It is a good question because it is set in what I believe is the correct sense and that is that it is a driving instructor’s primary responsibility to keep things safe while a pupil practices. There are a couple of things that differentiate practice with a professional driving instructor from a private practice session: the level of safety and the amount of progress made. I will leave the making of progress to another article in this series, but today concentrate on keeping things safe.
I’ll begin by declaring what I believe to be an incontrovertible fact: if an accident occurs in a driving school car, it is 100% the driving instructor’s fault. Our pupils, no matter what stage they are at, are learning to drive and while that will mean that they slowly but surely take on more and more responsibilities as they develop, it nevertheless falls on our shoulders as instructors to make sure that everyone gets home safe after practice. If one starts to argue that more advanced pupils are to blame for some accidents that the instructor simply could not have predicted, I would suggest that is a very slippery slope when you start to consider “Risk Management” for advanced pupils.
The guide given to us by the DVSA as to what we should be teaching is the two driving standards which you can access both on the “How to Qualify” page of this website. I mention these because although there is good advice contained within them, effectively the syllabus, it does not suggest in what order we should go about our work. A handy summary of topics is provided in Chapter 11 of “The Driving Instructor’s Handbook” (John Miller), but even there it states the list is not a complete list. But it does offer ideas for lesson structure and content.
I would like to strip it back a bit further though and look at this with a bit more of a, dare I say, common sense approach. There are generally two ways of assessing a person’s ability to drive – learner or not, the following still holds: their ability to control a car and their ability to drive safely. The two goals are distinctly different and I would suggest that our primary goal when working with a new beginner pupil is to provide them with the skills and techniques so that they have full control of a car. I would suggest this would make sense to do this in slower locations because if you have a pupil hurtling down a national speed limit road, even the smallest of issues relating to positional control of the vehicle could have devastating outcomes. Start slow, in very low-traffic areas, wide roads, and car parks, and try to do just one thing at a time. A rooky mistake to make, and I make no judgement or criticism here, is once a driving instructor is qualified, they will probably be very keen to impart all their newfound knowledge and skills on to new pupils – learning is supposed to occur in stages or layers if you like. We build skills on skills either in depth or intertwined, and you cannot short-circuit that process. Time is needed for a driving experience to be absorbed into the pupil with a bit of reflection, so it really does not help at all, to overload them with too much, too quickly. It’s a cliché but still holds in our world too, if you rush the early stages of teaching a pupil to drive, it would be akin to building a house on shaky foundations.
Once a pupil has basic car control: feet co-ordination, hands controlling the steering and gears (for manuals), they can stop a car in an emergency, pull it over and move off without drama, then very soon after this point, I would suggest that the sooner we can start sowing the seeds of the second goal, namely to drive around safely, the better. I say this for what I believe is a very good reason. If we allow our pupils to drive around too long in quiet areas where the verbal input from us is noticeably reducing, unless we make it abundantly clear to them, they will start to think (even at this very early stage), that the hard work is done, they are almost there. And that is a very hard mindset to remove from a pupil once it is set. What I am suggesting is that we should have very clear communications with our pupils to ensure they recognise that what we are doing is phased learning, in stages, tapered in technical challenge so that they recognise our professional service is maintaining safety for all. It may seem obvious to you that starting off on quieter roads with few distractions and plenty of space for margin of error is an eminently logical structure to follow, it is good to talk these details through with pupils because the sooner we can get them involved and considering risk, the better. Learners will not necessarily realise what they do not know, so providing some guidance on the phases of learning they will go through can be very beneficial to some.
So I hope you can now start to see that despite our sleepless nights of pupils uncontrollably driving off roads into ditches, the reality is that we are deliberately, methodically being very careful and paying a lot of attention to what we are teaching our pupils, and where/when they practice. As tempting as it will be in the early days of qualification to recognise that a pupil “kind of” has clutch control, so now move on to junctions, the clutch issue rarely magically goes away. We need deep foundations of learning, this makes for consistency, a sense of progress, it reduces risk and keeps the learning environment calm. When you see pupils on roads who repeatedly stall, this demonstrates a fundamental lack of this central point – the instructor is putting the pupil into situations that do not match their current ability. All this does is disheartens the pupil, makes them feel more anxious (and very likely you too), it annoys other road users and as I say, it is a fundamental lack of car control so it has safety implications too.
While I am on the subject of safety I think it is worth saying for any new PDI’s who may read this article, about how we should go about handling safety-critical incidents. We as instructors want to develop in our pupils the fundamentals of safe driving techniques. They will understandably need a hand in prioritising risk factors as they drive, recognising how speed not only affects them as drivers (their ability to make observations, assess situations, and make decisions), but also how it can affect the vehicle, the passengers in the vehicle and other road users.
If I had one piece of advice to offer a newly qualified instructor about this subject of speed, it would be to cover it quite early on in the subject of “emergency stops”. The sooner that they can start to make a practical connection between speed and control the better. As a practical example, if a pupil driving on a 30 mph road in town is doing say 30mph and then maintains that speed while they drive passed a number of parked vehicles on the left, they simply have not understood the concept of being physically able to stop the vehicle in a distance that they can see is clear. For me, that is one of the most valuable concepts we can provide to a pupil in the early stages as it will then truly get them thinking about the pace they bowl up to junctions, approach country road bends etc.
It is tempting to not want to frighten our pupils when a safety critical incident occurs. But they really do need to learn the possible consequences of situations that arise. In my driving school, I record them separately on a specific form that accompanies the Pupil Record. I do this because our pupils need to understand the significance of these incidents. Sometimes, when we just pull over and talk about what just happened for a few minutes, that does not in itself reflect the seriousness of the situation. By formally recording the incident AND talking through what needs to then be systematically practised, we are creating a structure to the training that shows it adapts to what happens. It will also avoid the slippery slope of many high-risk situations snowballing in frequency out of control.
Of course not all mistakes that our pupils make result in a safety-critical incident. It is always useful to explain to pupils that your feedback is given in the spirit of constructive advice and that talking through why mistakes happen can be enlightening. A momentary loss of attention due to fatigue, a knowledge gap in theory, a distraction, the crippling effects of fear, optimism bias; the reason for a mistake should very much affect how remedial action is taken. I am referring here to the root cause of the mistake – which may not always be apparent to our pupils.
There is a limit as to how much information our working memory can actively manage at any one time, so overloading our pupil’s cognitive capacity is not smart and can be quite distressing. No better example of the limitations of our working memory than when you practice role-playing for the part 3. After qualification, remember how that feels, and do everything you can to prevent that from developing in your own pupils.
If we ask the right questions of our pupils and listen carefully to their thoughts, then we stand a good chance of being able to assist them. Perhaps that one sentence justifies expanding on in a future article.