Drive and Survive

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Fleet training is big business. Many companies send all their drivers on such courses. GC went to discover what they can learn.

The name sums up their philosophy. This is a commercial operation with a social agenda: improve driver awareness and you can reduce road accidents. Drive & Survive operates on a large scale, training 23,000 drivers last year, and major clients like IBM and DHL claim accident reductions of 50 and 60%; that’s good financial sense even apart from the human costs.

Having only recently returned to driving after being severely disabled in someone else’s accident, I thought they might be the right people to review my skills after six long years in the passenger seat, particularly as they offer skid-training for disabled drivers, which was the tempter for me. I didn’t want to experiment on my precious Alfa.

Drive & Survive doesn’t teach any specialised techniques in its DAT (Driver Awareness Training); instead, a training instructor simply reviews the pupil’s awareness of various road-risks and his ability to minimise them in ordinary driving. It’s more of a chat on wheels than any sort of test, so much so that the trainer does not even assess the mechanical skills; you could theoretically be awful at changing gear and still get good ratings on risk assessment.

Based in Hitchen, Herts, though working right across Europe to Bulgaria and Greece, Drive & Survive has 48 trainers, many of them Police Class One, giving courses for off-road, minibus, security and pursuit, and lone lady drivers as well as DAT. Most pupils are sent on one-or two-day DAT courses by their companies as fleet policy, but I had the luxury of a one-to-one home-based day with Mark Edwards, whose teaching experiences include the under-17s Early-Drive scheme and off-road courses at Brands Hatch.

A solo day begins at the pupil’s house, with a revealing video in which real drivers assess their own driving and are then filmed inside their cars on the road. All proved to be more aggressive and less aware than they thought; not statistically conclusive, maybe, but I’m sure it’s a telling picture. Mark then moved on to some facts designed to unsettle the complacent: for instance, that there’s a serious injury accident every ten minutes; that fewer than 1% of drivers have any further training after our unhealthily easy L-test, and that psychologists suggest only a quarter of brain time is applied to driving. This means, alarmingly, that three of the four people around you at the lights aren’t concentrating. There is also a theory that the human brain is optimised to think at walking speed and tends to look only about 20 or 30 yards ahead; I can go along with that heartily, having during five years of enforced passengerdom suffered at the hands of a succession of late-braking hired-hands, all convinced they were highly skilled.

Most drivers, of course, are very skilled at last-minute crash avoidance. It’s crisis management, instead of forethought, a succession of unremembered near-misses which eventually goes wrong, to the invariable refrain of “I didn’t see him.” or “It was his fault because I couldn’t stop in time”.

Usually the trainer then drives the client for a 15-minute demo drive, explaining some points of risk assessment, but because of the complexity of installing me behind the wheel we dispensed with that bit, and I set off the long way round for Crowthorne, Berks, where the skid-car is based (it also tours the country). I automatically began to give a driving commentary, a habit I developed preparing for my IAM, test; Drive & Survive certainly doesn’t demand this, but it can’t do any harm. Its also a beneficial technique in itself, helping you to sort out hazard priorities.

As we waded through town traffic and on to faster roads, I quizzed Mark about the company and its work, and he asked my reasons for what I was doing at the time. It became clear that this is the Drive & Survive approach: two-way conversation and relaxed observation, rather than tests and pass-marks.

By the time the security gates of the Road Transport Laboratory opened for us, I had tackled urban and country roads as well as the M25, and Mark reckoned he already had a good picture of my abilities. Next, the skid car. Drive & Survive employs hydraulic castor cradles; they may look as if the car has been dumped in a bedstead; but they are an ideal answer to the old problem of finding skid-pans and keeping them slippery with trouser-ruining gunk. Pumps extend the jacks front or rear to take some or all the weight on the swivelling castors, so that with a twist of a knob you can go from full grip to the equivalent of sheet ice on any wide patch of tarmac.

Although Drive & Survive is proud of its disabled skid-car facility, the set-up in the automatic Mondeo didn’t suit me, and I had to transfer the special steering knob over from my Alfa before I could handle it. But after only a few minutes with this set-up, I discovered that I can still drive by the seat of my pants, even though it’s numb. Balancing a car on opposite lock with one hand takes getting used to, but it’s a big mental boost. Several red slalom cones go flying before you remember the add-on wheels, but if you pretend you’re driving a single-seater with wide rear wheels, you’ll be OK.

Having played around with slaloms, steady circles and simulated diesel spillages, I discovered what ABS feels like through a hand-control — disconcerting thumps through the palm. I’ve never yet triggered it on the Alfa.

I came away impressed by the castor-car. It’s supremely adaptable, and everything happens at low speed, which makes it less dramatic and easier to learn. And of course it’s perfectly suitable for able drivers too. Drive & Survive charge around £300 a day, but you could easily bring 10 customers along to share that.

After lunch we went out again in my car for some more road observation. Mark went through what he tries to indicate to pupils — the fact that most of the life-saving information is there to be seen hundreds of yards ahead. Apart from road signs, which most people glance at without responding, there are clues like hazard lines (the more paint on the tarmac, the more trouble someone else has got into there in the past), garage exits (often slippery from diesel), lay-bys (drivers often brake suddenly for these), and the unnofficial warnings made of Dunlop’s best and applied to the road by those who weren’t looking ahead. He even alerted me to the danger of car dealerships, where customers might be trying out an unfamiliar car. (“Are there any records of drivers being rammed by out-of-control demo cars?” I asked; “Well, no,” Mark admitted; but it did make a point about subtle clues being there to be read.)

All of this doesn’t mean bumbling along timidly. By reading the road ahead you can make the same speed as everyone else, just with a greater safety margin. In fact you can often gain on everyone else, by choosing the best lane well ahead, or avoiding an imminent problem. Keep the car moving gently approaching a red light, and you are best placed to make the best departure; maintain an escape space ahead and you can drive round if the bus in front breaks down. And, of course, the best racing line usually gives the best view through a corner and maximises overtaking room. (Drive & Survive also do a high-performance course; I’m considering that one.)

But you can only learn so many tricks in a day. The real aim, says Mark, is to encourage people to think for themselves, getting them to appreciate where the dangers lie in a normal drive. The spin-off is reduced stress levels in the inevitable traffic. In Mark’s experience, the majority of D & S clients are people who enjoy driving; they are happy to have been sent on the course and will accept constructive criticism. They also have the fun of assessing their trainer, in return; no embarrassment for me, as Mark was an excellent and tactful guide to the possible pit-falls of the road.

What you get to take home is a form which grades your risk levels in various areas and road types, from high ( 1 ) to low risk (6). It is, says Mark, an aide-memoire which you can work on, which is more constructive than a simple “pass” or “fail”. Nobody fails a Drive & Survive day; you don’t even add the figures into a final score, so there’s no competitiveness.

Now, one of the snags of journalism is that you have to admit it if you make a fool of yourself. But you still have to report it if the opposite happens, and Mark ended our day by giving me a blushingly high number of sixes and some nice words on my bit of paper. I don’t really think I had a perfect drive, but when I did make a slip I was usually aware of it, which is Step One to any improvement. He did advise me to maintain a bigger escape route in city traffic — just two or three extra feet in a stationary line — and to hold the brake-lights on after stopping to warn following traffic. Which is something I’ve always avoided as it annoys me when the driver in front does it, especially in the rain — but this is one course where you are allowed to disagree with teacher.

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