MOTORING / Could you pass the A-level driving test?: A select band of motorists has set its own high driving standards. Jonathan Sale finds that joining the elite isn't as easy as it seems

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THE other day my 17-year-old son passed his driving test. I have just failed mine.

Fortunately I can still drive around legally - without L-plates and by myself. It was not the official test I took, but a voluntary examination conducted by the Institute of Advanced Motorists. IAM is a 103,000-strong body with a rigorous entry qualification: new members must pass its 90-minute driving test which is based on a police handbook.

If the L-test is the GCSE, the Institute's is A-level. More than 245,000 drivers have passed since it was founded in 1956. 'A motor vehicle can be far more dangerous than a firearm,' said Ted Clements, the chief examiner, when I talked to him at IAM's office in West London. 'There are only six shots in a .38 pistol. But a car can be a lethal weapon at any time.'

Robert van Dissell is the Institute's marketing manager. 'It's all very well saying 'It's the other bugger's fault',' he explained. 'You need to know what you've been doing as well.' To discover what I have been doing wrong over the past 19 years, I went for a 35-mile run in town and on the motorway with deputy chief examiner John Trafford. Sensible candidates are coached for the test by their local IAM group. Foolishly, I had done no revision.

'Don't worry about me writing - not all will be bad,' he said as he took out his notebook. He stuck his own rear-view mirror to the windscreen of my car. 'A few ground rules,' he began. 'I'm looking for a safe, smooth, planned drive which must at all times be legal, although I shall expect you to use the potential of the car when weather, traffic conditions and speed limits allow.' In other words, you can't expect to pass by crawling everywhere at 29mph.

First, a question about road signs: 'What is the meaning of a circle with a black bar through it?' Let me think. No Smoking in Tunnel? Got it: 'National Speed Limit Applies,' I answered. I also know that for cars this is 70mph on dual carriageways and 60 on single carriageway roads.

I manoeuvred out of the car park without scraping anyone's paint (good), looked carefully for oncoming traffic (good) and proceeded smoothly to the first traffic lights. What, I suddenly wondered, is the approved, Advanced way of changing gear? A dim memory told me that you are not supposed to cruise to a halt in fourth, so I changed through third, second and first - not a good move, as it turned out.

The lights changed and I edged forward. Another crisis loomed: I would have to overtake a slow-moving lorry. I recalled that the correct procedure is summed up by the mantra 'Mirror, signal, manoeuvre', but generally I did them in the opposite order.

This time I stared ostentatiously into the mirror, glared into the wing-mirror and swivelled my head round to the right. Nothing behind for miles. By this time I was practically up the truck's exhaust and, at the last moment, I swerved out into the outside lane. Pretty neat, no? (No, it turned out.)

We reached a roundabout. Taking no chances, I braked and slowed down through the gears, surveyed the far horizon to my right and inched forward to the second exit. But should you hug the inside of the roundabout or cling to the outside? I straddled both lanes. Mr Trafford started another sheet of notes.

Down the A4 we bowled towards Heathrow, took a left at the Langley roundabout on to the B470 and kept going towards Datchet. In a narrow side-street, I was put through my paces, with 'reverse parking' and a three- point turn. All fairly competently done, apart from the odd thump of my tyres on the curb. Then we carried on to Wraysbury, followed by the town centre of Staines. After that it was the M25 (entering motorways has never been one of my strong points) and the M3 (nor is switching motorways).

'What was the last sign we passed?' Mr Trafford enquired at this point. 'A little man with a wheelbarrow,' I replied. That was true as far as it went, but he had in mind the 'No Hard Shoulder' notice the size of an advertisement hoarding.

I was caught out again on the A316, this time by a blue Vauxhall Cavalier which suddenly materialised in front of my bonnet. Yet this was predictable, as Mr Trafford remarked later: the lunatic in the car was overtaking me at a point where the two outside lanes were cordoned off by several cones just ahead: 'Where did you expect him to end up?'

Definitely my least Advanced manoeuvre was a left turn into a Chiswick back street right at the end of the course: 'A learner would have failed on that: too fast, too wide and over the white line.' Still, it could have been worse. We did complete the course, which is more than some candidates manage.

But, Mr Trafford explained gently, I earned low marks for planning my next move on the road. I should be swifter at roundabouts, and think about my 'bend work' and 'hazard recognition'. He complimented me on my parking and reversing; but pointed out that, these days, the Theory of Applied Traffic Light Halts is that you stick to whatever gear you are in, unlike me. Then the examination results.

'I am terribly sorry, but it means that you don't come up to our level,' he said. 'It is a high standard.'

It is a standard which should be made compulsory (although the Institute disagrees, mindful of the official bureaucracy that would be involved). I had learned a lot merely by taking the test, and next time I shall have the benefit of coaching from my nearest IAM group. But first, I had to go home to revise the basic points of the Highway Code.

'I think I'd better walk,' I said.

The Institute of Advanced Motorists is at 359 Chiswick High Road, London W4 4HS (081-994 4403). Tests cost pounds 25, plus pounds 12 membership.

(Photograph omitted)