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Post-Pandemic Pupils

 Common Sense - Dilbert by Scott AdamsMost ADIs will be aware that there is a huge backlog of people wanting to learn to drive right now. So much so where I am that I’m turning them away – I simply do not want to end up working from 8am until 10pm again, which I often was before the pandemic.

An increasing number of email enquiries are coming via DVSA’s website. The unexpected advantage of this is that you get enough information to help you be selective and decide whether to reply ‘sorry, I’m full up right now and can’t take on new students’ or take things further. For example, I got this one the other day:

I work shift patterns but should usually have 3-4 full days off per week (sometimes midweek/sometimes weekends). I have driven before so we will not be starting from scratch, I hope to pass within 20 lessons if possible.

I just don’t want that hassle anymore. It’s bad enough when it turns up out of the blue, like the young chap several years ago who – after his tenth hour, having never driven previously – declared ‘I am ready for my test’.

I said ‘What? Are you telling me you’d only ever planned to take ten hours and then go for your test?’

‘Yes’, he replied.

I said ‘Well, you really should have told me that at the start. I’m sorry, but you are nowhere near test standard and I am not taking you in my car’. I explained how I could lose my licence if I take bad drivers to test, and told him ‘I think you need to find another instructor, but I wish you all the best’.

Other emails are so short and terse that they also get a polite rejection:

I found your name on the DVSA website and was wondering if you can take new students right now.

When you get one like this, there’s every likelihood they are not local, or want automatic lessons – I get that even with referrals sometimes. And in most cases with email enquiries, they will have sent the same question to a dozen other instructors and are really only looking for the cheapest price – which won’t be me, so I’m not going to waste my time entering into discussions over it. As I said, I don’t need to chase work.

And then there was this one:

I have my test next month and I need an instructor to take me.

Guess what I did with that one.

On a slightly different note, I’ve mentioned before that I offer a free lesson to anyone who refers someone to me who commences taking lessons. I don’t advertise it, but casually mention it. That has always worked, but it did bite me a bit recently.

I was teaching a young lad and told his mum about the offer. She told me his sister would soon be turning 17 and she’d use it then, which she did. But she then referred someone who had three kids, who all commenced lessons at the same time (their dad paid for 30 hours for each of them upfront), then someone else, then another one!

I honoured the arrangement, particularly as she had brought in so much extra work, but I think I’ll have to be a bit more careful about that in future.

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BirdCam Live Page

BirdCam is now up and running again.

This year had a tragic outcome. Our resident roosting Great Tit from last year turned out to be female, and in early Spring she built a nest. I was able to see this locally, but could not stream it live as the camera was faulty.

She then laid nine eggs over a ten day period, and all of them hatched. She and the male bird fed them regularly and they grew and developed all their feathers. They must have only been a short way from fledging when both parents stopped coming. I incorrectly assumed they were trying to get them outside, but the chicks weren’t old enough.

One by one, they died. The last night was awful, as there were still five chicks jumping around, then as night fell they settled down and just died.

Anyway, that gave me time to install a new camera, and this is the feed from that.

Let’s see what happens this year now.

Incidentally, one of my other CCTV cameras shows that there are at least three cats which prowl our garden at night. One of them – which I think belongs to neighbours at the bottom of the garden – is a cute and friendly little black and white thing, but it regularly goes for birds in our garden. A short while before we lost the chicks, I saw it after our resident Blackbird. My mother virtually handfeeds that bird, along with two Robins, and since our garden has a lot of trees and bushes and is well maintained, we attract (and have feeders for) wildlife.

Anyway, I have declared war on that cat! I’d never hurt it, as I am a cat lover, but I want to deter it, because there’s a high probability it was responsible for the disappearance of the chicks’ parents. So I bought my mother a Spyra water gun and she is surprisingly good with it.

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A Food Recall – Monty Python Style

I get food recall alerts from the Food Standards Agency (FSA). There are usually at least several a day.

Sometimes, you have to wonder at what the world is coming to. The one I just received concerns Ben & Jerry’s Moo-phoria Peanut Butter Cookie Dough ice cream – and the recall is because… it has ‘undeclared peanuts’ in it’!

Apparently, one batch being sold at Sainsbury’s has the wrong lid on it and it says ‘Salted Caramel’. It reminds me of the case a few years ago where Lidl had to recall bags of roasted peanuts because they contained, well, peanuts – but weren’t labelled in English. And the one where Milbona had to recall a brand of yoghurt because it didn’t declare it contained milk.

