Confessions of a driving instructor

From car-crashing pupils to the 64-year-old learner, our tame driving instructor dishes the dirt from his years of teaching people to drive and reveals the lessons other drivers can learn...

Most of us would like to consider ourselves to be competent drivers, having mastered all of the skills we were taught when we still had L plates.

UK driving test changes: what it means for learner drivers

Sadly, though, that's not always the case, and whether it's learner drivers causing accidents, or other road users who could use a refresher course, learning to drive is a process that doesn't stop once you pass your test.

We asked a former primary school teacher and now, for the past 12 years, Surrey-based independent driving instructor about his time spent teaching the next generation how to drive. Because he was speaking in a personal capacity, we are respecting his wish to remain anonymous.

*Pictures used are for illustrative purposes only

Part 1: the pupils

Man shouting at driving instructor

What annoys you about your pupils?

With the younger ones, it’s actually their parents that annoy me most. A typical problem is you agree to a couple of lessons a week so that progress isn't interrupted by too long a break, while mum or dad – most likely dad – is pushing to have the test date confirmed.

So the date comes through, and even if it’s only a couple of months away, they think their son or daughter now needs only half the number of lessons they agreed to, as if having the test date is job done.

What annoys you about your pupils? (Cont.)

Driving instructor and pupil

Of course, they think they’re saving money, but most times it’s a false economy and you have to cram many more lessons in as the test date approaches.

If I were in charge, I’d make it a requirement that a pupil has a minimum number of lessons – 30 hours, say – before being allowed to take their test. Of course, people would think instructors were just trying to line their own pockets, but it would actually save pupils money in the long run.

How have the attitudes of pupils changed over the years?

Learner driver on the phone to their instructor

Some modern pupils think you’re at their beck and call. They may have been out drinking the night before, so the following day – maybe an hour before their lesson – they ring to cancel, expecting you to slot them in later the same day. It doesn’t work like that; I have other pupils to teach, I tell them.

What’s the biggest mistake that pupils make?

Learner driver looking flustered

They can’t help it, but when they start, they’re totally overwhelmed by the car and the controls to the extent that they pay little attention to the road. They’re a danger, actually, and I often have to intervene.

What’s the biggest mistake that pupils make? (Cont.)

Driving instructor and pupil

Eventually, they relax but then swing the other way, driving at hazards rather than anticipating them and giving themselves time and space.

What’s the worst mistake a pupil has made?

Bombastic middle-aged father berating their daughter

Actually, it wasn’t her fault but her parents (again). She was close to home and had seen her dad getting into his car. I checked around and told her it was safe to stop and have a quick chat with him. They wound down their windows, but the father immediately had a go at her for what he thought was parking dangerously

What’s the worst mistake a pupil has made?

Crash-damaged cars: everything you need to know

This really upset her. He pulled away and as he did so, she did, too, but in her stressed state, she bashed the car into her father’s. It cost me my £400 insurance excess to get my car repaired.

How old is your oldest pupil?

New exam for pre-learner drivers on way

One of my oldest pupils was a 64-year-old man called Frank. He’d actually been driving for 30 years but often on his own on a provisional licence. Obviously he’d been breaking the law and would have been uninsured too. Anyway, he got away with it somehow and in all that time was never caught speeding or stopped by the police.

But then Frank's wife passed away, and around the same time he developed Parkinson’s disease. He had to get himself to hospital appointments, so he thought he should finally get his full licence. He passed his test first time, but I learned that six months later he died.

Who has taken the longest to pass their test?

Learner drive in Peugeot 1007

Actually, she never did. It was a young lady who was a good learner and a competent driver, but when it came to the test, she just fell apart.

Who has taken the longest to pass their test? (Cont.)

UK driving test changes: what it means for learner drivers

She took the test four times before giving up completely. Examiners didn't help much in those days. They could be aloof and make candidates nervous, but they’re much friendlier now and more open, which relaxes the driver a little, although not to the extent of distracting them.

Part 2: other drivers

BMW X5 menacing a Ford Fiesta

What gets your goat about other drivers?

There’s no question that the roads are getting busier and that drivers are becoming more impatient with everyone, not least learner drivers. They rush right up behind the pupil and stay there, harassing them. A classic example is where the pupil is at a T-junction or traffic lights.

What gets your goat about other drivers? (Cont.)

Learner driver looking nervous

They’re already keyed up, but the cars behind give them no space, even on a slope when they could roll back, and then one of them will lean on the horn if the pupil is slow to pull away. That panics the pupil, who stalls the car and the whole thing kicks off again.

What are the worst mistakes drivers make?

Roundabout

Not signalling correctly at roundabouts is one. Traffic would flow so much better if people used their indicators properly so that other drivers knew where they were going. The other is the way drivers speed everywhere – dashing up to junctions, braking hard and then having to stop unnecessarily, rather than looking ahead, anticipating, planning and creating a safe space around themselves.

What are the worst mistakes drivers make? (Cont.)

UK motorway

Only recently, at the M3/M25 intersection near London, the outside lane was closed off, forcing cars into the remaining lanes, but that wasn’t enough for one driver whom I saw peel off onto the grass strip, undertaking everyone to get ahead.

Part 3: the job

Ford Fiesta with 'L' plates

What car do you teach in?

It’s a Ford Fiesta 1.5 TDCi diesel. Over the years, I’ve had four, plus four Vauxhall Corsas. Like all of them, my current Fiesta is reliable, easy to drive and economical.

What car do you teach in? (Cont.)

Problem Audi A1 keeps driving instructor off the road

Flashier cars like the Audi A1 are becoming popular with driving schools, but I think it’s a fad and they’re just doing it to attract attention. I prefer to teach people in the sort of first car they’re likely to drive after they’ve passed their test.

What car do you drive when you aren't teaching?

Used Land Rover Discovery 2

Not a Fiesta, but it is a diesel: a Land Rover Discovery 2.5 TDI. I'm a keen fisherman and it’s perfect for all my fishing equipment.

What do you enjoy about your job?

Learner driver

I love teaching and helping someone with no experience to achieve a high standard. So, in driving terms, that’s taking someone who has never driven a car and taking them to beyond the pass standard. It’s much easier to teach someone with no experience than a person who has a little and thinks they know it all.

The part I don't enjoy is when someone fails their test. You beat yourself up, asking yourself what you could have done differently to help them through it. I take it quite personally.

Who are easier to teach: women or men?

Driving instructor with male student

Women tend to be more nervous behind the wheel, but they listen more closely and aren't embarrassed to ask questions.

Most men will have experience of their mates’ cars; they might even have had a turn at the wheel. They arrive at their first lesson much more confident than women. As a result, however, they don't listen so well and tend to rush off. It means they miss the important details that examiners are watching for, so they can take longer to teach to pass standard.

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