Having got my pilot’s licence earlier this year, it was time for a new challenge, so back in April I embarked on the Skills for Life course with the Institute of Advanced Motorists (part of my 30 Before 30 challenge). This post records my journey through the course, in the form of diary entries made after each session. I’m afraid there aren’t the photos you’re used to on my blog, so it might seem a bit dry, but normal service will be resumed in my next post!
Session 1 – 26 April 2015
I was intrigued to see what my fellow advanced driving ‘novices’ would be like, but the first thing I noticed was that the whole room was full of IAM volunteers, who significantly outnumbered learners. I was really impressed by the fact that they all freely give up their time to help other people improve their driving. There were seven of us on the course: three young lads who I assume had only recently passed their test, one of their dads, a retired lady, a middle-aged lady and me.
The first theory session covered what is meant by advanced driving – primarily it’s about observation and anticipation, and driving systematically and progressively, with aims including improved road safety and making you more confident and calm on the road. There was a presentation and we were often asked for our ideas about different questions and driving situations, so it was very interactive. I felt a bit like the teacher’s pet because most of the other people were too scared to speak up, so I answered quite a lot of the questions. We started learning about the system of advanced driving. When you first learn, you’re taught ‘Mirror – Signal – Manoeuvre’. But in advanced driving you’re taught Information – Position – Speed – Gear – Accelerate (IPSGA). It’s quite a lot to remember and it’s going to take a while to get used to it.
After the theory we met our assigned observer and they took us out for a demo drive to show how it’s done. Then it was my turn. The practical session was daunting because I had my observer in the passenger seat and an observer observing my observer (!) in the back, and although they were both kind and supportive, I obviously felt as though my every move was being scrutinised and my driving kind of went to pot. We spent half an hour driving round the busy streets of Leamington and Warwick, which had hazards everywhere – buses, people wandering into the road, mini roundabouts and plenty more besides. It felt very stressful and I felt like a learner driver again! But they said that I did well and that it’s perfectly normal for one’s driving to get worse before it gets better.
I did learn a lot and they pointed out things I should try, such as using a lower gear for driving in towns, and not braking and changing gear at the same time. I’ve always suspected that I depress the clutch too soon when approaching a junction, but it’s a really hard habit to get out of!
So, much food for thought from session 1 and I now have three weeks to put some of these new techniques into practice before session 2.
Session 2 – 17 May 2015
Today’s theory session focused on steering, acceleration and braking, and gear selection. I picked up a good tip in the preparatory reading: use the same gear to go down a hill as you would to go up it. This helps you keep a steady speed without braking.
The practical session was quite long and involved a drive through Kenilworth town centre and various neighbouring villages. The focus was on smooth driving and gear selection, as well as on observation. I had to do a commentary, which means saying aloud the things you’ve noticed, such as a bend coming up, or a cyclist, or any other hazard. I did well on that bit, and overall the feedback was positive. I certainly felt more confident than I did on the first session and I’m starting to drive more systematically as per the ‘IPSGA’ system. I’m doing better with not depressing the clutch too early too.
Session 3 – 31 May 2015
Today’s theory and practical sessions covered cornering, signalling, manoeuvering and a mixture of town and country driving. I didn’t feel I drove as well as I could’ve done, but my observer – a different one again from previous times – seemed to think otherwise and described it as a “nice, safe, progressive drive”, so I guess I must be improving slightly. Still really struggling with separating brakes and gear changes, i.e. not doing both at the same time. I apparently need to work on my reversing around corners – though it’s not something I ever do, which I guess is why it needs work – but I’ve nailed actually driving forwards around bends/corners in terms of getting the car in the right position, speed etc. But my observation is coming along well. I’m finding some aspects of the course a bit overly pedantic, but I suppose one needs to develop high standards in the finer details.
