Driving Lessons

Due to a combination of factors, including discrimination against non-drivers when job-hunting, the problem of Christmas and most significantly an effective contractual obligation, last year I ended up learning to drive. I thought it might be interesting to keep a record of the experience, as an outsider’s perspective.

Lesson One:

Driving instructor asked me if I had any previous driving experience. I answered literally, telling him that I had driven a car a few times, not on the road, around ten years ago. We headed to a part of Blacon with plenty of quiet residential streets and he proceeded to explain how the machine worked, about the mirrors and the visual limitations of being in car, particularly the wide pillars either side of the windscreen and between the side doors.

Eventually I got to drive the car. It was quite an odd experience, I felt a bit low down and quite detached from the environment I was passing through. Eventually we ended up on some of the two-lane main roads (which are sadly commonplace in Chester) for a bit of practice with roundabouts. The whole time, I was shocked at how easy it was. Other drivers didn’t routinely cut me up or try to force me to yield. Decades of car-centric planning and road design, combined with extremely generous subsidies made this big, wide, five-person vehicle perhaps the easiest way to get around the peripheral areas of Chester. Roundabouts in particular were a revelation, being much easier in a faster vehicle where other road users don’t routinely try to bully you into giving up priority.

Lesson Two:

This lesson involved a lot more driving on faster roads. I was also encouraged to turn the car around on a few different quiet roads, which helped to bring home how poor the range of vision in cars can be, demonstrating how inappropriate they are in an urban setting. Presumably the instructor’s curriculum is aimed at the widest possible audience; much of the lesson was spent going over stuff which anyone who regularly uses the roads would have picked up, regardless of mode.

Lesson Three:

Reversing into parking bays is the main lesson here, with recaps of the other stuff we have covered. We also covered emergency stops. In an automatic, emergency stops are much the same as on a bike (except you don’t need to move your weight backwards because cars are generally quite heavy already).

On the faster roads I really started to notice how ubiquitous speeding is. On a bike I will generally find myself going as fast as I can on a fast road which is busy. In a flow of traffic where everyone is speeding, it is possible for a learner to get sucked into the flow. Thankfully, despite what the Association of British Drivers says, it is actually very easy to look at the speedometer quite frequently and adjust speed accordingly. Compared to having a queue of impatient motorists behind you when riding a bike, a queue of impatient motorists behind you when you’re in a car is actually quite fun. This is probably because you are not just one impatient idiot away from death or injury.

Lesson Four:

This lesson covered dual carriageways, the sort which are basically motorways in all but name. This was the first part of the process of learning to drive where I didn’t already have some sort of analogous experience to draw upon. Thankfully, getting onto the dual carriageway seems to be the hardest part, and it is actually fairly easy due to good design. As someone who normally experiences UK road design on a bike, I was surprised to see that UK road engineers can design something properly, provided that it is something which is only used by fast motor vehicles.

The main issue with dual carriageways it seems is the roundabouts at the entrances and exits. These suffer from the same problems as all roundabouts in this country; an unwillingness of designers to standardise designs in a logical manner. The result of this is that when encountering a roundabout for the first time, you don’t really know what to expect. A handful of standardised roundabout templates as used in The Netherlands (which also happen to acknowledge the existence of other transport modes without treating their users like crap) is so obviously a good idea. The fact that we in the UK have not already done so neatly illustrates the complete failure of British road design.

Lesson Five:

My instructor wasn’t available for the usual weekend lesson, so instead I had a lesson before work with the intention of finishing at my place of work in Wrexham. This was the first time driving for any length of time without any instruction. Naturally I took the route to Wrexham I would’ve chosen were I traveling by bike (with a few tweaks to make the route car-legal). Travelling through inner Chester, the car was of course a hugely inappropriate choice of transport, yet my passage through the centre of the city was made easier by  expensive bits engineering such as the inner ring road, which were built to facilitate short journeys into the city by individuals using vehicles designed for five.