If I had an allergy, I’d be a lot more careful. Like that tragic case a few years back where someone who was mortally allergic to sesame bought a Pret-a-Manger baguette which had sesame in it. I mean, sesame is not an unusual ingredient – and ‘Peanut Butter cookie dough’ does seem rather self-explanatory to me, as does buying a bag of things that look like peanuts when you are allergic to them, but are labelled ‘erdnüsse’ instead.


A New Look – And Some Issues

6 27x32 | Gedore Chrome Open Ended Spanner, 27 x 32 mm | RS ComponentsRegular readers will notice the new theme. Please bear with me while I get it sorted – it doesn’t work properly-ish with my previous layout, so I have got to do some fiddling.

You can still navigate somewhat, but there are a few obvious issues right now, many of which I have already sorted after posting this. The main thing is I am now mobile-friendly (I was before apart from some minor issues, but the site checkers said otherwise).


Driving Test Routes – Anywhere

Pro Pod - map history viewOriginally published in 2014, but updated due to numerous recent enquiries.

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of people looking for test route information. Once upon a time, official test routes were published by DVSA (when it was still DSA) and available for download. They stopped publishing them in 2010, but that didn’t prevent people who had already downloaded them circulating them. In later years – even right now in 2021 – certain unscrupulous instructors and money-makers were even selling them at silly prices.

One major problem with test routes is that they change over time as DVSA adds new ones or removes others. They can even change on the day of the test for reasons such as roadworks or road closures. And unless they are being officially published you have no way of knowing if ones given to you are correct – or if someone has just cobbled together some old information into a crude list of road numbers and names and perhaps charged you a tenner for it. I can absolutely guarantee that many of those advertised on old-fashioned HTML websites are these original out-of-date lists. The other major problem is that deliberately trying to teach just test routes doesn’t get better pass results, but it does produce less able drivers.

You don’t really need to know the precise test routes used. All you need is a general awareness of key features where pupils might have problems.

It isn’t difficult to work out where the examiners go on driving tests, even without using technology. They’re never going to travel more than about 20 minutes away from the test centre in any direction, so all the roads leading to the test centre are going to be involved (minus motorways in most cases). If you know the examiners to look at, you’ll see them from time to time during your lessons, so you now know they use that road or location. You can also ask your pupils where they went after their tests, and although this can produce more confusion than it does answers, you might be able to extract a bit of useful information. The examiner will often give you some details in the debrief, especially where faults were committed. And finally, you can sit in on tests (when there isn’t a pandemic) and actually watch where they go. You can quickly work out which specific areas to concentrate on by putting all of this together into your lesson plans.

The best way, though, is to use some sort of tracking device, which logs the precise route taken by the car. These days, most satnavs have a feature which allows you to do this. Personally, I don’t like that method because it tends to be tied in with the satnav software, be satnav-specific, and it can be a right pain trying to download it and manipulate it on standard mapping software. The other problem is that you’re unlikely to be able to leave it running while someone is out on test, because the examiner will be using theirs, and thinking back to my old satnav years ago, it didn’t always get a signal if it wasn’t stuck on the windscreen. I’m not saying they’re like that now, but they are designed to be used in that position – and not in the glove box. And the other weakness is that the satnav is the recorder, so you have to wait until the test is over and you can grab it before you know where it went.

Dashcams are another way. The better ones also record GPS data, though often – like satnavs – you can only manipulate this within the camera manufacturer’s specific software. And again, you only get to see it after the event.

A third option is to use one of any number of apps for smartphones. These log routes in a format that mapping software understands. I’ve tried them, and they do work – with a few limitations. Firstly, you would need to leave your phone in the car when it went out on a test, meaning you’d be phoneless for the duration. A spare phone would work, but obviously this feature uses data, so you’d need a separate phone account. And when I tried them, the free versions of apps tended to be restricted to sample rates of 20-30 seconds – and that could mean a route through a junction and roundabout system might show as a straight line across a field or lake. If you wanted a 5 second sampling rate, you had to subscribe.Pro Pod - Hybrid map and satellite history view

My solution was to use a dedicated tracker. I use a ProPod tracker from Trackershop. It’s a small device the size of a matchbox, which I keep in the car. The main feature for me, apart from logging accurate position and even postal locations, is that it broadcasts its location in real-time. This means that at the test centre, I can watch the car moving on a map overlay (either on my laptop or the Trackershop app on my phone). It also means that if a test were abandoned for some reason – and that hasn’t happened yet – I’d know exactly where to go to find my car and pupil.

