Confessions of a driving instructor – passing the test

As an instructor, it’s important to me that I don’t just get people through their practical test – but I know that everyone gets nervous about it. So here’s what I think you need to know to get through it.

No driving instructor has a 100% pass rate

By Jim Doran

I’ve been a driving instructor for 20-odd years, with Lanes School of Driving – one of London’s largest independent schools. 

The Theory Test

I have an unpopular opinion about the Theory Test – I would take the hazard perception section out. I think it’s just a video game. I know some students who would score well on the hazard perception test that would miss a pedestrian in front of the car. It bears no resemblance to reality. I’ve had students who spent time practicing for it before lessons who were so thrown by it that they couldn’t drive at all – everything was a hazard. I had to tell one student not to practice it for 24 hours before our lessons. 

I went to go practice for the test with several other driving instructors, because we were forced to take it, and we all failed. We were spotting hazards way too early for the window of opportunity the machine gives you – but that’s our job! 

Show me, tell me

The practical test has 14 potential questions where you might have to either show or tell the examiner something about the car. They all relate to, simply put, the fluids. It’s not about having a degree in mechanical engineering, it’s just about why it’s important to check these fluids, and the potential danger if you don’t. That’s what I do with my students – once they hear the word ‘danger’, it’s a piece of cake.

No coolant, brake fluid, washer fluid, or engine oil? Ultimately, you’ll probably crash and/or have to buy a new car. Is it legal what they’re driving, is it safe? Because they need to know that, don’t they? So it’s not just another thing on the test, it’s important. And I’m a complete advocate.

When parallel parking goes wrong

When it comes to parking, a lot of instructors try to teach their students their own particular method, and if they don’t park the way they taught them, they get the hump. I don’t care how you park your car, provided you park it safely. Because the driving test examiner’s not looking at some rigid routine – he or she is just thinking, ‘Can you park your car safely?’ 

Most people fail not for hitting the kerb, but for not taking effective observation when they’re conducting the manoeuvre. That’s usually because they’re concentrating so hard on what they’re doing that they simply forget. 

I taught a young lady a year or two ago who told me she struggled with parallel parking. I asked her to show me how she did it, so I could work out how to help her. It took about half an hour, and it was abysmal. I said, ‘Can you please explain to me what you’re trying to do?’ Well, my God. I promise you, you needed a degree in nuclear physics to work out what on Earth the process was. I couldn’t understand it, so how could anyone expect her to? 

Trust me: you could actually get away with a lot during a manoeuvre on your driving test, provided you were safe. The question is, are you safe enough to start that journey to getting better?

Of course, every instructor tries to teach students to pull up next to the vehicle and park in one go, but if you walk outside now I will guarantee that 99 out of 100 will not get in the space in one go. What’ll they do? They’ll have a little shunt, won’t they? Well, the examiner’s quite happy for you to have a little shunt, as long as you’re safe, and that’s how it ought to be. You get a minimum of two car lengths to park in on the test, and they don’t expect perfection. 

Failing your driving test

There are no instructors with a 100% pass rate. The main reason my students fail the first time is not taking observation. For example, they come out of a junction, but they didn’t look properly first. 

I think the inherent problem is what I call ‘Favourite Syndrome’. This is important: it’s a fact of life, and if anyone says different, they’re lying. There are some students you teach that you get on with more than others. You like them, you have a rapport with them, and it’s fun, and it’s just a human trait that you don’t want them to make mistakes. Because they’re you’re favourite, and you want them to get out of the car and think ‘Wow, my god that Jim’s the best, he’s brilliant that Jim, he’s absolutely fantastic.’ 

You think you’re doing them a favour, but you’re not. It’s so easy to fall into, but you end up not picking on them as much. And then they’re surprised when they don’t pass.

Crashing the car

In 20 years, I’ve had 4 impacts during lessons – and not one of them has been my student’s fault. The reason being that if I’m doing my job, there’s no reason why my student should be involved in a collision. 

