A drive round the bend

`I was a physical and emotional wreck.' Tamsin Growney learns to drive

"Driving instructors are like therapists. I always bring tissues for the ladies, especially on these intensives," said Chris at the start of my six-day course. He then got out his wipeboards and pens and began to draw. "Very useful for the theory," he explained. I nodded curtly; why couldn't we just drive? When we did, I nearly killed a cyclist. I remained blase. Chris told me I had some hard work ahead.

I've never had much faith in driving instructors. When I was 18, a man called Geoff wouldn't let me behind the wheel until half-way through the second lesson. He then spent a long time showing me how to fasten my seat belt and helping me to adjust my seat. He put his hand on my thigh and told me to press the clutch down: "A bit further forward love. I can tell it's not right because you're having to use this muscle here."

A decade later, I had decided I was going to be in charge. According to John Gross of the Motor Schools Association of Great Britain, there are 33,000 driving schools in the UK, 7,000 of which have registered with his association and undertaken a code of conduct. What a choice. I dutifully weighed up the options, before choosing Chris .

I could take one-hour weekly lessons, which would cost pounds 17 each. It could take months to reach test standard. Or I could do a week-long residential course. There was a huge discrepancy in prices and advice about how many hours' tuition I would need. Some proprietors told me to take two weeks at least as I would need an hour for every year of my life, but doing more than three or four hours a day might prove too taxing. Then there were the dirt cheap courses, offering seven hours a day tuition, free accommodation and free lessons if I failed my test.

"The Driving Standards Agency doesn't recommend intensive courses for pupils with no previous driving experience, unless they are particularly gifted," says Jane Wallace at the DSA. "The best way of learning to drive is a mixture of professional tuition and practice with a relative." My relatives were strangely unwilling to help out, so I phoned Chris, a local instructor who had taught a friend to drive. He warned me against the super-cheap residential courses.

"Everyone's crammed into caravans. Instructors teach three people at a time. The instructors are often trainees. You can tell because they display a red triangle on their windscreens instead of the green hexagon. And no one knows about check tests. You can ask your instructor for his check-test grade, which he will have received six to 12 months after he has qualified. Grade 6 is the highest, grades 1 to 3 are unsatisfactory."

Chris's grade, of course, was 6, and he offered me 20 hours over six days for pounds 239. Serenely confident, I booked my test (pounds 28.50) for the seventh day.

On the second morning, Chris arrived 10 minutes late and on foot. "Car's just down the road. I pulled over to do some paperwork and then couldn't get it started again - flat battery. But not to worry, Mike's on his way with the jump leads."

That evening, every time I closed my eyes swarms of angrily buzzing motorcycles appeared before me and little old ladies leapt suddenly on to zebra crossings. I began to suffer appetite loss and insomnia.

On the third day, having failed spectacularly to reverse into a parking place, I scrabbled in the back for the tissues. "I think it stems back to a bumper-car accident when I was a child," I sobbed.

"Yes, love. And turning the steering wheel to the right instead of the left didn't help much, did it? Let's finish with some theory." He got out a wipeboard and drew a lovely picture of a roundabout.

The next three days continued in the same vein. On the morning of my test I was glad to see Chris. "I'll be honest; you've got a 50-50 chance. If you do pass, I strongly recommend that you take a few more lessons, for all our sakes." I nodded humbly.

I failed my test on many counts, and no wonder: I was a physical and emotional wreck. Chris was disappointed. I patted his arm. "Don't blame yourself. You've been wonderful," I said.

WHERE TO LEARN TO DRIVE THE INTENSIVE WAY

NATIONAL COMPANIES

BSM, Oxford office (BSM courses vary in price from region to region). Tel: 01865 248201

Cost of a week's lessons: pounds 349.75 for 25 hours, test fee extra. B/B from pounds 25 a night

NOT all instructors fully qualified

Quoted success rate: 50%

AA Driving School, nationwide

Tel: 0800 607080

No residential courses, but 24 hours paid in advance costs from pounds 262.80 to pounds 334.80

All instructors fully qualified

Quoted success rate: "Above national average"

LOCAL COMPANIES:

A1 Value School of Motoring, Blackpool

Tel: 01253 300040

Cost of a week's lessons: pounds 395 for 35 hours, test fee included. NB Shared tuition

Free single room, breakfast and evening meal All instructors fully qualified

Quoted success rate: 80%

Kingston Driving School, Canterbury Tel: 01227 830100

Cost of a week's lessons: pounds 375 for 25 hours, test fee included. B/B from pounds 12 a night

All instructors fully qualified

Quoted success rate: "Over 90% are put in for the test - of those over 70% pass"

Benllech Bay Intensive Driving Courses, Anglesey. Tel: 01248 853970

Cost of a week's lessons: pounds 395 for 25 hours, test fee extra (shared tuition available)

B/B from pounds 13 a night, self-catering available

All instructors fully qualified

Quoted success rate: 65% to 70%

Residential Driving School, Anglesey

Tel: 01407 710272

Cost of a week's lessons: pounds 200 for 25 hours, test fee extra. B/B and evening meal pounds l3O from Saturday to Saturday

All instructors fully qualified

Quoted success rate: 75% to 80%

If you're dissatisfied with your tuition, contact the DSA Registrar (0115-955 7600). There is no way of verifying a claimed success rate. National average test pass rate is 48% to 49%.

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