Thursday, 8 December 2016

Learning to Drive - All You Need to Know

Having clocked up thousands of hours of driving tuition over the years, and having had the pleasure of helping many different people, I have put together this “learning to drive” guide for the benefit of anyone looking to embark on the journey towards a driving licence.

In an effort to provide you with a rounded picture of the world you are entering, I go into a reasonable amount of depth, offering advice and opinions about driving lessons, driving instructors and the industry generally.

Much of the content is based on my considerable experience with learner drivers. It is possible that you could speak to another industry professional who has a different view to my own. Provided their opinions are based on relevant experience, that is absolutely fine. 

Ultimately you, the consumer, must make up your own mind and make your choices accordingly.

At the very least I hope this guide gets you thinking about the best way forward for you.

It is important that your options are thoroughly considered before you take the plunge and part with your cash.

Reality Check
Learning to drive isn't always easy. 

Rewarding? Definitely.
Life changing? For some, yes.
Stressful? Sometimes it can be extremely stressful.
Easy? No.

There is no easy route to a licence. No quick fix. No cheats. No shortcuts. Just hours of hard work. Is all the hard work worth it? Only you can answer that. If you are looking for a quick fix, you're going to be disappointed I'm afraid.

I have lost track of the number of times people have told me stories about friends with zero experience who claim to have passed after just 10 hours of lessons - sometimes less.

I can say with reasonable certainty the chances of someone with no experience passing the test after just 10 hours is close to zero. Particularly in an area like Isleworth / Hounslow.

Think about it logically. Someone with no previous experience starts to learn to drive at 9am, and by 7pm they have become sufficiently expert to comfortably pass the test.

Does that really sound plausible to you?

When you take a look at my website or Facebook page what you will see are lots of happy new drivers holding up their pass certificates.

The photos are all pretty similar. Happy people who are proud of their achievement. That, though, is where the similarity ends.

What those pictures don't show, however, are the individual journeys each person took from the moment they turned the engine on for the first time.

For some lucky people the process was fairly simple and straightforward. For others it was a bumpy ride.

Most passed first time. Some needed a second go, and on extremely rare occasions, some even took 3 goes. That's life unfortunately.

Sometimes, and for any number of possible reasons, things just dont go to plan on the day.

The driving test is the one part of the process that the learner owns completely. No help. No prompting. No reminders. That is a lot of responsibility in what can be a fairly stressful 40 minutes.

Comprehensive training will give a candidate all the necessary skills to pass the test first time, but ultimately it all rests with how they perform on the day.

For a very small number of people I have met, the manual route was just too rocky, so they changed to automatic which is significantly less demanding. Each to their own.

Something to think about
Learning to drive is a serious business. I take my role and responsibilities very seriously, and I expect those I teach to do the same.

Let’s take a look at a few facts and figures to focus the mind.

- 17 to 24 year old drivers only make up 1.5% of the driving population, but are involved in 9% of fatal crashes.

- 16 to 19 year old drivers are 33% more likely to die in a crash compared to age group 40 to 49.

- One in four 18 to 24 year olds crash their car within 2 years of passing their test.

The full report behind these figures was prepared by Brake, the road safety charity. Well worth a read.

Remember, though, road safety isn’t just the responsibility of young drivers. We all have a part to play.

Anyone, at any age, can be involved in an accident, so we all need to do our bit to contribute to a safer driving environment.

I make it my business to produce responsible, capable drivers who have been taught well, and not just the basics to try and scrape through a driving test.

If you are serious about the process, road safety, and becoming a great driver with confidence in your ability, pick up the phone and I will be delighted to talk through your requirements in detail.

If, on the other hand, you want to do the bare minimum in the hope of scraping through, I am not the best person to call. Sorry.

If we aren’t pulling in the same direction from day one, then quite simply the relationship will not work.

The Driving Course – What People Say
"Really tough”
"Best thing I’ve ever done”
“Life changing”
"I totally under estimated what was involved”
“I never ever thought I would get the hang of it”
"All the effort was worth it”

An interesting and diverse set of comments from real people, who themselves are an interesting and diverse bunch.

Every learner driver is unique, bringing with them a unique skillset, their own preferred learning style and reasons and motivations for learning to drive.

Some people begin lessons because their friends have started. Others learn because they are fed up queuing in the cold and rain for public transport.

Others see a driving licence as their passport to a better life – more job opportunities and better earning potential. Whatever your own reasons are, make your choices wisely.

