerabilities in any case – he just infects anyone he meets and leaves it up to them whether they survive his visit or not. Many of those he visits might not even know they have a ‘condition’, but these people – including older ones – are not throwaway members of society, and have the same rights as everyone else. But I stress again, Mr Virus’s visit can kill healthy people too. Although his visit seems to have an effect which is proportional to the age of his host, he doesn’t just wait until someone’s birthday or anything, since he cares not for birthdays any more than he cares for borders, barriers, and ‘conditions’. As if to demonstrate this, his visit has recently claimed a 3-day old baby, whereas on the other hand several centenarians have survived it. And finally, Mr Virus is a two-way visitor – he can come visit you, but you can send him to visit others.

The moral of this story is that if you have even a shred of humanity in you, you’ll realise that the Mr Virus problem (aka COVID-19 pandemic) isn’t just about you. Other people are involved – all of them, actually.

In spite of all this, if Uncle Boris lifted the lockdown tomorrow, a huge number of driving instructors would wet themselves rushing out to work. All the dire news about Mr Virus in the media, and the first thing they say is ‘can I work or not?’ They say this repeatedly – and I mean at least once a day – even though nothing will have changed for Mr Virus if the lockdown is eased or lifted. Placing yourself before him will carry they same risks tomorrow, or next week, as it did yesterday, or a month ago.

Misleading (or very unclear) government advice, combined with non-scientific (and even conspiracy-oriented) understanding, doesn’t help. It means that many of these instructors are prepared to teach in face masks – even full-face visors – and nitrile gloves, with all the car windows fully open, and everywhere coated in a double layer of hand sanitizer the moment Uncle Boris says it’s OK. In spite of being short of money, they are apparently going to use a couple of bottles of sanitizer a day between lessons to make sure their car is ‘safe’ (even though Mr Virus is fairly mercenary, and cares not for attempts to eradicate him if you miss a bit, or get any of him on you without realising). They’re also planning to hand out face masks and gloves to their pupils (or insist pupils bring their own). Hand sanitizer of the kind that actually works is running at about £20 for half a litre. Face masks of the cheapest kind are around 50p each (and are single-use and need to be changed every 20 minutes). Gloves are about 25p each (50p a pair).

As for the windows being down – and let’s not complicate the issue by mentioning that it could be 5°C outside – a few years ago I was caught in a sudden thunderstorm on a lesson. The window was open a crack and rain was coming in, which caused the pupil to swerve slightly. I told her to stay calm, gently held the wheel, and asked her to close it. She pushed the wrong button and opened it instead, and got drenched (I was in full control of the steering by now). In addition, you can’t communicate effectively with someone when driving much above 30mph with the windows down because of road and wind noise – and that’s even when you haven’t got your face behind a mask, and possibly a visor, as well. And as numerous people who’ve been planning for it and testing it whilst sat on their driveways have now discovered, if you wear glasses and a face mask, unless it is very tight-fitting – and therefore very uncomfortable – your glasses fog up (as does the visor if you’ve got one on). And that’s before we get any warm weather, which will make it a hundred times worse. And people haven’t even discovered the joys of mask-related zits yet. Or hand dermatitis from wearing sweat-filled gloves for hours at a time. Even worse, masks don’t actually stop the virus. They just reduce the risk. A bit. Probably. And no one knows by how much (‘up to’ 75% minimisation of risk has been touted), even if they do.

One sector other than ours which has been badly affected by COVID-19 is the taxi industry. Taxis didn’t have to stop work, as they were considered essential. Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that behind security staff, taxi drivers have recorded the most deaths across the various sectors – even more than care staff (but only just). Mr Virus certainly took advantage of the situation there. But instructors have been constantly whining that ‘taxi drivers are allowed to work, so why can’t we?’ Even when confronted with the ONS report in the media, the whining has become ‘it isn’t fair that taxi drivers can still work and we can’t’. Clueless doesn’t come into it, and Mr Virus is sitting there rubbing his hands in eager anticipation.

Incidentally. although it has been below the radar throughout the pandemic, you might be aware that Mr Virus tends to be somewhat more malevolent towards males than he is to females. Data suggest he is up to twice as likely to kill men compared with women. I do wonder how much more central on the radar screen this ‘minor’ detail would have been had the situation been the other way round, but I console myself somewhat with the fact that I am instead now far more knowledgeable concerning shortages of sanitary products, the demand for female-specific surgical gowns, women’s mental health issues, and what it’s like to be non-binary during the lockdown. Nevertheless, this statistical skew has prompted some female instructors for whom it hasn’t passed unnoticed to suggest that they should be allowed back to work because they reckon 2:1 is ‘low risk’. Clueless.

