Exactly 44 years ago today, I passed my driving test.
I was seventeen, and was being taught to drive by my Father. This was for two reasons. Firstly, in order to wean me off motorcycles, he offered to do it for free, and secondly, I had bought a car in which to learn.
My first car was a twelve-year-old Morris 1100 saloon. It was, in many respects, a great car to learn to drive in.
It was a simple machine, with no clever safety systems – apart from old fashioned lift latch buckle seat belts.
It didn’t even have any real “comfort” systems if you exclude the two-speed fan assisted heater.
Its front wheel drive made it easy to drive round the country lanes of Sussex where I grew up.
The Morris 1100 was quite revolutionary when it rolled off the production line in 1965. It used the new space-saving BMC-designed Hydrolastic suspension system.
To put it simply, this system replaced the springs and shock absorbers used in conventional cars with rubber bladders known as displacer units at each wheel.
The front and rear bladders on each side of the car were connected together with pipes and valves. When the front wheel encountered a bump in the road, it would force fluid from the front bladder to the rear bladder, which minimised the pitching of the car over bumpy roads.
It also had a brilliant side effect for a learner. It made hill starts really simple.
On a hill, with the parking brake applied, all one had to do was engage first gear, cover the brake pedal, and let the clutch up slowly. The vehicle would then gently rise up on the rear suspension. As soon as this happened, the handbrake could be removed without the car rolling backwards.
I must say it helped me considerably!
So, back to the point.
I had applied for my provisional driving licence and got it back in time for my 17th birthday. I had to buy my very first driving insurance policy out of my meagre apprentice pay, so it was a third party only policy.
I guess this was a bit of a calculated risk. I assumed that it was a little unlikely to spontaneously combust, and any self-respecting car thief would be horrified to steal such a shabby looking car – especially one that had a slightly Miss Marple image.
For my first lesson, it was decided that we would leave the house very early to avoid traffic as much as possible. We agreed that we would use quiet country roads to start with and then progress to busier streets and towns.
I jumped in the passenger seat, and we drove sedately to the south west edge of the town, heading for the village of Turners Hill.
Dad pulled over onto a layby at the right, and we swapped seats.
Crunching the gears, I kangarooed off on the start of my driving adventures – and all without the aid of dual controls!
An hour of driving up to the village, turning around, and driving back to the layby resulted in me being able to change up and down the gearbox, and smoothly pull away.
So, it continued. Practicing reversing into a parking bay on the Imberhorne industrial estate, reversing around a corner, and three-point turns. Hill starts without the car rolling backwards and crushing the matchbox that my father had placed behind the rear wheel.
Eventually, after a few months, Dad pronounced me ready for test, and so I applied. Crawley was the closest test centre, so in preparation I regularly drove the family over to Crawley for Saturday shopping, and was reasonably familiar with the place.
I eventually got my test date, which was the 2nd of February 1977. This was a Wednesday, and Dad couldn’t get leave to get me to the test centre.
Luckily, one of my Air Cadet friends who had passed his test the previous summer offered to take me.
My test was as simple as my car.
Upon arrival, I reported to the receptionist, and she asked me to take a seat. In due course, I met my examiner; he looked a little like Sherlock Holmes, complete with a deerstalker hat.
Having checked my provisional driving licence and my insurance documents, he asked me to read a nearby car number plate, which I did with ease. Not sure I could do it today without my varifocals!
Without further conversation, we got into my car, and I drove around Crawley, following his directions.
The emergency stop was for real, rather than him banging on the dashboard in accordance with his briefing. I was “making good progress” and driving at just under the posted 30 MPH limit, when a car suddenly pulled out of a side junction.
I slammed the brakes on, and the car rapidly came to a stop, without me locking any of the wheels up and skidding on the cold damp tarmac.
The deceleration forces were impressive. His clipboard shot into the footwell, and he pitched forwards. “Oh god” I thought, please don’t let the examiner break his nose on my car”
Luckily, he didn’t. Leaning back into his seat, he turned and smiled at me. “That was very good. I shan’t be asking you to do a further emergency stop.”
Having completed all the required test items, we drove back to the test centre, and he fished a folder out of his battered briefcase.
Flipping through the folder, he randomly selected road signs and marking and asked me what they represented.
I obviously answered correctly, as he ponderously got out of the car and trudged back to the warmth of the test centre.
He gravely started filling out a document. Was it a failure or pass certificate?
“Well done Mr. Charlwood. You have passed. Congratulations!”
So – I was one of the 40% of test applicants that passed their test first time!
I thanked him, and went to see Andy who was waiting patiently. “Well?” he enquired. “Am I driving back, or are you?”
“I am” I said proudly. We went to the car park, and ceremoniously ripped the L plates from my car, and I nonchalantly tossed them onto the back seat for disposal later.
We then drove to Brighton and back on the busy A23.
Just because we could!
However, things are very different now.
The driving test has metamorphosed into something much more complex. Hill starts and reversing round corners have been removed from the test, and navigating whilst driving using a GPS Satellite Navigation system has been included.
The almost casual theory questions used by my examiner in his ring binder are gone – replaced by a formal theory test, which is computer based.
The theory test also includes a hazard perception test, using 14 short video clips to establish whether the candidate has good recognition of developing hazards and risk assessment skills.
Bizarrely, (in my opinion) candidates may use vehicles that have hill start assistance systems.
In my world of professional aviation, skills tests are conducted using the equipment fitted to the aircraft, but candidates still have to demonstrate navigating or performing the required manoeuvres with the enhanced systems shut down, thus demonstrating that they can control their aircraft in all situations.
Having said that, my car is fitted with a hill start assist system and there is no means of disconnecting it. I guess thats the same in most current cars. Unless you know better?
I must add, somewhat smugly, that it never activates, because I was taught how to do a hill start using blended clutch and brake control.
The driving syllabus and the test upon which it is based unfortunately lags considerably behind the rapid development of Autonomous Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS).
To illustrate this, new drivers are not currently required to be taught the use of cruise control, or to recognise its limitations, and how to use it safely.
So, where do YOU place your feet when the cruise control is active and engaged?
I keep my foot over the accelerator. Some people I have driven with place both feet onto the floor.
I find this a little startling.
Simple risk assessment shows that it is possible to lose spatial awareness of where the pedals are in relation to the drivers’ feet. In an emergency, do you really, instinctively, know where the brake pedal is?
New vehicles are loaded with ADAS, and whilst many younger drivers may not be able to afford new cars, they should still be aware of the types of systems available. New drivers may be renting cars to which these devices are fitted, or be given a company car which has many safety systems fitted as standard.
Statistics show clearly that the highest risk groups for accidents are very young drivers (17-21), and the elderly (80+) both of whom may not have sufficiently developed judgement to ensure their safety.
Both groups are unlikely to be driving the latest cars which have the additional safety systems.
So maybe those that need a good understanding of ADAS and would benefit from the additional safety, are the drivers most unlikely to have a car fitted with it.
At some point the driving syllabus and the test will address these issues.
Until that time, all I can say is…
Drive defensively and learn as much as you can about the systems that YOUR car is fitted with.
Go well, and be safe!