Session 4 – 14 June 2015
My best session yet! After a theory session on motorway driving and overtaking, my check drive went really well, covering a section of the M40 and then a load of winding country roads. I’ve always enjoyed motorway driving so I wasn’t too concerned about that aspect. My observer’s only criticisms this week were that there were a couple of times when I inadvertently chose the wrong lane at a couple of more complicated roundabouts. Luckily there was nobody behind me and I did the right thing with a shoulder check etc before changing lanes, but I apparently could have spotted earlier which one I should have been in! It’s so difficult to get it right all the time when your driving is being scrutinised. I know it’s a good thing though and I’m definitely improving, as the observer said that I did really well and that it was a good, safe and confident drive with no real issues. Yay! Maybe I will pass the test after all?
Session 5 – 28 June 2015
Another good session with lots of positive feedback. Apparently I am “very nearly if not already at test standard” and all I need to work on now is pointing out more road signs in my commentary. In a bizarre coincidence, my observer today was a former member of my former gliding club, and his daughter rides at the same stables as me! There was also a gorgeous Golden Retriever in our theory session – his name was Greg and, in another coincidence, he is a stud dog for Guide Dogs, the charity I also volunteer for!
Session 6 – 12 July 2015
We had a ‘meet the examiner’ session to start today, and that made me feel more apprehensive about the test itself, as the examiner came across as a bit unapproachable and a bit scary. But the driving session/mock advanced driving test that followed was the best yet, by a long way! I feel as though it’s all coming together now and my lovely observer today called me a “cracking little driver” – yay! – and said I just need to believe in myself a bit more. Oh, and I need to practise parallel parking a little more (it’s always been my weakest point), but not as much as I thought. In another ‘small world’ kind of coincidence, my observer today runs the pub we had the airfield dinner at and we therefore have a mutual acquaintance in the lady who runs our old airfield, and the chap who sat in the back today is a Cherokee pilot at Coventry. It’s amazing how many of us pilots there are around! Anyway, going back to the driving, I now need one or two one-to-one observed drives and then it will be time to take the test. Eek!
Session 7 – 22 July 2015
I had a one-to-one driving session with a very experienced observer today, who told me that I drove “beautifully” and that I would pass the test if I took it now! Having said that, he really opened my eyes to just how much I can be talking about in my commentary, picking up every road sign and giving me some valuable tips. He said that I made rapid progress throughout today’s drive, so there’s obviously still plenty of room for improvement. I will have probably one more session with him, next week, when we will do motorway driving, and then it will be time to go in for my test. I’d better do some more Highway Code revision!
Session 8 – 29 July 2015
I’ve officially now reached ‘test ready’ standard. I’ve been brushing up on my Highway Code and road signs so that I can be even more observant in my commentary. The level of detail I’m now working at is spotting things like the loops in the road leading up to traffic lights, motorway traffic cameras and overhanging trees that could be hazardous when following a lorry. I’m seeing so much more now than I used to, and there always seems to be more that I could be picking up on! I personally don’t feel I’m good enough to take the test, but if my observer says it is so, it must be true.
Session 9 – 28 August 2015
A final observed drive before my test. We did parallel parking, which I find immensely stressful. Not looking forward to the test! (Or “assessment” as my observer is encouraging me to think of it as!)
The Test – 6 September 2015
The good news is that I passed my advanced driving test!! It was a lot longer than I was expecting – 1.5hrs of driving – but it went well and I scored top marks (“excellent”) in most categories and “good” in a few. I apparently would have got a First if I’d driven a bit more “progressively”, i.e. a bit faster in certain stretches of road. I was erring on the side of caution as it’s a sunny day and there are cyclists everywhere! Ah well, I’m more than happy with a “good standard of pass”, especially as the examiner was a highly trained traffic policeman (not the scary one from before, thankfully)!
If you’re thinking about improving your driving – and EVERYONE has room for improvement – I’d really recommend the IAM. Just £149 gets you six theory sessions, six practical sessions, extra one-to-one driving sessions, your test fee, a free book about advanced driving, a free copy of the Highway Code and a year’s free membership of the IAM and the RAC. Bargain! You can sign up here.