Jill Glenn overcomes an unexpected reluctance and rediscovers the lure of the open road…
Now I have a confession to make. Two confessions, actually. One, I’ve always been – privately – rather dismissive of ‘nervous drivers’ (people who can’t drive I can understand; people who can and don’t… that’s a different matter); and two, a few years ago I became, to my embarrassment, one of those nervous drivers myself.
I’d had my licence for nearly 30 years; I’d happily driven (day or night, in all weather conditions) in Europe, the States, New Zealand and Australia; through the centre of London and the centre of Sydney (although sadly not from one to the other; now that would be a road trip) and down the narrowest of country lanes. I loved driving. And then I lost my confidence.
It didn’t happen overnight, of course. There were a few months when I couldn’t drive, having temporarily lost the sight in one eye, and when I resumed, it just wasn’t the same. Despite knowing that I could see, my judgment felt impaired. Then, twice in ten days, I was caught speeding: 33 or 34 in a 30mph zone (I still shudder as I pass both locations). I was ashamed and cross – I’d always thought I was careful. The County Council offered me the highways equivalent of plea bargaining: a Speed Awareness course ‘in lieu of receiving penalty points and a fine.’
It worked. Up to a point. I became very speed aware, but also very frightened. Whatever manoeuvre I made, I thought the road was out to get me. I was convinced I’d miss a camera, or be hit by something I just hadn’t seen coming. I felt as if I was perpetually looking over my shoulder.
I was commuting by train, and I started to avoid taking the wheel on other occasions, except, oddly, on motorways, where the rules are clearer. Lack of familiarity bred contempt; I had become a driving refusenik…
…so the opportunity to take the ‘Skill for Life’ course run by the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM), with a view to taking the Advanced Driving test, didn’t – at first sight – seem to have my name on it. It was with a sense of the ridiculous – ‘me? an advanced driver?’ – that I accepted.
Skill for Life starts with an assessment drive in the company of an IAM volunteer from the local group (NW London & Chilterns, in my case), followed by as many observed drives – typically about six to eight – as are needed to become ‘test ready’. You also receive a copy of How to be a better driver, ‘the definitive guidebook to advanced driving techniques’, and access to a host of other IAM benefits. The organisation is a charity, and charges just £139 for the entire package, which, given how comprehensive it is, seems ridiculously inexpensive.
I can’t speak for the quality of all the observers, of course, but if mine – Howard Barlow, now Chief Adviser to the NW London & Chilterns group – is anything to go by, they’re saints: patient, calm, clear and possessed of an excellent sense of humour.
Essentially your Observer is your mentor. He or she is on your side. They love – and are very good at – driving, and they want you to feel the love too.
You’re aiming to be what they describe as 5S: Safe, Smooth, Systematic, Speedy, Stylish. Safe (able to stop on your own side of the road in the distance you can see to be clear) and Smooth (no severe acceleration/braking, no sudden changes in direction, no jerkiness at the controls) are to be expected; Systematic – demonstrating the IPSGA method of car control, meaning Information, Position, Speed, Gear, Acceleration (IAM loves its mnemonics) – is pretty self-evident, but it was the last two, Speedy and Stylish, that surprised me. Speedy, in this context, stands for ‘progressive’, so not about outright speed as such, but about smart choices of lane, alertness at junctions, good judgment of the speed, distance and intentions of other drivers and so on, and with the intention of maintaining the legal limit… with, of course, the perpetual caveat: where it’s safe to do so. And then Stylish: the drive should appear effortless because you are planning, via good observation, to negotiate every hazard with just minimal changes in speed or position. Stylish isn’t so much a component of its own as a culmination of all the others. It seemed totally out of reach.
In session one, I drove for about an hour under Howard’s direction, while he made notes, and then he drove the same route. I didn’t make notes… although I did clock the ways in which his approach was different. And finer. We discussed this afterwards, with particular reference to what I considered his more aggressive attitude to positioning, especially when passing parked cars. Howard ‘stakes a claim’ early, straddling the white line when necessary (‘it’s only white paint’) as long as he can see that there’s enough room for two lines of traffic to pass. The oncoming driver is not inconvenienced but stays well to their left, and everyone keeps moving. The alternative action (and, up to then, the one I preferred, in the mistaken belief that it was both polite and helpful) is to pull in behind the parked cars and wait, which allows the oncoming vehicle to proceed but holds up all of my side of the road. Not what you’d call progressive. In due course I came to understand, appreciate and practise ‘staking a claim’, and not to feel that I was discourteous. By my moving out early and clearly, the oncoming driver has the time to make any gentle adjustment to their position; they probably don’t even notice me: I’ve just become the right hand edge of their carriageway for a short time.
The morning left me both exhilarated and exhausted, and yielded what Howard said I might consider ‘a depressingly long’ review; the criticisms, sweetly described as ‘What could do with a bit of a polish’, could have been demoralising but were expressed so coherently and in such detail, that all I could think was ‘yes, I can do that.’ There were compliments too, which was a relief. He thought I was safe, for example, which pleased me, and he praised my forward observation. It didn’t seem such an uphill task. It even felt like fun.
Over the next few weeks, with observed drives taking place around once a fortnight, and A-grades appearing more and more frequently on all sections of the feedback form, I took to the road more readily, at first out of duty but with increasing pleasure. The words ‘Howard says…’ and ‘now Howard would tell me to…’ featured regularly in conversations, occasionally provoking heated discussions. I’m a much better driver now, although not necessarily a better passenger. Tolerance is not part of the teaching.
I was test ready in five sessions, although, in retrospect, I wish I’d waited longer. The examiners are all qualified (many are police drivers, assisting the IAM in their spare time) and they are eagle-eyed. Again, though, they are on your side; they want you to pass, and they’re not trying to trick you. Mine stressed that he particularly wanted to see me driving at the speed limit, which was alarming because, even though I’d improved, my natural tendency was still to lurk at 2 or 3mph under. This, I reflected, was not the time to be driving (as I was) a vehicle with a digital display: on a dial, especially seen from the side, 59 looks just like 60; on a digital readout 59 looks just like 59. I achieved 30, and 40, and 50, and 70 – but 60 eluded me, as it so often had. Overall I had Satisfactories and Goods rather than the Excellents I’d been achieving on the observed drives. Damned nerves. It was a pass, though, and, as I have come to learn, it was only the beginning. If you have the knowledge, you can improve every time you go out.
The IAM approach is not purely about turning nervous drivers into confident ones, although that’s primarily what it did for me. It’s about delivering the skills you haven’t got and improving the ones you have, honing your reflexes and your observational powers and enabling you to be both proactive and reactive in a calm, informed manner. It teaches you to know what to do and not to be put off doing it, to know that you know how to follow the rules even if no-one else does. For an advanced motorist, Howard observed drily, all other road users are either maniacs or idiots.
Skill for Life has provided me with the tools to be both safe and confident in the car. Actively confident. I know I’m in control. And, statistics show, I’m also now 70% less likely to be involved in a road accident, which makes me happy. And smug. And grateful.
I still commute by train, though; much as I have embraced the wheel and the open road, you can’t have a coffee and read a book while you’re driving. They tell you that on Skill for Life. Just in case you didn’t know…