Motoring: Having a testing time

The Institute of Advanced Motorists takes ordinary bad drivers and turns them into angels of the highways. Boy racer Michael Booth tries to join its select club but is judged to be no better than Mr Magoo
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I am on my way to take my advanced driving test, over an hour late and completely unprepared. The more the traffic thwarts my progress towards the test centre, the more conscious I am of the time. I visualise a dozen or so scowling ex-policemen (who are the test's examiners) tapping their truncheons into the palms of their hands, my stomach tightens. I jump two red lights. At Ham-mersmith, I decide that the 30mph speed limit only applies to the elderly; I even, within sight of the test centre, try to drive the wrong way down a one-way street. That I made it to the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) Chiswick headquarters without killing myself or anyone else was a bonus for all involved.

To the IAM's chief examiner, Brian Lunn, this scenario is all too familiar. "You were under pressure and your risk threshold naturally went up," he explained, once breathless apologies had been made. "You knew you were late and so the amount of risk you were prepared to tolerate increased." This is a classic route to road rage apparently, but motoring-related violence often has a more complex catalyst in the attitude of the driver, which is a central focus of the IAM's approach. "Road rage tends to be about competing for a particular piece of road space - at least that's the trigger," says Lunn. "But the cause is very often the row you had before you left home. "We're in our secure little bubble when we drive our cars, it's almost an extension of our home. It's warm with comfortable seats and music; we forget it's only thin metal and glass and that the only contact with the road is less than a square foot of rubber. Among other things, the IAM encourages systematic driving, the old 'mirror, signal, manoeuvre' and so on. To my observation, most people do 'manoeuvre, signal, then check in the mirror to see what sort of chaos they've caused'."

Brian spent 32 years in the force, finishing as commandant of the Police Driver Training School at Hendon, so he could be considered one of the safest drivers in the country, but even he, encouragingly for the rest of us, admits to speeding on the odd occasion: "I try not to, but I can't put my hand on my heart and say I have never broken the speed limit. I love going fast, but it's knowing when to go fast, and when not to. We like to think that safe driving is not just pottering about being ultra careful and seeing threats and dangers in every possible situation. It's being aware of the potential threats. When we say 'advanced' we don't mean stunt driving either, it's just safe, sensible progress in a car."

Safe and sensible as it might be, the IAM's test is also the most exacting road-safety examination a driver can undergo. It takes place over a 40-mile drive, including sections on city and country roads and motorway, during which your car control, observational skills and attitude to other road users are assessed by a cur-rent or retired police driver.

The IAM sees its purpose as developing what members have learnt up to the point of passing the standard driving test, because, let's face it, learning to drive is all about getting that precious licence and very little to do with actually learning how to drive a car well. Though statistics actually show a slight decline in accidents over recent years (due mainly to increased congestion and more motorway driving), the figures are still enough to put you off opening your garage door in the morning: last year there were 3,621 deaths and 306,885 injuries on our roads; two out of five of us will be injured in a road accident before the age of 70; 95 per cent of accidents are caused by human error (or a problem with "the nut behind the steering wheel" as Brian puts it). All of this is partly explained by one further statistic: that 16 per cent of us can't even see well enough to drive safely.

None of the examiners at the IAM's 190 test centres are paid (the organisation is a charity). They are largely motivated by the fact that, as ex-traffic police, most have witnessed the aftermath of these statistics in the flesh. "They've been involved in dealing with traffic accidents that they know shouldn't have happened," says Brian. "I've pulled the people out of motor cars and I've seen ... Well, I've gone with their mum or dad or wife or husband to the mortuary and had to ask, 'Is this your husband?' That concentrates the mind."

The IAM was founded just over 40 years ago and has over 100,000 members. Each month 800 people pass the test but the majority are male and of a certain age, which lumbers the IAM with an image problem. If I had to draw a picture of an IAM member he'd probably be driving an unnaturally shiny Austin Allegro Vanden Plas (slowly), with numerous club badges on the grill, boiled sweets in the glove box, and wearing a tweed cap over his grey-haloed bald spot. I'd be wrong, or at least partly wrong. A quarter of IAM members are women and more young drivers are taking the test than ever before; the organisation is always keen to stress that advanced driving is most definitely not about pottering along the motorway at 50mph. As it turns out, this was probably the only mistake I didn't make during my test.

The test itself turned out to be surprisingly enjoyable, due entirely to the soothing manner of my examiner, Trevor Poxon. Once safely back in Chiswick, Trevor, with the polite compassion of a priest in a confessional, gently drew my attention to a few short-comings in my driving. "Use of the mirrors is the first thing. I say mirrors in the plural because you have got a selection to choose from. You tend to be a point-and-squirt merchant. A little bit of that isn't bad, but you've got to temper it. You've got this get up and go attitude; I like to see a little bit of the boy racer in a driver, but don't use the horn as a rebuke. With a little training and in your own car you could have passed."

I suppose it came as little surprise to me, or anyone who has endured a journey with me at the wheel, that I failed. In my defence, I will say that prior to taking any of the IAM'S tests (they also have examinations for motorcyclists, commercial vehicle drivers and a towing test) candidates usually have three or four two-hour drives with examiners to iron out any potential flaws. With this guidance, 94 per cent of candidates pass. Without it, that same percentage fail. Oh, and I was driving someone else's car, which had a duff gearbox. And the sun was low. And it was Tuesday.

Well, whatever my seething bitterness at being exposed as no better a driver than Mr Magoo, there is no denying that the IAM is one of those irrefutably "good things". With road accident figures as apocalyptic as those in the UK, motorists need all the help and instruction they can get. Isn't it about time that the car insurance industry recognised that IAM members have 50 to 70 per cent fewer accidents than other drivers and offered them the incentive of lower premiums?

! Institute of Advanced Motorists can be contacted on 0181 994 4403. Membership: pounds 39, of which pounds 27 is the test fee and pounds 12 the first year's membership. The pounds 12 is refundable if you fail the test.