Choosing an Instructor
This is probably the single most important decision you will make, and my advice is to take some time and choose wisely.

Don't jump in with the first bargain basement offer you see. Do your research.

Does the instructor have an online presence? Do they have a verifiable track record? Google reviews? Facebook reviews? Photo's of successful clients?

The number one way to find a good instructor is through word of mouth. It usually follows that if a friend has had a good experience, there is no reason why you shouldn’t as well.

If you do not have the benefit of a recommendation, however, there are several ways you can find local instructors.

You can search either the or DIA (Driving Instructors Association) websites by postcode. Here are the links:

It is important to find an instructor you gel with. This applies as much to me as any other trainer. So why not try a 2 hour taster lesson? If you like what you experience, great. If not, move on.

Don’t delay booking your instructor
If you don’t have anyone in mind, a quick net search will reveal page after page of local instructors.

If, on the other hand, you want to use the services of a particular person, don’t leave it until the last moment to arrange lessons for someone’s special birthday.

Good instructors are constantly in demand, and their diaries will reflect that. Often with little or no short term availability.

My suggestion is to call your preferred instructor 2 or 3 months prior to the date required. This gives the trainer time to plan ahead and allocate time, thus avoiding disappointment.

How do my learners describe me? 

As you can see different people have described me in various different ways, based on their own experiences during our journey of learning.

Some people are naturally very driven, and work with me to move the process forward. Others, however, require constant pushing and motivation to progress.

The bottom line is this. I believe I am a very good driving instructor, but I am an awful magician.

What do I mean by that? It means there is no magic wand to obtain a driving licence. No fast path. No easy way. Just good old fashioned hard work and perseverance.

Learning to drive is quite often much tougher than some people think it will be. Without the right attitude and motivation to succeed, even the best of instructors will struggle to get such a candidate over the finish line.

Whoever you choose for your lessons, the important thing is that your trainer recognises you as an individual and plans your course accordingly.

Have realistic expectations
This reinforces a point I made earlier. Speaking from experience, managing people’s expectations in a fair and realistic way can occasionally be a tough nut to crack.

Some people are better than they think they are. Others think they are better than they actually are. Then you have everyone inbetween - the majority.

Every year, my aim is a 100% first time pass rate, and everyone I put forward for a test is more than capable of achieving that.

Sometimes though, for any number of reasons, things just don't go to plan.

The important point to make is that when someone goes for a driving test they have confidence in their ability, and that process may take longer for some than others.

One thing is certain, any attempt to cut corners will not usually lead to the desired outcome.

It usually becomes fairly apparent after about 10 hours of lessons how long the road ahead is looking. So managing a persons expectations in an honest and open way are key to a happy instructor / pupil relationship.

Learning to drive requires the ability to process and filter constantly changing information very quickly, and then respond with appropriate action.

In a high pressure potentially dangerous situation there isn’t time to do 50/50, phone a friend or ask the audience.

You may have just one or two seconds to understand a developing situation, and deal with it in a safe and effective way. This can be extremely stressful.

What is true to say though, as with any other process, is that you will only get out what you put in. If you want that licence badly enough, and are prepared to work hard and push yourself, then you will ultimately be successful.

If you think it is going to be an easy ride and don’t put in the effort, it is going to be an uphill struggle all the way to your test, assuming you get that far.

How much should I pay?
With a fairly broad range of prices in the TW1 to TW16 area, ranging from £16 an hour up to £30, there is an instructor to suit every pocket.

Most people will pay what they perceive a service to be worth, and that will differ from person to person, depending on the importance they place on the process.

Most instructors usually have reduced offer priced lesson hours, and I am no exception. They are a great way for learners to sample the service on offer, whilst not having to pay full price.

Whoever you choose, my advice is not to pay a large amount upfront until you know you will be happy with the trainer. If you aren't happy on day one, it will be an expensive mistake if you have already paid for a block booking.

If an instructor or driving school won't offer you a taster session before you sign on the dotted line, go elsewhere.

When considering anything that looks too good to be true, do so with your sensible head on. Remember, a driving school is a business and businesses cost money to run.

Anyone offering super cheap lessons has got to be cutting back somewhere. It's  a simple case of basic housekeeping and commonsense. Any business costs money to run, so there is a point where a lesson price is so low that there is no profit to keep the business afloat and pay the instructors bills.  Does the instructor use an old car perhaps? 45 minute lessons? Spend excessive amounts of time kerbside to save fuel? Maybe the instructor has a main job and instructing is a sideline?

