Baby you can drive without a car

CD-Rom review; Sue James and Zoe Ryde test their skills off-road before taking the wheel for real
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Fun, fear and frustration are all part of the experience of learning to drive. Equally fraught, if not more so, is the responsibility of supervising a learner driver to give them vital hours of practice to supplement expensive driving lessons. What has this got to do with computers? Zoe Ryde is going on 17, and preparing to venture on to the roads. We tested software designed to make us safer drivers.

First on to the test track was The Official Driving Instructor, a CD- Rom from Europress, produced with the backing of the Motor Schools Association (MSA). This includes seven sections and has something to offer every road user. It starts with advice for pedestrians, and teaches the Green Cross Code in a way that is suitable for young children; it also has sections for cyclists and motorcyclists. The majority of the content is, however, aimed at car drivers.

Many of the ideas expounded in this program, such as the need for concentration when driving, seem very obvious. But when you are about to drive a car for the first time, or about to sit in the front passenger seat next to a learner driver, it is well worth rehearsing such basic principles. The presentation uses photographs, animations and plenty of video clips. Screens never contain more than a couple of paragraphs of text but a topic can have 20 or more pages.

A lot of the information in the main section, Car and Driving, is advice that is aimed at the complete novice, such as where the controls are to be found and how to use them correctly. Other sections, such as the ones on motorway driving and how to cope with bad weather conditions, have advice relevant to more experienced drivers. The section we would recommend all road users to study is the Defensive Driving section, where videos are used interactively to test your perception of hazards. The program also covers the legal requirements relating to owning, maintaining and driving a car, insurance and accidents and fitness to drive. There is comprehensive information on road signs with a customisable test to discover how well you recognise them.

The program also lets you prepare for the new theory test. It contains the Driving Standard Authority's entire database of 630 "official" questions - the ones used in the test itself.

The main difference between the simulated test and the real one, apart from using a computer rather than paper and pen, is that you can check your answers as you go along. I have to admit that while welcoming the theory test wholeheartedly I was somewhat uneasy about it. What if, as an experienced driver and likely to have to supervise teenage learners in the future, I was unable to pass it myself? It was a great relief to gain a good pass on the mock test.

The second CD-Rom is the HMSO's Driving Skills, written by the Driving Standards Agency, the people who conduct the driving tests. This is intended to complement official publications such as the Highway Code. It covers the main topics required to pass the new theory test, while practical driving situations, such as overtaking and junctions, are presented using animated drawings. You are given multiple choice questions, and get instant feedback. There is also a collection of 28 video clips showing driving situations from the driver's viewpoint, with multiple-choice questions about each. Once you have answered correctly there is an explanation to clarify the point being shown. We both felt the Videos section was the high point of this program, as it escaped from the wordy format of both the Lessons and Highway Code areas.

A number of multiple choice Chapter Tests are included in the program. These are intended to test your understanding of each of the lessons as you go along and your answers are commented on immediately - with a response of "Correct" for a right answer and a range from "Nearly", through "Wrong" to "Disaster" for an incorrect one. This program culminates in a Theory Test and here you'll find fairly realistic conditions - 40 minutes in which to answer 35 multiple choice questions and no answers as you go along. You are told your score as a percentage at the end and whether this is a pass (76 per cent or more correct) or a fail. To discover which questions you muffed, you can print out your test, to paper or to a file.

So in a comparative test how did Zoe and I rate the two programs? As a complete beginner, Zoe found Driving Instructor more relevant but thought that in a few months' time, when her test was looming, she would rely more on Driving Skills. My findings were complementary. Working through the Europress product was ideal preparation for sitting beside a new learner driver, but the HMSO one was more helpful in bringing me up to date on new regulations and practices that have been introduced or modified since I took my test.

Before driving off, two other resources are well worth a mention. If you have access to the Internet and want to see how you would fare at the new theory exam, then you can test your knowledge by visiting the British School of Motoring's HomePage and going to its Test Centre. Here you'll find samples of the questions and can have your answers marked.

Experienced drivers who want to develop their skills might be interested in a CD-Rom endorsed by the Institute of Advanced Motorists. The IMA administers a "second-level" driving test, which if you pass could give you cheaper insurance. The Driving Test: Your Licence to Drive helps with preparation for this. It takes the form of a quiz, with a bank of 550 questions from which you can choose various combinations. All the questions are multiple choice. Some make use of photographs, videos or animations to test your reaction to driving situations while others test your knowledge of road signs and markings. This proved an enjoyable and interesting challenge that seemed likely to succeed in its aim of developing the skills and attitudes required for safer, more considerate driving.

The Official Driving Instructor, pounds 29.99, Europress, 01625 859444. Driving Skills, pounds 24.95, HMSO, 0171 873 8236. The Driving Test: Your Licence to Drive, pounds 24.95, Polco Belcar, 0181 560 6405.