But back to taxis. Hackney Cabs already have Perspex screens separating the driver from the passenger compartment in back. Consequently, several companies have developed similar screens for normal taxis – even ones which separate the driver from the front passenger. This is a reasonable idea for taxis, primarily because the driver is the only occupant of his cubicle for the whole day, and because he is the only one responsible for driving the vehicle. But it will come as little surprise to discover some ADIs are over it like a rash. At least two I’ve seen online have even had the modifications carried out!

As I already said, a taxi driver is solely responsible for legal control of his vehicle. A learner is not – the instructor is – and to that end, the instructor has to be able to reach the steering wheel from the passenger side. A Perspex screen prevents that. But that’s apparently not a problem if you’re a super-ADI desperately wanting to go out before it’s safe, because it seems that such an instructor can teach verbally and through the sheer force of their will, and does not need to touch the controls at all (you can see where the article title came from). Alternatively, it has been suggested a hole could be cut to allow access to the steering wheel!

Such a screen would almost certainly void your instructor insurance. For a start off, here on Planet Earth, we mere Earthling instructors have real world experience, and we know that we can have pupils who will attempt to take a roundabout the wrong way, or who see a cat or squirrel run across the road 200 metres ahead and instantly try to take the doors off parked cars along the kerb. We know that telling them – even coaching them – not to isn’t very effective in the heat of the moment, and even if it was we can’t take the risk in the split second involved in avoiding 3rd party contact. So being able to grab the wheel is critical, and if you can’t, you don’t have control.

If this screen had a hole in it, allowing access to the steering wheel, then it would first of all be less effective for its original purpose. But what happens if your hand is through it and a collision still occurs? The jolt alone could snap your arm like a twig if it hit the edge of the screen. But what if the collision were serious enough to compress the car? What does Perspex do when it breaks? It certainly doesn’t shatter into safe little cubes like safety glass, but instead snaps. The broken edges are sharp, the fragments can be pointed, and your arm is through the hole trying to prevent whatever it is that’s happening. It’d be like a scene from a horror movie, and chances are you’d not be having any more piano lessons afterwards.

And then there’s the sanitisation issue. A taxi driver is the only one on his side all day. An instructor spends time on both sides. How much sanitizer or alcohol is going to be needed to clean the entire surface of both sides of the screen? If you have four lessons a day, you’ve got to clean your side (at least) in the morning, both sides before the first lesson, your side (at least) after the lesson, both sides before the next lesson, and so on. That’s between twelve and fifteen complete wipe downs for four lessons! How much sanitizer will that get through? And what if you miss a bit and Mr Virus is lurking on that bit? It’s hard enough to get hair and dust out of the gaps between the seats at the best of times, but how easy will it be when there’s less than half the usual space – and as well as the hair and dust, Mr Virus is possibly lurking? Absolutely clueless.

The next argument that keeps coming up is dates from DVSA. When the lockdown began, DVSA initially cancelled tests for two days, and then a week. Anyone with intelligence above that of a peanut knew – absolutely knew – that it wasn’t going to be just for two days, and then a week. I mean, for f***’s sake, even my neighbour’s cat could work that one out. But not most driving instructors.

As the situation progressed during that first week (March), tests were further cancelled and moved to late May and June. Again, my neighbour’s cat was aware that this was just in line with what the government was saying at the time and that it was not a definite statement of when we would be able to start working as if nothing had happened again. My neighbour’s cat knew that the dates would move back again. And yet every single time someone’s pupil gets an email telling them their test has been moved, out come these people with ‘looks like we’ll be back on 3rd June’. Clueless.

Next, we have the idiotic government ‘guidelines’. It stands to reason that while Mr Virus is hanging around, the best way of stopping him visiting is to keep the metaphorical doors (and windows) shut. And doing that has helped a lot – though it would have helped a lot more if the UK population didn’t include so many Neanderthals who think the rules don’t apply to them, and if the UK government had… well, that’s a different topic, and much too expansive to go into here. But instead of sticking with ‘Stay at Home’, Uncle Boris has morphed it into something along the lines of ‘hey, man, chill. Stay cool. Go out, but be careful’. Translation: ‘If you’re a Neanderthal, you can now do what you were probably doing anyway, and now you can officially do it anywhere and the police can’t do anything about it’.

For driving instructors, the first question to come out of this is ‘so, can we go back to work?’ The obvious and crystal clear answer to this, so my neighbour’s cat tells me, is ‘no’. Standard response from instructors? ‘But we are now allowed to car share, so that means we can work’! Clueless.

And it goes on, and on, and on, and on.

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