The Advanced Driving Test

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I keep meaning to take that

There are two types of comment that I have become used to hearing when the subject of the Advanced Driving Test comes up or conversation. The first involves questions about whether the test involves handbrake turns, or clutchless gearchanges, or very fast driving, and the second is “I keep meaning to take that”. Both seem to me to be symptomatic of the attitude of most drivers, in that driving skill is one of those sensitive areas in which few people will ever admit to being inadequate. They have their licence, so they are obviously good drivers, aren’t they? Therefore any further test can only be based on race-track techniques. Alternatively, the fact that they drive 15,000 miles per year means that they are experienced and consequently of above average ability.

Of course, a proportion of people will be naturally good drivers, whether they have taken one of the advanced tests or not, and are thus making a reasoned judgement of their own capabilities. But somehow that competitive instinct which takes over a normal individual when he sits in a car overrides such judgement, producing driving standards which are not knowingly dangerous, but unconsciously risky, turning many a journey into a series of skilfully-avoided close shaves.

Traffic arguments, seen daily in London, usually involve two parties vociferously claiming the other’s incompetence, and sadly the assumption that one is in the right seems automatic, particularly after an accident when it is part of the self-defence mechanism. But persuading the average driver to question his own actions is almost impossible without providing some sort of model or advice against which to compare himself. As things are, only those who of their own volition think, not “I am a good driver”, but “am I a good driver”, are likely to benefit from even an observer’s comments.

Although there are several advanced tests in operation, that administered by the Institute of Advanced Motorists is the most widely known, and since its formation in 1956, the Institute has carried out over 250,000 tests. The number of applicants is rising steadily, encouraging in itself, and there are now Motorcycle and Caravan tests as well.

Like many people, I have said over the years “I keep meaning to take that”, thereby making the same assumption about my own capabilities as most drivers. What finally galvanised me into applying was a dispute in the correspondence columns of MOTOR SPORT over the technique of heeling and toeing. I found myself in disagreement with the Institute, which frowns on the method, but was invited to try the Test out of professional interest by David Ovenden, Deputy Chief Examiner.

The Institute is a non-profit making company, and those who pass the Test become members and pay an annual subscription of £7.50. To cater for those who have a continuing interest in road safety, and for prospective applicants who want advice, tuition, or just encouragement, about 150 Local Groups have been formed, which run a variety of social and motoring events as well as conducting Observed Drives. Observers, all Members, of course, accompany candidates on a 30-minute run and indicate on a check-list their assessment of the drive, pointing out weaknesses and giving advice. This may be the first experience a driver has had of the Roadcraft system of car control on which the IAM bases its philosophy and its Test, and there is no limit to the number of these Observed Runs he can take — except the practical one that, at least in the London area, demand tends to exceed supply.

I joined the South London Group as an Associate Member, enabling me to take Observed Runs, but at the same time committing me to taking the Test within a year. The Group has two centres from which runs are made on Sunday mornings, and on both occasions I went, there were not only many test candidates, but several newly-accepted members, anxious to become Observers, hoping to sit-in on the session in a back seat. (I fell it only fair to refuse the extra Passenger the first time as I was driving a Porsche 924S with its limited room).

Since all this had been sparked off by the discussion on heel-and-toe I was interested to see what my Observer would make of it — for, being asked to drive normally, I made use of the process a number of times. In the event, as he afterwards went through the checklist of some 30 items, he offered a compliment instead of criticism on my use of it, which was endorsed by the next Observer I went out with a fortnight later. I took this as tacit approval of the method if well-executed, even though the IAM does not actively recommend it. Both observers warned me about speed limits, and showing more reaction to road-signs — seeing them is not enough, the Examiner has to be aware of some anticipatory action such as lifting off the throttle approaching a hazard. I also embarrassed myself on one run — I was so busy watching a string of horseriders approaching that I was unable, when asked, to say what the last sign was. It turned out to be “Warning — Horses”

With the approval of both Observers, I then applied to the IAM’s Chiswick headquarters for a Test date. There are 120 test routes all over the country, the 1 1/2-hour 35-mile run taking in town, suburban and dual-carriageway conditions, and all Examiners are holders of the Police Class 1 Certificate, recognised as probably the highest in the world.