I try to stay off the dual controls in a lesson unless it’s absolutely necessary, because it really knocks my students’ confidence. It’s really the last thing I want to do. I leave it until I believe there’s danger and then I really have to. 

If you’re in a collision during your practical test, what happens next depends on the extent of the damage. It’s at the discretion of the examiner. If it was just a little touch and there’s no physical damage to you or the car, it could continue – but by and large, the examiner will abort the test in the interest of public safety. 

Then they invite the student to either walk back – and I mean walk back – to the test centre. It could be 5 miles away. Or they say to the student, ‘Okay, you can stay in the vehicle, I’m off!’ And you need to telephone your driving instructor so they can come and pick you up.

A case of nerves

When a test gets aborted, people often use nerves as an excuse. That does happen, but not as often as people make out. I’m sorry – you failed because you did something unsafe. I don’t care what your mum said, I don’t care what your dad said – listen to Uncle Jim for a minute. When we book your test, it’s because you’re ready. You’re able to drive a car. 

The test is 40 minutes long. But in reality, the examiner checks your documents, checks your eyesight, and because you’re on public roads it takes 5 minutes to get to the car, you sit in the car and talk about the test, you sort out the satnav, you do a manoeuvre. So that’s at least 10 minutes gone – you’re not driving more than half an hour. And in that half an hour you’re allowed to commit 15 driving faults. Simple maths tells you that’s a driving fault every two minutes. 

Why do they allow it? For two reasons: number one is they know you’re a novice driver. You’re not experienced. Number two is, they know you’re nervous. The examiner knows those two things and they haven’t even seen the student before. So that’s why they allow it – and if that doesn’t explain how much tolerance there is, nothing will.

Blaming the examiner

My students often say to me, ‘Jim, I hope I get a nice one.’ The bottom line is, it’s not a date. This guy is just here to assess whether you’re safe to be on the road or not. He doesn’t expect you to be good because of the reasons I explained to you earlier, but he sure as hell expects you to be safe. 

You drive safely, you pass the driving test. You don’t drive safely, you don’t pass. To say so-and-so examiner wasn’t very friendly – to be honest with you, how many people do you know that you can truly say every single day are in a great mood? So why on Earth would you expect a driving examiner to be different? We breathe the same air. Well, don’t blame them all the time. Do your job. Show up.

If you’re safe, he’s going to give you a bit of plastic that says you are safe to begin your journey. The perception is, ‘Well, I’ve now got my licence, I’m done.’ No – that’s the start of your journey. Then as you go along, you will get more experience, and you’ll learn, and you’ll learn from your mistakes. It’s like anything in life.

How did we end up blaming the examiners? Well, say my student’s failed. I still want to be Mr Nice Guy, yeah? I don’t want you thinking, ‘Well did you cover that enough, Jim? Did Jim do his job?’ I want this heat taken off me straightaway. So I turn around and say to you, ‘Oh, you got Mr Bloggs. He fails everyone, Mr Bloggs. He’s a real nightmare.’ Right? Now you tell your friends about Mr Bloggs, don’t you? Before we know it, Mr Bloggs, who could be the nicest bloke on planet Earth, is Attila the Hun. I’m deflecting away from Jim, who still wants to be Mr Nice Guy. The fact is that possibly I haven’t done what I should be doing. 

My key advice

The best bit of advice that I’ll give anyone, which I give to my own students, is be natural. Do not change – and this is my key tip, full stop – do not change anything about how you drive because the examiner is sat beside you. My students think to themselves, ‘I’m not going to do this, because the examiner’s in the car. I’m going show this examiner how safe I am.’ Well, then they start going too slow! But they’re SAFE. Well, they’re not! They’re a menace! 

They don’t stick to their instincts, they want to somehow do it differently because they’ve got an examiner in the car. If you can do it correctly, why change it? But they do, they feel compelled because he or she’s there, and that’s my bit of advice. I never ever say to any of my students, ‘Don’t be nervous.’ What’s the point? It just doesn’t work. ‘Oh hold on – my driving instructor said don’t be nervous! Right, nerves are gone, thanks Jim!’.