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MOTORING / On the straight and narrow with Dave in the driving seat: Britain's new chief driving examiner is a genial sportsman who tries to steer clear of the fast lane. Phil Llewellin met him

CHECK mirrors, signal in good time, position car correctly and match speed to conditions. Run another visual check, then turn left into the car park. On my drive to central Nottingham to see Dave Norris, I was playing it by the book - the new, 330-page Driving Manual.

If we are to believe the opening scenes of the Driving Standards Agency's excellent new video, Your Driving Test, driving examiners are widely regarded as malevolent beings dredged from the darkest depths of an Alfred Hitchcock nightmare.

Mr Norris, as Britain's new chief driving examiner, might therefore be expected to be an ogre, watching from his office window, fangs bared and clutching a bloody axe, in case the visitor revs his engine at a pedestrian crossing or lets a wheel stray into a bus lane.

The reality is a smiling man of 50 who is fond of squash, swimming and badminton and is licensed to drive everything from tiny mopeds to the biggest lorries. He inherited the professional interest from his father, who spent 22 years as a driving examiner after leaving the Army, where he had been a driving instructor and a member of its first motorcycle display team. The genes have been passed on, because Dave Norris's son is a Metropolitan Police driver.

The future chief examiner passed his test at the first attempt when he was 18, at the wheel of his father's Morris Minor, worked briefly as an apprentice draughtsman, then did several driving jobs - involving lorries and buses - before becoming a basic-grade examiner in Edinburgh in 1973. He now heads a team whose 1,500 examiners (only 117 of whom are women) operate from 510 centres scattered between the Isles of Scilly and the Shetlands. In the past year they have tested almost 1.9 million car drivers and 90,000 motorbike riders, plus 70,000 truckers and 10,000 bus drivers.

The pass rate has hovered close to 50 per cent for many years, despite an enormous increase in traffic. Reasons include the emphasis now placed on taking lessons with approved driving instructors, of whom there are about 33,000 on the standards agency's register. They are estimated to give some degree of tuition to about 95 per cent of L-test candidates.

The car test has changed remarkably little since it was introduced in 1935, when Leslie Hore-Belisha was minister of transport. He was also responsible for the 30mph limit in built-up areas and for what were dubbed the Belisha beacons at pedestrian crossings.

Mr Norris believes that certain aspects of the test could be improved, a view shared by test candidates and instructors, according to a recent survey conducted for the DSA. Although the majority regarded the existing test as satisfactory, there was a strong feeling that it should be expanded to embrace such things as motorway driving and a written or oral examination.

'The theory element could be increased,' says Mr Norris. 'The view in the past has always been that the test is a test of practical driving ability. There are only five questions about the Highway Code and six traffic signs to be identified. The minister is currently considering proposals to change that. It's all part of the EC directive on driver-licence harmonisation, because many of the European countries already have a lot more theory in their tests.

'I'm in favour of an increase, but the emphasis must always be on people demonstrating driving skills, not just telling us about them.'

Is there a case for making the test a lot tougher? Would road safety be improved by raising standards and thereby reducing the number of qualified drivers? Critics regard passing the current test as nothing more than proof of a driver's ability to conduct a car within the confines of a built-up area. They say a 50-minute examination, of which only 30-35 minutes are devoted to driving, is not sufficient.

Mr Norris does not agree and points out that test routes have been made more realistic in the past two or three years. What used to be an essentially urban exercise now includes open-road driving, outside the 30mph area and on dual-

carriageways, wherever possible.

'The test is designed to give everyone an opportunity to pass,' he says. 'Provided that at the time of taking the test - under pretty general traffic conditions for the locale - the candidate demonstrates that he or she has mastered the safe basics of driving, they will be given a certificate that will enable them to claim a licence.

'That provides the opportunity to gain experience and become a fully qualified driver. Pitching the standard too high removes that opportunity from the reach of a number of people.'

Mr Norris drives either an Audi 100 or a Peugeot 205 - 'depending on which straw I draw' - and covers about 20,000 miles a year. What single aspect of bad driving concerns him most?

'The biggest worry is separation distances, particularly on motorways, but also in town traffic. People tend to think that reaction is the answer. They react to what happens rather than planning their driving. You have to react, of course, but planning and anticipation - taking into account what may happen - is the correct technique. You can't stop within a yard or two, so it's very important to maintain the correct distance between you and the vehicle in front.

'The book talks about at least a yard or a metre, or a two-second time gap, for each mile per hour of speed, and double that in bad conditions. The problem is, of course, that people who don't use what we call defensive driving techniques tend to nip into the gap.'

Is the chief driving examiner constantly aware of the need to set a good example? Mr Norris smiles. 'I could say that I would never drive in any way other than very carefully, but that would sound a bit pompous. One of the things I'm particularly careful about is not getting into the outside lane on a motorway when cars are being swept along at well over 70mph. I'm well aware that the press would really go to town over a story about the chief driving examiner being prosecuted for a driving offence.'

(Photograph omitted)