DAILY TELEGRAPH/MOTORING SECTION/2ND APRIL 2011
MAKING A FRESH START/MARIA MCCARTHY
'There are two things no man will admit he cannot do well: drive and make love', said ex racing driver Stirling Moss. But surely it's time for both men (and women) to rethink at least the first part of this statement and accept that for most of us there's going to be some room for improvement. In our working lives we realise the value of ongoing training to help us adapt to changing circumstances and avoid getting rusty, so surely we should take the same approach to our driving?
The value of immediate post-test training such as the Pass Plus course is widely promoted. But increasingly people who've held a licence for a number of years are realising that they'd benefit from extra tuition and are deciding to take a driver refresher course. A fairly common motivation is in the case of older women who've left most of the driving to their husbands and now because of bereavement or their partner's illness are having to get behind the wheel again. Other reasons include wanting to overcome common motoring fears such as motorways or night driving, getting a job that involves high-mileage driving, needing to regain confidence after an accident, and moving from the country to the city or vice versa. Driving in icy and snowy conditions is a challenge many people won't have tackled as learner but a session with an driving instructor can teach techniques for avoiding skids that can make the experience a lot less hair-raising.
Driving instructor Chris Pope has helped lots of drivers improve or regain their skills. 'Every course I teach is tailored to the individual,' he explains. 'For example, if a confident driver has just passed their test and wants additional motorway training then we will probably spend most of the session on the motorway. But if a pupil is struggling with a fear of motorways then the approach will be more about gradual exposure – assessing their driving on quiet roads then moving onto dual carriageways and eventually the motorway, in a manner which expands their comfort zone but that isn't too challenging or uncomfortable for them. If a new student comes to me with confidence issues I'll normally begin by asking them to drive as they normally would for about 15-20 mins, and I'll observe without commenting. Then I get them to pull over and ask them if they can identify anything about their own driving that might be less than ideal and whether they have any questions for me. Then we'll maybe choose one aspect and work on that together.'
The length of refresher training can range from one session to a long series for especially nervous drivers. 'Some students stay with me until they've reached the level they want,' whilst others take a few lessons to get the ball rolling then go on to practice by themselves.'
For people wanting to improve their driving, a sympathetic driving instructor is usually a good first port of call. Local councils and police forces often offer inexpensive training, so it's worth investigating if this is available in your area. Lots of driving centres offer skid prevention and control courses – especially relevant given the severity of recent winters.
The Institute of Advanced Motorists course is another good option. 'We're not an elitist organisation,' says their Chief Examiner Peter Rodger. 'Some people take the course because they enjoy driving and want to get even better, others because they've become rusty and want to improve their skills and confidence levels.' The IAM courses are run by local volunteers who will go out with you in your own car and offer feedback on how you can improve your driving. Typically people have about 8 sessions and are then ready to take the IAM exam, which has an 85% pass rate. The 'advanced driving package' currently costs £139 and covers the membership fee, IAM manual and test fee.
'We highly encourage all drivers to avoid complacency and make the effort to improve,' says Peter Rodger, 'whether that's taking the IAM course, booking a motorway lesson – or even just spending an evening re-reading the Highway Code.'
Patricia Jackman, 77, retired
Drives – Peugeot 207 Automatic
Passed test – 1972
Refresher course with – Peter Skelton of Newbury Driving School
I passed my test and drove in London and then later in Cornwall. Then in 2005 we moved to Newbury which is very busy. I lost my nerve and went for years without driving and relied on my husband Norman, 76, to ferry me about. Earlier this year I decided I wanted to be more independent and booked three lessons with Peter. The first one we just went around quiet local lanes. Afterwards I said I wanted him to be totally honest with me if he felt I ought not to be behind the wheel but he was very supportive. We had two more lessons which involved town driving to places such as the supermarket and hospital. I'd forgotten about how lane discipline worked on roundabouts and Peter was able to show me how to handle them. I am now happy to drive locally and would thoroughly recommend that anyone who lacks confidence behind the wheel takes a refresher course. I wish I'd done it years ago.
Helen Kara, 46
Drives – Toyota Yaris Verso
Passed test – 1996
Refesher with – Staffordshire County Council and Police Partnership
It took me four attempts to get my driving licence but after some initial nerves I was quite confident. Then in 2000 I took the Institute of Advanced Motorists test, which I found really useful. But gradually I lost a lot of the good habits I'd learned and became a bit blase about my driving. It was after writing off two BMWs in six months that my partner suggested I take a refresher course. The one I attended lasted a day, with driving in the morning and discussions on road safety in the afternoon. I realised that one of my driving problems was that when I had passengers in the car, I sometimes gave more attention to them than watching the road, and the course also improved my motorway skills. That was in 2005 and I haven't had an accident since, so it was certainly a worthwhile investment.
William Frawley, 26, administrator
Drives – Ford Focus
Passed test - 2003
Refresher with – Andy Heath of the AA Driving School
I couldn't afford to run a car after I passed my test and and didn't really need one as I went to a campus University and then got a job where I could walk to work. Earlier this year I was able to buy a car but hadn't driven for the 7 years since I passed my test. I didn't want to go to a dealership feeling so inexperienced, so when I heard about the free AA Drive Confident course I was keen to take it. We had a 2 hour session in which my instructor, Andy offered advice on skills that had become a bit rusty such as clutch control and also took me out on a major A road. It was good to know I still had the ability to drive and to have any potential bad habits ironed out.