In this lesson, my experience of using the roads on the bike was less helpful; the instructor told me I was checking the blind spot on the driver-side more frequently than was necessary. I’m sure anyone who has ridden on UK roads for any length of time will know why I’ve fallen into this habit.

Lesson Six:

Reverse (parallel) parking today. Like all the other manoeuvres, I got it right first time. I think my driving instructor is a bit baffled by this, considering the fact that my general driving is not perfect. However, he doesn’t know that I used to drive a pallet truck for a few years in an old part-time job, and all of the manoeuvres done so far were frequently required doing that job.

There seem to be a few bad habits I’ve picked up from cycling, such as having to make a conscious effort to feed through the steering wheel when steering, and some road positioning which is taken from vehicular cycling but probably just confuses my instructor, such as positioning the car in a way to prevent overtaking which I would not feel happy with were I on a bike.

I found out the instructor used to have a 60s Moulton, so we spent much of the lesson talking about the new models, of which he was not aware.

Theory Test:

Other than a handful of motor vehicle-specific questions (generally motorway-related questions) anyone who has been cycling for a while should have picked up what they need to know to do ok in the multiple-choice part of the test.

The hazard perception test looks hilariously dated. I get the impression that much of the development work will have been done at a time when the government representative responsible for the project would have used the term, “new-fangled computers.” The test takes the form of several video clips taken with a single fixed video camera, at roughly VHS-quality from the front of a car. You are encouraged to click you see a hazard which is developing and again when action must be taken. You do not have to click where the hazard appears on the screen because the system is too basic. Because of this, the hazard perception test does precious little to gauge a person’s ability to perceive hazards. With a bit of modern (ie: post-2000) technology, the test could be greatly improved to make it fit for purpose.

Despite its inherent limitations, if you have been riding a bike on the roads for a while, you shouldn’t have much trouble with the hazard perception test.

Practical test:

After a hiatus of nearly two months, upon returning from Japan I had a few more driving lessons in preparation for the test. It is quite telling that, despite the fact that there is a driving test centre in most towns; the waiting list for a driving test is often months long. It is possible that a big part of this is due to people who ‘brute force’ the driving test; taking a sufficiently large number of tests so as to pass one eventually. I was eventually able to get a test slot which I was able to make and thanks to years of cycling on UK roads and as you’d expect after surviving years of cycling on Britain’s roads, the test went fine, being remarkably simple considering the sheer amount of destruction a car can cause. there were some interesting anomalies I noticed during the examinations

Speed Limits:

During driving lessons and during the driving test, you are encouraged to travel as close to the posted speed limit as possible without going over, barring any major conditions which dictate otherwise. It is actually possible to be penalised for travelling within the speed limit but at a level deemed ‘too slow,’ such as 20 mph in a residential area posted as 30 mph but which really should be 20 mph. This may be a contributing factor behind drivers commonly treating speed limits as speed targets or minimums and really ought to be addressed by the Department for Cars Transport. Thankfully though, even with little driving experience, periodically glancing at the speedometer to ensure speed stays in check is a trivial matter.

Non-motorised traffic:

At no point during any of the testing was I required to know anything about the techniques recommended for cyclists by Bikeability training, such as ‘taking the lane.’ My instructor, after finding out I use a bike for transport even asked me about the reason for this particular behaviour. Whilst we are waiting for our roads to be made fit for purpose for non-motorised travellers, this really ought to be addressed by the Department for Cars Transport.

Aftermath:

Once you have passed the examinations you may be surprised to learn that unless you are one of the few people for whom actually owning a car might make sense, your shiny new pink card is basically useless for twelve months. Whilst I wouldn’t want to own a car, hiring one occasionally could be useful under certain circumstances. However, in general car hire companies will not hire a car to anyone who doesn’t have 12 months not-driving experience under their belt, so there is a very good chance that (for the time being at least) you’ve spent all that money just to change the colour of the card you use prove you are old enough to buy booze.

