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Driving

Recently, Dave Harford set up a blog to talk about things that required more characters than Twitter allows. His first post is about teenage drivers, and I agree with his sentiments. I’d like to add to his thoughts with some of my own about driving in general.

So Dave’s right: many people on the roads today were, at one point, teenage drivers. I was one too — I was 17 when I passed my driving test. I remember my instructor telling me I’d be okay so long as I didn’t get this one particular examiner because he was the strictest in North Wales. So obviously I got him! I got a few minors, as I recall, but I don’t really remember the details because I’d passed my test so who cares right?! I was invincible. I was free. I could drive, and drive I did. I picked up my best mate and his girlfriend in my brother’s car and we drove around the place. It was ace!

Four hours later my brother’s car was on its side on a mountain in Wales. There were no seatbelts in the back, where my best friend’s girlfriend was sitting. She reached out to stop herself from bouncing around as the car rolled and put her hand through the rear passenger side window. My mate and I were strapped in the front. He found himself lying inches away from the grass that the car had come to rest on while I was suspended by my seatbelt. He freaked out, thinking he was pinned in the car (because the car was resting on his door). I had to explain to him that we could get out of my side, if only I could lift the door. Car doors are heavy when you’re trying to bench press them while standing on a car seat side on! We got the door open and we all climbed out. Fortunately nobody was injured. Quite how I have no idea.

At this point we realised that the car had come to a rest just a few feet from a sheer drop into a tin mine. Not only would we be dead now, but there’s a chance that we’d never even have been found.

So, yeah, that was an education.

Since then my attitude to driving has changed somewhat, and that’s what I want to write about today. I’m sure the majority of people haven’t had a close call like that described above, but in some ways that’s almost a shame. Before you jump to the comment button to call me a twat for saying that, bear with me. Most people seem to consider driving to be the thing you do to get to work and to get home. It’s the part of the day that you can’t avoid, so you just do it. Some people decide to “optimise” their time and do other things too, like applying makeup, catching up with emails, chatting to someone on the phone or even eating a meal. These are people who believe that driving is an autonomous task. These are people who believe that driving is easy.

These are people who will tell you that they’ve never had an accident in their entire life, while being completely ignorant of the possibility that that’s because of the reactions of other drivers, rather than their own.

In my opinion, driving is a bit like playing poker. Learning the rules and getting the basics right is pretty straight forward, but being good at it requires a lot more thought, concentration and planning. Sticking with the poker analogy, when you get driving right —  when you “win” — it’s hugely rewarding. I’m not talking about slinging your car around a bend without it letting go and putting you in the ditch. That’s not winning, that’s escaping. When I talk about winning I mean taking in what’s going on around you, being aware of what the road conditions are, planning what you’re about to do and considering your options and then putting it all together to execute the perfect manoeuvre. I mean slowing everything down when the conditions require it, so that you give yourself time to take everything in and to make the ride as smooth and comfortable as you can. I mean reading the roundabout ahead of you so that you are in the right gear doing the right speed when that gap you identified 20 yards back opens up in front of you.

Again, sticking with the poker analogy, I’m not a pro. I still make mistakes and I’m still learning. I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning. I certainly hope not! But I’m getting better and better. When I did my category A (motorbike) test I had no minors on either the mod 1 or the mod 2 test. When I did my category C1 test I had one minor, for something that (bizarrely) I wouldn’t ordinarily do. The difference between these tests and my car test back in the late 90s? I care about what mistakes I make now. I want to know what they were, and I want to make sure I don’t do them again.

Last year I spent a day with some of the biker cops from Notts Police on one of their Bike Safe courses. It was a brilliant experience, despite the fact that I spent the day with a police bike behind me! I got some great advice about road positioning and reading situations and some wonderful encouragement about the existing standard of my riding. I also planned to do an advanced driving course some time soon, only…

In a couple of months I’ll be starting my new career in the ambulance service. Not only will I be driving 4.5t trucks but I’ll be driving them on the wrong side of the road, above the speed limit, through red lights and all the rest of it. I’m really looking forward to it, not because I can do all of these “naughty” things but because I can’t wait to learn more about improving my driving skills.

My point is that driving is not the thing you do a test for once and then just crack on. It’s a skill that you can develop and hone. Being good at it is really satisfying. Reading the situation around you and reacting to the actions of others before they’ve even realised what they’re doing themselves is not just incredibly safe, but it’s incredibly pleasing too. Being able to say “well I chose that lane because I could see that there was traffic parked on the left hand side beyond the lights and that the lanes were going to merge anyway” causes police bikers to say things like “I thought that was it but nobody else I’ve been out with has thought that far ahead before.”

As a final point, have you considered (or even heard of) commentary driving? After my little detour down the side of a Welsh mountain my dad insisted that I got back into a car and drove. He used to be a Special Constable (for 19 years or so) and was a member of the police driving club. He taught me that there is so much going on while driving that if you commentate while you drive, you never stop talking. These days I do it a lot, especially when I’m on my bike in the morning and am feeling like I’d rather still be in bed. It forces me to pay attention because I need to keep talking. The video below is from a driving instructor for the police. Yes he’s running on blues so he talks about looking for “positive responses” from other road users (that is, they’ve positively demonstrated that they’ve seen/heard him) but listen to what he says about his observations generally. He’s considering traffic lights (ATS) and how long they’ve been green. He’s looking at pedestrians. He’s paying attention to things like delivery vehicles parked on the side of the road (“where’s the delivery driver?”). He’s so busy talking about all of that stuff that he doesn’t mention a bunch of other things that he could consider, like changes in road surface for example.

Happy driving.

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