Confessions of a driving instructor – learning to drive

I’ve been a driving instructor for 20-odd years. After all that time teaching, I’ve been there, I’ve seen it, and I’ve got the t-shirt. Here are some of the most common issues my students have learning to drive.

What students get wrong, and how to fix it

By Jim Doran

What’s really important to me as an instructor at Lanes School of Driving, is that I teach people to drive, not to get through a driving test. My students need to be safe on the roads, not just survive 40 minutes with an examiner in which they’re allowed to commit up to 15 driving faults. 

I prefer getting students who have never driven a car before in their lives, because otherwise I’ve got to spend so much time un-teaching them. If I had a pound for every time someone said to me, ‘My previous instructor said…’ I would be a multimillionaire by now. But I don’t blame the student. 

Here are some of the most common issues my students have learning to drive:

Negotiating roundabouts

There’s a massive problem with roundabouts: the perception that they’re really, really difficult. People talk to their friends and say things like, ‘Oh, wait till you get to roundabouts, oh my God!’ There are all these horror stories. So by the time the instructor picks up the student, they’re already thinking, ‘Roundabouts – they’re so scary!’ 

Another problem with roundabouts is the way students are taught to handle them. Particularly with other instructors – and I’m not saying they’re wrong – the focus is on what’s on the student’s right, because they’ve got priority. But they’re not focusing on slowing down sufficiently as they approach the roundabout and evaluating at the same time, so when they’ve got there they have to virtually stop the car and then look. That’s no good to anybody. You’ve got to look for what I call a blocker as you approach – something that’s going to stop your vehicle – and slow down accordingly. If any cars you see aren’t blockers, you don’t have to worry about them.

Drifting in the road

There’s a plethora of mistakes new drivers will make – the key is to stop them from forming the habit in the first place. Let’s take drifting as an example. They’re driving along the road and looking at the dividing line in the middle, because they’re focused on keeping to their side. So they drift. This is a classic problem. They’re looking at the lines – and it’s a proven scientific fact that the hands follow the eyes. That means if you’re staring at the line, you’re going to drift toward it. 

I say to them, from lesson 1, ‘Don’t look down at the road.’ Because their instinct is ‘I’d better look down at the road.’ Don’t let them fall into that trap in the first place. I tell them I need them to be looking as far down the road as they can see, and explain the problem with looking down at the road, and they don’t do it. 

Learning to parallel park

The first rule of parallel parking is which way you want to steer. And what students get all confused about, primarily, is which way to steer. Because what they’re thinking about is the front of the vehicle. But if you think about the front of the vehicle, it’s going to go pear-shaped. Because you’re driving the back of the car, not the front. When you drive the car forwards, do you ever worry about the back of the car? No – it just comes along. Well, apply the same logic.

So, first, you need to steer the car the way you want it to go. If you don’t let the back of the car come in enough before you steer the other way, you’re going to be wide – too far from the kerb. And if you let the back of the car come in too much before you do anything about it, you’re going to hit the kerb. So something needs to tell you when the back of the car is in far enough to turn the wheel. That something is what I call the edge: it could be a dropped driveway, it could be a kerb, it could be a grass verge. It’s something you want to park alongside. Simply put, when you’re reversing, you’ll see the edge in your wing mirror, and at some point it will disappear from your mirror. That’s just told you that the back of your car is in, and it’s time to lock the wheel – turn it the most it will turn in the other direction – and the car will park itself. As if by magic. Then straighten the wheels, and you’re in. 

Driving with Mum and Dad

I’m a big advocate of driving practice – like anything else, if you practice, you’ll improve. But there are a lot of issues to consider. As an instructor, I have to take into account whether the student is ready, and who they’ll be driving with. What are they like? How many years have they been driving? 

I structure things so that when my students go out for a drive with Mum or Dad, they have a goal and don’t go somewhere that’s out of their comfort zone. There’s no substitute for experience and practice, but it has to be structured. 

If practice drives aren’t structured, chances are the student will either be overwhelmed and set back, or they won’t get anything out of it. As an instructor, the difference between me giving someone a lesson and taking them for a drive is structure.

Motorway driving

I take my students on the motorway now since the law changed, allowing learners on the motorway in a dual control vehicle with a qualified driving instructor. And I say to all my students after the test: whatever you do, please don’t go on the M25 until you’ve rung me up – I don’t care if it’s in 5 years’ time, ring me up. Do yourself a favour, have a motorway lesson.

You might get away with things at 30 miles an hour, but you don’t get away with things at 70. And it’s the leaving and joining parts of this, right – which is a skill that you miss. There’s doughnuts on the M25. And they need to know what to look for to seriously reduce the chances of anything untoward happening to them.

I haven’t talked about the practical test much here, and I don’t in my lessons either. That’s because if I’m booking your practical, you’re ready – you know how to drive. And trying to drive extra safe or do anything differently on the day of the test is a recipe for disaster. So I always wait to talk about the test until it’s time to go to the test centre.