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7 thoughts on “Driving Lessons

  1. Great post. I had somewhat similar experiences. I learnt to drive but never passed as a teenager. University and living in London once graduating postponed the need to drive till my late 20′s. By which time work had taken me to Cambridge and my occasional off road mountain biking had become a regular on road cycle commute. Lessons in Cambridge had to have some additional cycling awareness due to the high numbers. My instructor drilled in checking left bind spots which I doubt occurs elsewhere. He also commented a lot on what a nuisance they were, but as he was a nice guy I choose to take this as teasing because he knew I ride rather that par-for-the-course indoctrination of new drivers. However, like your instructor he didn’t explain primary position which I think important for all drivers to be aware of and understand. Indeed it’s concerning that your instructor had to ask you about cyclist’s road positioning!

    The 12 month not-driving experience was really annoying. While I was able to borrow the in-laws car occasionally an ideal solution for us would be membership of the local car club (Street Car at the time) and car hire for occasional longer weekend trips. Both were restricted to 12 months with licence. Also it seems counter productive once vehicle can be hired to drivers that have sat on an unused licence since passing – surely a worse risk to the hire company than a recently passed but still fresh driving experience?

    • Based on what I’ve heard from non-cycling, driving friends’ experiences of learning to drive, being an experienced cyclist first definitely made it easier. I think the main difference was that after ‘sharing’ the road with motorists for years on a bike, I was not particularly apprehensive as most learner drivers would be. The instructor noticed that the bullying of learner drivers often done by non-learners didn’t seem to happen, although that was probably due to already being very familiar with using the roads.

  2. I failed both my first motorbike and car tests in Ireland for not maintaining speed, in part. The car test, one place where I went slow was on a residential street, with parked cars – ideal territory for a child to run out – where I stuck to 15 mph. On the motorbike test, I failed specifically on maintaining speed through corners. It was a damp day that had followed weeks of dry weather, so the roads were quite greasy.

    Sigh..

  3. Excellent post, it really is rather interesting to read other riders experiences of learning to drive having been a long time cyclist and thinking back to my own lessons.
    With my learning I used BSM who actually use a simulator first to teach the basics (clutch control, basic navigation etc) and required you to clock up a certain amount of time in this before getting out on the road. The simulator itself was modeled on their own vehicles (a Vauxhall Corsa) in full sized with huge projection screens in front so your in a rather large video game. It was nice being able to get into the car for the first time and already have a reasonable idea of what I was doing.

    From there it proceeded in a similar fashion to yours as we progressed through the various techniques; parking (bay and parallel), reverse round corner, 3 point turn etc.
    I also got some high-speed driving fitted in as I often ended up using the Sidcup Bypass, a 2-3 lane A road in East London. This was pretty much a motorway so I can’t really understand why some people moan about not having learners on proper motorways during their lessons as it covered the same techniques such as overtaking, merging and exiting that are used on those roads and as you have the instructor with you unless you encounter a lorry you rarely move out of the first lane (whilst the other 90% of drivers SPEED past in the other lanes…..)

    One of my more memorable moments was performing such a tight to the kerb reverse round the corner that I ended up almost nearly tearing the wing mirror off on a roadside tree ;-) Luckily my instructor was very understanding!

    More recently I have taken some “driver training” with my employer which was rather interesting. It consisted of effectively a combination of a personality test and something similar to the theory test. You get asked how you’d react in certain situations and about various other aspects of driving. One little gem was “Are city centres are too heavily designed around pedestrians” to which you had to indicate how you agreed from strongly agree to strongly disagree. I think once I’d finished fuming internally I clicked on the “strongly disagree” whilst wondering just where these city centres are….This was also a point I had to let slide with a colleague who was almost the other end of the scale in agreement! The hazard perception screens where great and I think me being a cyclist was a huge help as you have to be so aware of EVERYTHING when you are a vulnerable road user that drivers don’t even give a second thought to.

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