Most combine testing with other things — there are in fact only seven full-time examiners working for the Institute. Total test staff under the Chief Examiner Ted Clements is about 150, while Chief Executive Robert Peters has some 30 administrative staff. Governing the Institute is a Council of 23 members connected with motoring or having an interest in road safety such as the Magistrate’s Association and the BMA, and the current paid-up membership is about 80,000, a quarter of whom are women. The average pass rate is 62%, but is significantly higher amongst those who have been prepared by a local group

It was with this thought that I comforted myself as I parked outside the HQ one Friday morning. For the previous week I had been concentrating fiercely on every aspect of my conduct at the wheel, and I was sure that I had become consistently worse as a result. In addition I had intended to give the Alfa a long run so as to warm-up the notoriously baulky gearbox, but inevitably only had time for the five minute drive from home. Nor had I practiced any commentary driving, something which seems to frighten a lot of people off the Test. It is not compulsory, but it is a useful method of letting the examiner know how good your anticipation is. Still, it was too late to worry as I was introduced to my Examiner, Maureen Cooper. A cheerful, firm sort it was easy to imagine her as a police-woman, though less so to see her driving the Police MGB she later mentioned.

However, it was not long before she ruffled my calm over the question of the dreaded heel-and-toe. I explained what had prompted me to take the test, to which she replied. “Well, of course I don’t want to see any of that during the test.” In vain to explain that a transaxle Alfa needs lots of time to swap gears, which is why I practice the method. I was surprised, too, to receive other advice as to what the tester is looking for — I had expected a stricter pass-or-fail approach. In fact, the whole 90 minutes became an intermittent conversation about driving skills and training, which defused the “exam” atmosphere.

Starting with a stretch of the North Circular, we wound our way northwest through the suburbs of Northwood toward Buckinghamshire, tackling a huge variety of hazards including hump-backed bridges, road-works around blind corners, laggardly milk-floats – it was hard to believe that they had not been specially laid on. I was invited to give a commentary if I wanted, and in fact it suddenly clicked into place and became easy. It is in itself a useful concentration technique but be prepared for funny looks if practising by yourself.

Side roads, main road, the M25: we explored them all, while I struggled with a sun-visor which kept flopping down into my eyeline. One junction I bungled completely, the box refusing to engage second in time, and to my surprise I was told to go round again and do it properly. I did.

Completing the loop back into Chiswick, I reviewed those mistakes I knew I had made, but was delighted to be offered congratulations on being recommended for membership of the Institute, the formal way of saying “you’ve passed”

There has been some controversy about the value of the red badge which members are permitted to display: critics suggest that it invokes a sense of superiority or that it brands its possessor as a sedate driver, but I see no conflict between the anticipation and planning which the Roadcraft system stresses and rapid (as opposed to just plain fast) driving. And as Ted Clements pointed out the badge is there not to justify your actions but to restrain you from reacting in kind to the chap who has just cut across your bow.

Statistics indicate that IAM members have an accident rate some 50%-75% lower than average and this aspect has introduced a new and increasing area to the Institute’s work — fleet training. Over 350 companies have realised the personal and financial savings from having higher proficiency amongst their employees: Esso for example, have been in such a scheme for three years, and last year enjoyed their first year ever with no days lost to accidents. Such is the demand that a new company — IAM Fleet Training Ltd — has been set up under David Ovenden to offer professional instruction, through a variety of courses, to industry and commerce. This scheme is commercially separate from the Institute with its charitable status.

The Institute campaigns at a number of levels about road safety but administering the Advanced Test remains its prime occupation. Tempting a wider spread of drivers to come for advice or comment is important but hard to engineer, although the reduced insurance premiums which many companies offer to Advanced Drivers helps here, improving one’s road skills remains a voluntary thing and sadly of low priority to many — G.C.

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