The picture at the top of this article shows an old test route for Chilwell Test Centre (click on the image for a larger view). This is my tracker dashboard ‘history’ view, with a specific historical time period displayed (the duration of the test in question) on a map overlay. The picture just above (click it for a larger image) is the same route with the satellite view enabled. You can zoom in almost to the level where pedestrians would be visible.

The Trackershop cloud service keeps journey history permanently (as long as you have an active account), and you can download and edit data as necessary whenever you feel like it – you just need to to know the date and time of a past test, for example, then go and find that route in your dashboard. As I mentioned, you can view data in real time on whatever overlay you have chosen, and watch the pointer moving every 5 seconds while your pupil is out on test – I find this useful for knowing when they are due back.

Pro Pod - KML file in Google EarthThe cloud data can be easily exported and downloaded. As well as GPS coordinates it logs times, speeds, and postal addresses for every data point. The picture above (click it for a larger image) shows the same test route displayed as a KML file rendered in Google Earth (note that I had to physically extract the GPS data to create this, but it isn’t difficult if you know what you’re doing).

As I have already indicated, you should not be doing your lessons across such precise routes. But they do give you an idea of where tests go.

Where can I download test routes?

You can’t download them from DVSA. The sites that offer them are provided by people trying to earn money from something that is otherwise simple to do yourself. Given that test routes change over time, it is probably cheaper to record your own.

Why don’t you provide your test route data?

A point of principle. DVSA stopped publishing them because instructors were trying to teach only the test routes, and I know full well that that’s why people want the information now. My logged routes are for my own use – I don’t stick to test routes on lessons and never have, but I want to know where the routes are so I can deal with any weird stuff.

Should I pay for downloadable test routes?

My advice would be no. DVSA stopped publishing them for a reason, and if someone is trying to profit from selling them then he or she is going against that. There’s a good chance you’re being sold old routes, anyway, and you would never know if they changed unless you kept on buying them every month or so.

How do I know the routes I’ve bought are correct and up to date?

You don’t, and they’re probably not. In fact, unless a local group of ADIs is giving you daily copies, they couldn’t possibly be reliable. In the worst case, they could be totally imaginary and simply cobbled together to be reasonably close to actual routes. Judging by some of the ancient-looking sites that list them, they’re quite likely to be the original ones that they stopped publishing in 2010. As I said above, routes change with time.

Is it possible to record test routes?

Yes. There are free and paid for apps available for both Android and iPhone which use GPS to record journeys. Similarly, there are numerous GPS tracker devices available which do the same (I use a Pro Pod tracker). If you use a phone app as a logger, you have to leave a phone in the car.

You can also record routes using dashcams. As well as using my tracker, I also have a dashcam recording all the time. On more than one occasion I have been able to show a pupil exactly where and why they failed, even though they had no idea what the examiner was talking about in the debrief.

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I would strongly recommend the ProPod range of trackers from TrackerShop, but others are available. Due to a very poor experience some years ago I would strongly advise against any tracker by Rewire Security (they sold me the device on lifetime subscription, then cut that service off and made it repeated subscription – they cannot be trusted, and I will never forget it). 

Do I need to know the test routes for my test?

Absolutely not. The examiner will give you directions as necessary, or ask you to follow the satnav or road signs. However, if there are one or two awkward features – big roundabouts, steep hills, or so on – your instructor should know about them and make sure you know how to handle them well before your test.

How many test routes are there?

It varies from test centre to test centre, but there could be 10, 20, or more. When they were still published by DVSA (while it was still DSA), one Nottingham test centre had 38 if I remember correctly. You couldn’t possibly memorise all of them even if you knew them all. Being brutally honest, many learners on test might not recognise their own streets when out on test, so how can they be expected to ‘remember’ multiple routes?

Can I use my tablet to log routes?

Potentially, yes. If it has a GPS chip inside, it doesn’t necessarily need to be connected to the internet or a phone network to log GPS positional data, though it would if you wanted to use it as a satnav or monitor it in real-time. However, you’d need some software that could make use of the chip. It would also depend on your device’s specification as to how accurate the data were, but you’d still be able to get decent route maps – they just wouldn’t always be necessarily precisely lined up with the roads on maps you laid them on to. I understand they are accurate to around 6 metres or better.

From what I know of Apple iPads, only the more expensive ones with phone connectivity have GPS chips in them. The WiFi only ones don’t.