"I have just become a better driver, or a worse passenger, depending on how you view it.
I recently took my advanced driving test and have been recommended for membership of the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) based on my performance.
So what is advanced driving all about? Well, it’s a world away from the dinner party bore you might expect.
Firstly, dispel all images of the traditional driving test from your mind.
You aren’t going to fail because of a single mistake.
What assessors are looking for are safe patterns of behaviour and awareness of your surroundings that extends much further than the vehicle in front of you.
In nearly 10 years working on Fleet News, I have attended a number of driver training programmes, so a quick refresher course was organised with IAM trainer Peter Brewer. Over two half-days, we covered more than 100 miles honing my skills.
The atmosphere was relaxed with Peter stressing that he wasn’t there to judge me, just to help me improve my technique.
If I made mistakes or did something wrong, we would examine why and then try again.
Advanced driving helps drivers plan ahead by tuning into their environment and using clues other drivers might miss.
On country roads, I was shown how to use clues such as power lines and hedges to prepare for towns and junctions that were out of sight.
Road position was a key issue, as I was encouraged to use the whole carriageway to see the road ahead and make smoother progress.
I learned to look much further down the road and look for clues everywhere.
For example, shop windows make perfect mirrors to see children lurking behind parked cars.
Or looking underneath vehicles for the tell-tale feet of pedestrians waiting to cross can also work well in towns.
I honed a technique that ensured I kept moving by planning ahead at roundabouts.
Rather than rushing up to a line of stationary cars waiting to move off, I held back, timing my approach and checking oncoming traffic to make sure I arrived at the perfect time to enter the traffic flow.
And I learnt how to offer a running commentary on my driving.
Once you get the hang of it, this is a valuable skill. You simply speak about what you are seeing and thinking.
You may feel a bit silly, but it soon shows how much of your surroundings are being taken in.
Using these techniques, I kept to the speed limits but often left other drivers trailing behind us, thanks to my smooth yet rapid driving.
This is important because advanced driving isn’t about travelling at a snail’s pace.
The IAM’s guide to the test says: “Advanced drivers are confident and decisive, but never reckless.
“They are enthusiastic about driving and making better progress than most drivers, choosing carefully the moments when they overtake and searching for chances to move unobtrusively through traffic. They tend to be ahead of the game without anyone else noticing.”
On the day of the test, staff examiner Trevor Dickenson gave a relaxed introduction and again stressed that it was about assessing my ability, not passing a test.
Again we covered a variety of routes, with me providing the commentary to explain what I was seeing and doing and what I would do as a result.
The whole experience provided really valuable learning points and helped me focus on some of the important aspects of driver safety.
I felt it was a really useful aid to improve my driving. Some might disagree, but with 300,000 drivers now tested by the IAM, it’s a pretty strong argument for taking the test.
A lesson learned
Driving is a constant learning process, as I discovered recently.
In heavy traffic on the M25, I was side-swiped by a foreign lorry driver who didn’t see me next to him as he pulled out.
It was a left-hand drive lorry and I was in his blind spot.
We had already covered the danger of foreign lorries during the IAM training process, so it enabled me to replay the incident and look at how I could have avoided the danger and ensure the incident wasn’t repeated.
If there is an incident, playing the blame game doesn’t work. Instead, I agree with the IAM that I should learn from the experience and improve, rather than blame someone else, do nothing and risk it happening again.
Advanced check list
1. Thinking ahead enables every manoeuvre with your car to be carried out in good time and under complete control.
2. Think about driving plans: how you assess information and react to it is a cornerstone of advanced driving techniques.
3. Regularly practise commentary driving to monitor your powers of observation and anticipation.
4. Always drive with self-control and complete concentration.
5. Allow for reaction times – your own and those of other road users –when hazards unfold.
6. Absorb the planned system of driving.
7. Develop selective observation so that you have an eye for any situation which might require action.
8. Aim to complete your braking and any gear change before you turn the steering wheel.
9. Adapt your skills for driving on open roads to identify hazards and overtaking opportunities at a very early stage.
The driving plan
At the very heart of the theory of the advanced driving technique is the driving plan.
How you assess what you are seeing and react to it will distinguish an advanced driver from the novice.
The driving plan is based on three questions – What can be seen? What can’t be seen?
What may reasonably be expected to happen?
A simple example is driving down a country road with a verge and fresh cut grass on the road before a sharp corner. You can’t see round the bend, but you could reasonably expect a tractor cutting the verge around the corner.
So, you can prepare for the problem before you see it.
In terms of driving, there is a five-point system covering information, position, speed, gear and acceleration. Information covers looking around, using the information you receive and giving a signal that is helpful to other road users.
Position covers being in the right place on the road. Speed should be correct for the hazard, while gears should be selected at the right time. After the hazard or turn, you can then accelerate.
The system isn’t rigid, but the aim of all these different tactics is just to make sure you are never surprised and statements such as ‘I didn’t see it coming’, ‘suddenly’ and ‘there was nothing I could do’ are never used.
The official IAM manual – How To Be An Advanced Driver – explains in detail the skills drivers need to pass their test.
It includes advanced car control that extends to understanding the basic handling characteristics of vehicles and a wide range of motoring tactics, from the basics right up to how to respond if there is an accident.
A history of the IAM
Fleet driver safety isn’t a new issue – it has been a focus of managers and Government since cars were first used in the UK.
The issue of employee safety in work vehicles was an issue before World War II when the police introduced approved driving schools for officers in 1935.
The results were dramatic, with accidents among Metropolitan Police drivers falling by 80%.
As early as 1954, the Transport Minister John Boyd Carpenter was promoting the idea of an “honours degree” for motorists to achieve higher standards.
This quickly led to the formation of the Institute of Advanced Motorists in 1956.
Since its launch, more than 300,000 drivers have passed the IAM test, including thousands of fleet motorists.
The IAM, a registered charity, has a simple goal – to help its members and associates develop the advanced skills that help make driving and riding a more enjoyable and rewarding experience.
It is paid for by its members, which currently totals 112,000 drivers, together with charges made for administering the advanced test.
The IAM promotes the view that advanced driving or riding is a journey of continuous learning.
But the IAM is about more than testing – it aims to be a community of drivers who share ideas.
Support is provided by a UK network of more than 200 local groups, run by volunteers, which share expertise and best practice.
However, most drivers will know the IAM for its advanced driving test, based around a set of safe driving principles, backed by the motto “skill with responsibility”.
Estimates suggest that 95% of accidents are down to human error, so it pays to have the skills to avoid mistakes and spot potential dangers from other drivers."