A few consumer sayings spring to mind:

- Caveat emptor – let the buyer beware
- You get what you pay for
- Pay cheap pay twice
-The person who wants something for nothing will usually get nothing for something.

Why are independent instructors cheaper than the big driving schools?
You may hear the term "franchise". What is a franchise?

In simple terms, a person will pay a fee to trade in the name of an established business. You never own the business, merely rent the name as long as you keep paying to do so.

In terms of structure, you have the overall business owner, and they are the Franchisor.

The business itself is the Franchise, and anyone who rents a part of the Franchise is called a Franchisee. A Franchise can have hundreds, or possibly thousands of Franchisees depending on the type of business it is.

The Franchisee pays the Franchisor a weekly or monthly amount to trade using the Franchise name.

Lots of businesses run as franchises. From burger restaurants to coffee shop chains to national driving schools.

In the case of franchised driving schools, the instructor - the Franchisee - will pay anywhere from £80 per week for a locally based Franchise to £150 per week for a national driving school.

Those costs have to be built into the overall lesson prices, which is why it tends to be the case that national franchised driving schools charge more per hour.

The additional cost has absolutely nothing to do with the instructor being a higher grade or offering better instruction. It is purely because their overheads are higher, and so they have to charge more.

In terms of my own lesson pricing, I work for myself, so I dont pay a third party any franchise fees.

I dont pay anyone to do the “back office” tasks, because I do them myself. I generate enquiries through my own website and Facebook page. I arrange my own car and insurance, and I do all the behind the scenes activities like diary management.

It is because my trading overheads are significantly lower than those of a franchised instructor that I can offer a lower price - but not lower standards.

As an instructor, there is nothing at all wrong with the franchised route, but it isn't for me personally.

If an instructor wants the hard work of the business side taken care of for them, that’s fine, so the franchise route may work for that individual. Personally, though, I prefer to be my own boss and build my own reputation, not someone else's.

I built my business from nothing 8 years ago, after a 25 year career in Banking, of all things. I enjoy running things my way and I have 100% control over all aspects of what I do and how I do it.

Nobody loves my business like I do, and the success of my business rests entirely on my shoulders. I’ve got nowhere to hide, and nobody else to blame if something goes wrong – and that is exactly how I like it.

Do the national schools have better quality instructors?

The short answer is no.

All driving instructors are self employed, and go through exactly the same process to gain their green instructors badge.

At the end of the qualifying period, each instructor is awarded a grade depending on their performance in the final exam.

Once an instructor is fully qualified, they then have the option to either buy into a Franchise or trade as an independent business, like my own, and build their own brand.

Irrespective of what career path an instructor takes, every 4 or 5 years each is assesed during a live lesson with a DVSA Senior Examiner present.

The lesson is then graded, based on a detailed set of criteria. That assessment is called a Standards Check. Here is the marking sheet used.

The instructor will be awarded a grade, based on the overall quality of the lesson – A, B or fail.

I am a Grade A, and recent figures show that just 29% of instructors achieve the highest grade.

If you like your facts and figures the ADI National Joint Counci have put together an excellent analysis of the Check Test pass and fail rates. Very interesting reading.

To find out exactly what grade your instructor is, ask them. If you have any doubt, ask to see their last Standards Check scoresheet.

Driving instructors have the option of adding their grade to the "Find an Instructor" part of the DVSA website. On a recent check I am one of just 2 A Grade instructors in my postcode area. It would be nice if all instructors were Grade A because it would make choosing a good instructor a great deal easier.

Currently only 29% of instructors are awarded the top grade.

Pass Rates. Fact or Fiction?

Do a quick web search and you will find many instructors and driving schools using phrases like “excellent pass rates”, “high pass rates” and so on, but what do these claims mean?

In truth, not a lot. They are just words not facts. One person’s idea of excellent is another person’s idea of average.

There are various ways that pass rates can be interpreted and manipulated, so any figures you see published by instructors should be treated with caution.

You as the consumer have absolutely no way of confirming these figures one way or the other.

The Government are considering publishing pass rates that they collect through the driving test system.

This, though, cannot be relied upon for factual correctness. For example, if a learner uses their own car for their test, the instructor will not be credited with the pass.

I have lost count now of the number of clients I have taught and who passed the test in their own vehicle, and for which I receive no credit in the Government statistics.

So while I include these passes in my figures, the Government do not.

It may surprise you to learn that the first time pass rate nationally is just 21%.

