Learn to drive: all over again

When Jenny Powell's son crashed his car, it inspired both of them to take some advanced driving lessons

The day after my son's 18th birthday, he crashed his car. It seems to be a write-off but luckily he was unhurt. He failed to stop when a heavier vehicle in front of him braked suddenly at the entrance to a roundabout. The third-party insurance will not cover the damage to his car, so we are back to square one.

In an attempt to move forward in a positive way from this major set-back, I began investigating further driving courses, not only for my son but also for myself. As a driver of some 30 years' experience, I fall into the category of low-risk older drivers offered preferential rates by some insurers. My son, on the other hand, is at the opposite end of the scale and we can now see why. However, statistics indicate that, whereas women are less accident-prone almost all the way through their driving careers, following the age of 55 they represent about the same risk as men. I am fast approaching that risky age. The Driving Standards Authority (DSA), the branch of the Department of Transport responsible for regulating driving tests, has published a pack of guidelines which it will sell to DSA- approved driving instructors. The scheme is called Pass Plus, and is designed specifically for new drivers within the first year of passing their test.

A series of six lessons looks at a range of driving skills, including motorway and night driving. Motorways are famously uncharted territory for the learner driver, who is not permitted to venture on to them. Instead, most instructors will take their pupils on fast dual-carriageways with motorway-type slip roads and signs.

The novice driver is assessed throughout the course and if at the end he or she fulfils the required criteria, a report to this effect is sent by the instructor to the DSA who will issue the driver with a certificate. Possession of this may help to obtain a reduction in insurance premium, within a range of companies who have agreed to participate.

In my own case, a different approach is needed. Some of my driving practices may well be out of date, so it would be a good idea to have my driving assessed. There are a number of ways to do this.

The Institute of Advanced Motorists is probably the best known. It does not offer courses, only tests. These cost pounds 27 and membership of the institute is a further pounds 12.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) conducts an Advanced Driving Test, and can put candidates in touch with local groups who will help make an initial assessment. It is perhaps the most highly regarded advanced motoring organisation. Examiners hold a UK Police Class One driving qualification. The test, which costs pounds 29.38, can be passed at a number of levels, the highest of which, Gold or Silver, entitles the driver to membership of RoSPA. Bronze also qualifies the driver for membership but offers a free retake after one year. Ungraded offers a free retake three to six months following the initial test.

A third organisation, the Guild of Experienced Motorists (GEM), offers membership from pounds 13.50 to any driver with no endorsement for a serious driving offence. Members can avail themselves of breakdown recovery insurance for an extra fee. Driver assessments are also available, at a cost of pounds 35, using holders of Police Class One driving qualifications to carry out the tests.

Membership of all of theseorganisations should entitle drivers to reduced insurance premiums through participating insurers but, more importantly, it should improve their standard of driving.

Nevertheless, it would be unrealistic to enter for any of these tests without, at the very least, an assessment and probably a refresher course. Although learner drivers are the bread-and-butter of driving schools, most will happily take on the experienced driver. In the event, I booked my son's course and my own lessons through the AA who placed us with instructors in our area.

So it was that I got into the seat of an instructor's car this week, for my first driving lesson for more than 30 years. It was a nerve-racking experience as I realised just how much my driving habits would need to change were I to pass any of the available tests. Probably the most difficult element was reducing my use of gears when slowing down and changing up the gears much earlier than is my custom. Road position was not always correct and my habit of signalling, whether there was anyone around to see or not, was firmly discouraged.

Was I keeping a safe distance from the vehicle in front? The DSA recommends the following test: notice when the vehicle ahead passes a particular object, such as a lamp-post; at that moment say to yourself, "Only a fool breaks the two-second rule". If you reach the object before you finish the sentence, you are too close.

My first two-hour session took me through what is, for me, a typical day's driving with a three-point turn (failed) and reversing round a corner (not bad) thrown in. My instructor fired questions at me from the Highway Code but, having tested my son recently, I got most of them right.

I have no doubt that overall I should become a more aware and therefore safer driver after my series of lessons, but it is going to require a lot of concentration and practice before I put myself in for any of the advanced drivers' tests.

Meanwhile, my 18-year-old is scheduled for his first two hours of Pass Plus instruction this weekend. I wish him well.

Useful reading:

The Driving Manual by the Driving Standards Agency, published by HMSO; Road Sense and Advanced Driving both published by ROSPA; Roadcraft, the Police Drivers' Manual, published by HMSO.

Motoring organisations offering assessments:

Driving Standards Agency (for local instructors operating the Pass Plus scheme): 01602 474222.

Institute of Advanced Motorists: 0181 994 4403.

RoSPA Advanced Driver Assessment: 0121 706 8121

Guild of Experienced Motorists: 01342 825676.

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