It is years since I took my driving test and it's not difficult to accumulate plenty of bad habits, so I welcomed the chance to put my driving skills to the test.
My colleague, account director Yvonne Wright, drives thousands of miles a year as part of her job which puts her in a high risk category, despite being far more aware of today's hazardous driving conditions than I am.
A key to a good driver training programme is understanding the needs of the drivers rather than just merely telling them what to do and our trainer, Kevin Isaacson from DriveTech, indicated that the course was totally flexible and could be tailored to our specific needs, which was a good sign.
The first part of the course is a slide presentation giving a brief outline of the company's history which then moves on to demonstrations of the effects of inappropriate speed.
The slides demonstrated the need for awareness of not only what is seen and obvious, but also the unseen – the potential hidden hazards. DriveTech recommends that, before a journey, drivers should ask themselves a simple question: 'Am I fit to drive?'
This seems so obvious, but is it? How often do we ask ourselves this question before a journey? Is the mind wandering, considering the events of the day to come, or the one that has just been? Tiredness or a lack of concentration is a potentially lethal problem.
Here are a few statistics...
In 2001, 3,500 people died on our roads. Some 170,000 needed hospital treatment and 70,000 sustained injuries that will affect the rest of their lives. Much of the presentation is designed to strike home just how disastrous bad car control and poor hazard awareness can be.
DriveTech does not pull its punches. One of the most striking demonstrations was a reconstruction of the M4 crash that took place on March 13, 1991, when one small error from a driver resulted in the most appalling crash I have ever seen. That image is the one that stays with me and, perhaps, makes the most impact on my day-to-day driving. As we were discussing the next part of the course, the driving practice, it started snowing heavily.
On the road
Water, oil, lights and tyre conditions and tread depths were dutifully checked and okayed before we even climbed aboard. Then came a standard eye-test, which we passed.
Both Yvonne and I then did some driving in her Jaguar X-type 2.0-litre automatic company car. Yvonne was keen to become more closely aware of its capabilities with regard to steering, braking and accelerating.
Kevin asked us to give a running commentary of what we observed outside, potential hazards, signs and other road users as well as commenting on our driving techniques and giving helpful hints. Later, he took over the driving and showed us what we had been missing – frightening, but illuminating.
Next we took out the Mazda6 that Fleet News had on long-term test. My use of gears was something I particularly wanted to look at and where one of my worst habits emerged.
Instead of the preferred 'brakes-to-slow, gears-to-go' mantra that seems to apply now, I have always used my gears to slow down – and therefore I do a lot of gear changing. Not only does this wear the gears and clutch but every gear change emits more pollution into the environment and increases fuel consumption. Then came, for us, the most nerve-wracking part of the day. Kevin took us out to the edge of the Fens to demonstrate the effects of ABS braking.
So many drivers do not understand the principles of the ABS system – that it is designed principally to help you steer while braking.
Most drivers stamp on the brakes, hang on in a straight line and hope to stop in time, rather than steering.
We both tried braking hard at 40mph and 60mph but it has to be said we were a bit timid when it came to the controlled brake and swerve. It takes a while to have the confidence to perform a manoeuvre that instinctively feels dangerous.
We then took turns at driving back to the office, giving a running commentary on what we could see and anticipate. This time we both did much better. We stopped off at the local Tesco to practice parking and it was plain to see who did the shopping in our respective families and Kevin praised us both for our spatial awareness. So a point to the girls then.
I am still practising my 'brakes-to-slow, gears-to-go' technique. But am also acutely aware that bad weather conditions sometimes mean that this rule needs bending and perhaps breaking.
Afterwards, we were graded on a practical assessment and I scored lower than Yvonne on areas such as use of gears, appropriate use of speed and safety margins, all of which I hold my hand up to.
However, on completion of the course I feel sure that I can make an appreciable improvement to my driving technique and awareness by taking these observations on board. So, experience of miles wins over experience of years.
We both benefited from the day and would not hesitate in recommending the course to fleet decision-makers. At the time, our only criticism was the lack of printed material that we could have been given to act as an 'aide memoire', although a month or so later, this was rectified.
Our drivers' views two months after the training...
Jane Ward reports...
DriveTech sent me an excellent reminder of the course tenets, but if they had arrived a little earlier, I might not have broken my clear driving record. A couple of weeks ago on a busy roundabout at 8.30am, I did not leave sufficient space between my car and the vehicle in front.
Both rear wheels of the vehicle ahead should be fully visible when in traffic but I was not concentrating as I should have been, rather than contemplating the presentation I was due to attend.
At first I thought I had stalled but I had gently shunted the car in front. Fortunately, there was no damage to drivers, or to the Citroen Berlingo I was driving and the other driver's Vauxhall.
So, having now borne the brunt of my colleagues' derision at Fleet News I have become even more aware of my style of driving and hopefully will not see a further blot on my copybook.
But I have certainly improved my braking and gear changing routines and this small incident apart, I certainly believe my driving and awareness has improved.
Yvonne Wright reports...
The training tried to make me more aware of hazards, be more tolerant and to anticipate what will happen in front of me. It has made me think again and re-evaluate some of my habits.
So two months later, I think twice about situations I encounter and think ahead more. I would not say it has changed my basic driving skills to a great extent, but it has helped to sharpen up that vital last 10% that can prove the difference between negotiating a situation safely and getting into trouble. Two nights after the course I was driving home down an unlit stretch of the A1 and was following Kevin's advice about looking ahead down the road when I spotted a cyclist with no lights pedalling down the inside lane and had to move out to avoid him.
If I had been driving as I had before the course, I don't know what would have happened – I'm not sure I would have spotted him in time – and it still haunts me…