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25th November 2022

Interventions in driving training

We have recently heard from the DVSA that 1 in 8 driving tests involve physical intervention by the examiner. This blog will take a look at the subject of interventions by driving instructors rather than examiners and is aimed to assist PDI’s. 


Why do interventions happen? 

Whether it be a verbal or a physical intervention, they normally occur to try to prevent a situation from escalating out of control, to aid learning, to maintain calm inside or outside the vehicle or to be kind to the vehicle preventing misuse or even damage. 


How does verbal differ from physical? 

Verbal interventions are when we use our words/voice to grab attention of the pupil and assist by either directing them to do something quite specific or alternatively trigger them to think about what is happening at any given moment. Many critical incidents can be prevented from escalating with a timely verbal prompt.  

Physical interventions often follow a failed verbal intervention in so far as added assistance is now needed physically on pedals or steering or perhaps even with gears or parking brake. But they can also include bodily movements such as hand gestures, facial expression, or nodding/shaking of the head. You might be surprised at how much a pupil who is driving can detect subtle physical movements of the driving instructor. This is particularly the case when working with pupils with hearing difficulties. 


What is the difference between an intervention and just normal driving instruction? 

This is a good question because it could be argued that any normal driving instruction between Levels 1 & 3 is in itself an intervention, and yes, technically that is true. When learner drivers reach the capability of driving independently, the supervising driver should not be intervening at all (what is referred to as “Level 4” – see pg 14 of “Learning to Drive”). The art of good instruction is to interject just enough to keep things safe and help our pupil learn, knowing that if we “over-instruct” we deny our pupil the opportunity to self-evaluate their true ability. It can be extremely powerful for learner drivers to gain confidence and motivation by having the awareness of their ability. Supervising drivers accompanying sons/daughters will often over-instruct purely as a safety mechanism for the fact that they do not have dual controls. An effective instructor on the other hand is able to judge the correct subject to focus on, where to practice and just the right amount of intervention that maximises successful outcomes.  


What happens if I do not intervene in time? 

This can then quickly escalate to become a “Safety Critical Incident” – the actual outcome of which is not necessarily in the control of the instructor or the pupil. As you can imagine, this is not a good place to be – one could argue, this could be classed as unprofessional. This is why the DVSA rightly raises an eyebrow should this occur on a formal assessment of Part 3 or Standards Check.  


How do I develop so as to prevent a Safety Critical Incident? 

An easy trap to fall into is to assume that what you see ahead and anticipate might develop, your pupil is doing the same. This ‘reading’ skill comes with experience, the very thing that many pupils are lacking. As such, a good habit to get in to is to continually look upon a driving training session in terms of risk factors: length of lesson (fatigue of pupil), speed travelling, closeness to other road users, volume of traffic, weather, characteristics of pupil (nerves, attitudes to risk, ability to focus). Take a read of “Risk Perception” in “Better Driving” (pg 16) and consider the text in terms of you as an instructor rather than as is intended, a pupil. As you improve your internal “radar” of risk, you will find that you can verbally intervene much sooner. Pupils need time to hear your intervention, mentally process it and then decide on the appropriate action. Clearly, you could very easily overdo this, and again, this is where judgement comes in. You can imagine if you were to continually pre-empt all these situations to your pupil, this would soon become intensely irritating not to mention depriving them of developing the skill. If you are proficient in “commentary driving” then you can read situations early and be quite creative in how you raise the awareness in your pupil. Rather than creating a learning environment which would be dictatorial, it is possible to prompt our pupils to think simply by the choice of words/sentences that we use. 


Should I be proactively intervening or encouraging my pupil to ask questions? 

A good working relationship involves pupil and instructor working in harmony and this doesn’t just happen by magic. Ideally, pupils will constantly consider how driving situations make them think and feel. When trust is present, pupils will be far more willing to interact with you in their thoughts. Open communication not only aids learning (when our pupils are thinking they are tapping into the longer-term memory), but it also keeps things safe. When an instructor is forewarned about how a pupil is feeling they will be far more able to adapt the interventions accordingly. A higher risk pupil is the silent pupil; an instructor has little knowledge of their thoughts and feelings and such a pupil can react to something disproportionately with no warning. One consideration to always keep in mind when we think about how instructor and pupil interact is whether a pause at the side of the road would aid communication. As an instructor you might feel that what you are saying should be very capable for another person to understand, but a pupil can have limited capacity for hearing and indeed thinking when they continue to drive. A very simple example would be just the clarification of a word the instructor uses: a pupil is very unlikely to interrupt you and ask for clarification of what is meant, when they are still very busy concentrating on what they are doing. 


So interventions are a good thing or a bad thing? 

When timing and clarity of interventions are good, then things rarely spiral out of control. But sometimes there does need to be a conversation that clearly explains how the responsibility for safety is being shared between instructor and pupil. Remember, pupils may have very little experience in learning a practical skill with real consequences. But where they lack the experience to compare driving situations, you more than make up for it; this will vary from pupil to pupil and so a careful instructor is always on the guard to clarify how safety is being maintained while practising.


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