Put another way, just 1 person in 5 who takes their test for the first time will pass. Surprised? Here is a link to the website:

If you look up the pass rates at your local test centre, typically you will see figures around the 40 – 50% range.

These figures do not relate to first time passes. They are average pass rates.

The important thing to bear in mind is that on any given day at a test centre you will have a mix of people who are taking their test for the 1st, 2nd, 3rd….10th time.

So, to make sense of the published figures, based on the fact that on average only 1 in 5 pass first time, the vast majority of driving tests are re-sits. Of those re-sits approximately 40 - 50% are successful, thus  leading to further re-sits.

Confused? You have every right to be. The subject of pass rates is truly a murky one.

Is there a good day and time to take a driving test?
If you start from the position that there is no such thing as an easy driving test, then it really doesn't matter when you take it. Provided a candidate has been thoroughly trained in all areas of road craft, then they should be perfectly capable of taking a test any day and any time. There are a number of factors that can influence our decisions, though, and these are:

Your body clock - When are you most alert? When do you function best? Don't book a test at a time when, on a normal day, you would still be fast asleep.

Bin collection - This sounds like a strange one I know, but on bin collection days the area is flooded with bin and recycling lorries from early in the morning. My experience is that these cause considerable problems on the roads. Randomly stopping. Blocking the road. Binmen running across the road and between vehicles. Why cause yourself additional stress on your test? Avoid bin collection days.

Nervous or Confident? - We are all individuals. Irrespective of how well prepared we are for a test, some take it all in their stride, while others experience anxiety at varying levels. In many cases, the levels of stress or anxiety that build up prior to a test can be a big factor in determining success or failure. In other words, a really good, well prepared candidate can panic themselves into a fail.

So what is the answer? My advice, and it is just advice, is that anyone who does experience test nerves, those people should take their driving test first thing in the morning. This way, there isn't a lot of time before the test to allow stress levels and anxiety to build.

It is heart breaking for me, but I have seen a number of superb candidates take an afternoon test and fail because they have spent all day worrying about it, and they have effectively panicked themselves into a fail result. So now, I get these people to book their test at 8am, and, touch wood, it appears to work well.

In summary, any test is a very artificial environment, so give yourself the best possible chance of success. Firstly though thorough training. Make sure there is nothing that you cannot do with confidence. Secondly, choose a test time that suits you. Thirdly, avoid bin days!

What do you think of intensive courses?
You will find there are wide ranging opinions on this subject. Personally, I have mixed feelings about intensive courses as an effective route to a driving licence, and as such I have made a business decision not to offer them.

People book a course of lessons, say 30 hours over 2 weeks, with a perfectly reasonable expectation that they will pass the test at the end of it.

The reality, however, is that a pass is not assured, and this will be covered somewhere within an instructors T&C’s.

Being realistic, how can any instructor offer such a guarantee? Quite simply they can’t.

The thing to remember, is that if you have someone who is an average learner, who under normal circumstances would take 40 – 50 hours of lessons, then logic dictates that a 30 hour intensive course simply isn’t going to be enough.

This will become apparent very early on when the schedule falls quickly behind.

So, in these circumstances, the learner will then have to pay for more hours they probably hadn’t budgeted for to pick up the slack, in an effort to meet the deadline.

Even doing this, there is still no guarantee of a pass. Driving instructors are not magicians and intensive courses are not a magic solution. Be realistic.

I have experience of several people who initially went down the intensive route, and failed their tests quite badly. When I carried out my own assessments there were significant knowledge and skills gaps present, which were of a safety critical nature.

In my opinion those individuals should never have been put forward for a test.

What has probably happened is that in an effort to cover all the subjects in the limited time available, the instructor has moved each learner through the various topics too quickly, resulting in the knowledge gaps.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.

If you are considering the intensive route, ask questions, and don’t assume that you will get a licence at the end of it.

Think of the story about the tortoise and the hare. Sometimes, the slower route can actually prove to be the faster solution.

In summary
This has probably taken you a little while to read, but hopefully it has made you realise that there is a lot to consider before you part with your cash.

Personally, I am a big believer in the saying “knowledge is power”.

Knowledge allows us to make better, more informed choices, and that is important when you are looking to invest your time, trust and a significant amount of money in, what could be, a complete stranger.

Whatever your choices and preferences are, I hope that you enjoy your lessons, enjoy success when you take your test, and then go on to have years of driving pleasure.

If you would like further information, why not take a look at my “Frequently Asked Questions” page?

Drive carefully. Stay safe.

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