Article reproduced with the kind permission of the Slough, Langley & Windsor Observer
Observer sub-editor Andy Stiff first passed his driving test more than 12 years ago. Now, 250,000 miles later he is taking his test again - and failed. Andy reports here how more changes are planned for future drivers and how driving instructor Paul Kirkpatrick made Andy's life L on wheels.
August 17, 1994 was a dark day for British motoring. It wasn't the first appearance of the dreaded speed camera it was far worse - a driving examiner who frankly should have known better, declared me fit at the second time of asking to drive on our nation's highways.
I still remember the elation on hearing those magical words and the thought of endless roads quite literally opening up to me. Since then I have clocked up, at a very rough guess, around 250,000 miles - the equivalent of going around this planet's surface ten times or driving to the moon.
I have an almost flawless driving record but (and this doesn't sound good) I honestly don't know the exact number of prangs I've had. Nothing too serious, but it includes a coming together with the curved wall outside the Observer offices which jumped out at me, both times.
It was a good time to get the opinion of a driving expert as to how years of flawlessly-crafted bad habits stand up in today's test environment. Mirrors? Not so much now the looks are going. Indicators? Strictly optional, anyway that's my wife's department. This was going to be interesting.
So into the expert hands of Paul Kirkpatrick, a driving instructor of three-and-a-half years standing who has run Clearway Driver Training for just over two years.
What has changed in the test since 1994? Well there is the theory test which came in 2 years later. The choice of manoeuvres I had to tackle - turn in the road, parallel park, reverse around a corner - now have 'park in a bay' for company. There is also a practical test to check you know how your car works.
We went through the preliminaries and head towards the Red (Mad) Cow roundabout in Slough. A little bit of cutting in needed and onto Upton Court Road, into some side streets in the company of other learners honing their skills.
Parallel parking was my first manoeuvre and, remarkably, went quite well, no kerbs or cars hit. Reversing around the corner was a little nervy. Still at least I didn't hit the kerb or the person foolish enough to have parked in that road.
I felt I was giving a decent drive until we hit Datchet via London Road approaching The Green. I momentarily forgot the forgiving Fiesta I drive has learned over time to forgive its master his poor gear selections not so Paul's Skoda. I stalled on the roundabout.
The verdict? I totalled 13 faults (up to 15 minor ones are allowed). My first mistake was allowing the car to roll back, when leaving the office. So did I fail after 100 yards?
"No that was not serious. However, when we got to the roundabout your lane discipline was pretty awful," Paul sugar-coated it.
I'd failed less than a quarter of a mile from my start point. He went on: "You were going too fast on Upton Court Road. The reverse parking was very good. The reverse round the turn you really didn't go back far enough."
"Emergency stop it was a little bit like 'okay maybe I will kill that kid' and a roundabout isn't the best place to stall."
It begged the question I really didn't want to ask: Am I a useless driver? "No, not at all," Paul reassured me. "You are competent, confident and in control of the car but you are not being trained to pass a driving test."
"With a couple of lessons you'd be back up to that standard and would probably pass with about a dozen faults."
A lot of my driving is thrashing up and down the M40 (strictly within the speed limit, mind). Should there be a motorway driving element in the test?
"Absolutely," said Paul. "It's crazy that someone who can pass a driving test can be driving on a motorway that same day. You are travelling at much higher speeds and need to have spacial awareness. I'd like to see a graduated test to take motorway driving into account. I also think there should be a restriction in the power of car you can have a first, like with motorbikes."
"But the DVSA (Driver & Vehicle Standards Agency) has a very difficult job and does it well. It's not a job I would want to do."
With this in mind, Clearway offers Pass Plus aimed at those who have recently passed. It is around another six hours of training which covers all aspects of driving such as motorways, night driving and all-weather driving.
Those who complete the course get a certificate from the DVSA which is a very handy bargaining chip when getting insurance for the first time.
There are changes afoot in the test system. Results could soon be coming via post to stop the temptation to attack the examiner (around 350 cases per year). Other ideas suggested include extending the driven test from around 35-40 minutes to an hour, making the theory test longer as well as a mandatory 100 hours driving with a professional instructor.
Paul thinks the last idea is ludicrous given the cost (more than £2000 at local rates) and availability of instructors although he would make it compulsory to have some level of professional instruction.
He was delightful company and did not appear too scared by his chauffeur but a little relieved I spared the story about the wall until we said our farewells.
Clearway Driver Training is also looking for a qualified instructor in automatic gearboxes. I'm tempted to apply - those cars are harder to stall, aren't they?
For more details on Clearway Driver Training and Pass Plus call 01753 583038 or visit the website www.clearway-driver-training.com