Navigating the driving test

As of today the practical driving test that all new drivers must go through in order to obtain their full car licence has changed. More info on the changes can be found on the UK Govt website.

There are 4 key changes;

  1. More independent driving.
  2. Following sat nav directions.
  3. New reversing manoeuvres.
  4. Answer a vehicle safety question when you’re driving.

The changes are controversial as the examiners who are part of the Public and Commercial Services Union have staged a 48hr walk out as of today. There appear to be a number of factors revolving around the whole issue but one element is in regard to item 3 above. This falls into the ‘reversing your vehicle’ section and candidates will have to perform one of the following;

  • parallel park at the side of the road
  • park in a parking bay – either by driving in and reversing out, or reversing in and driving out (the examiner will tell you which you have to do)
  • pull up on the right-hand side of the road, reverse for around 2 car lengths, and rejoin the traffic

It would seem that it is the final option that is causing difficulty. If we look at this in detail it is saying the driver will pull to the offside (the right-hand side) of the road against the flow of oncoming traffic and come to a stop. They will then reverse for a short distance. Once complete the driver will pull away, back across the flow of traffic and rejoin the correct side of the road.

There are lots of arguments and discussions around these changes and one of the main points I’ve seen consistently arising is that of bringing the test up to date and more in line with modern driving. Have you ever parked with your drivers side to the kerb and facing oncoming traffic? I know I have and I know of countless others who have too. There is a whole body of evidence every time we go out on the roads that confirms this is regular practice by drivers. It is easy to argue that this behaviour is normalised and it is therefore practical and sensible to test our new drivers on something they will no doubt end up doing.

Yet there is a slight issue around this and that comes in the form of the Highway Code.

Rule 239 of the Highway Code is quite clear. In fact it is the first item in the bullet list. It is important to note that the Highway Code is not law. Breaches of the code though can engender evidence that will support other offences. The code is also interpreted differently where it uses the terms ‘do not’ and MUST. In this case ‘do not park facing against the traffic flow’ is saying not to do it… but is lesser in its forcefulness than if it were ‘you MUST not park facing against the traffic flow’.

The issue of course is that the Highway Code is essential reading for all new drivers. Understanding the rules, the signs and all the advice and instructions therein. Whilst parking against the traffic flow is common it is, in many ways, a lack of respect for the Highway Code in this area that existing drivers already have. We have lapsed into bad habits. If parking in such a way is contrary to the code then the question has to be asked as to why we are now examining our new drivers  on this manoeuvre?

Driving, the infrastructure, signage and our vehicles are changing  all the time. It stands to reason that the Highway Code and the driving test and even the licensing system cannot stand still. They have to move with the times. As this reversing test is now part of the practical driving test it would make sense that the code was to be updated to remove this section in 239. Yet that hasn’t happened. I’ve yet to see a statement that says ‘The Highway Code is subject to review in Jan 2018 and this matter will be addressed then’. As it stands it has simply been brought in. By doing so it sets a very poor example to our new drivers by teaching them that ignoring the Highway Code is perfectly acceptable, in fact endorsed by the Govt and the examining body. How many other rules will new drivers consequently believe are not applicable to them?

This argument will no doubt boil on for some time and I will be interested to see what solution is eventually agreed upon.

The second factor for me is that of a sat nav. I discussed this on a live video broadcast a few days ago. I concluded that sat nav’s are a modern part of our driving set up. I have a strong geographical knowledge. I can look at a map, determine a route and generally get myself to the destination or within a stones throw without any further assistance. However, many people don’t have that knowledge and sat nav’s filled that gap. Notwithstanding a few navigational issues now and then, particularly with HGV’s in small tight villages, they are a useful tool to get people from A to B. As this equipment is readily available and widely used it is logical that we test new drivers with it. We can then ensure they know how to use this equipment safely. This involves but is not limited to; programming before setting off, only ever glancing at the screen, always stopping if adjustments are needed. By doing so we can embed the right attitude and behaviour from the start?

A contrary argument arising today was one around cognitive load. This is something I discuss regularly with #DontStreamAndDrive where drivers are adding mental load to an already mentally challenging arena. This can easily be aligned to the ‘conscious competence learning model’.

On passing my test my Dad said to me, “Congratulations you have passed your test. You must now spend the next 2 years learning how to drive”. I’d passed my test and demonstrated the required standards but his point was that I didn’t know everything. He was right. Only experience and time on the road brings that. I think it’s fair to say that some of our new drivers will be at the ‘conscious incompetence’ level. Others will be in the ‘conscious competence’ section e.g. they can drive but they have to apply a lot of thought to everything for it all to come together. Traffic, steering, gears, speed, pedestrians, road signs, other road users and more. With all this mental processing (multi-tasking) going on is there space for sat nav? If we add the sat nav into the equation are we adding additional cognitive load on our young drivers that means something vitally important like good observations will fall off the other end?

An acquaintance of mine Cath Knibbs , a CyberTrauma Researcher/Consultant and Child and Adult Trauma Pscyhotherapist said today; “I can imagine how this would feel – overloaded and this creates panic and less coherent decision making.. let’s not give a novice the master craftsman job?”

Cath makes a very valid point. Police constables start with shoplifters and minor drug possession arrests and investigations. They don’t start with rape, murder or complex fraud. It takes time to build skill and experience with a slow drip feed of additional skills as time goes on. A new PC would be dropped in at the deep end with such complex enquiries with no hope of surviving. We can apply this to the driving arena. However, with the proliferation of in car tech, stand alone sat nav’s and mobile phone functionality this boat has already sailed. The tech is there and new drivers are going to use it whether we like it or not. It therefore makes sense to teach them how to use it properly from the outset instead of trying to correct embedded bad behaviour later.

If we are setting new drivers off on the right foot by doing so then maybe there is scope to bring the dangers of mobile phone use into the test too?

This whole debate has led me into the graduated driving licence debate. I will blog on this issue in due course.

featured image credit; Getty Images

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