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16th May 2023
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20th May 2023

Unintentional bias

BIG TOM has been providing driving training for 14 years; a mixture of pay as you go (payg) driving lessons and intensive driving courses. But which method is better? Read here in this blog the thoughts from the owner of the BIG TOM franchise, Tom Ingram. 


Perhaps the most important discovery for me as a driving instructor has been that undoubtedly, pupils learn in different ways and that fact alone significantly impacts the learning and enjoyment potential of the pupil. I am convinced that certain pupils will prefer the accelerated learning process of an intensive course over payg driving lessons and vice versa.  

In the interests of clarity though, I do think it important to define these two methods. Payg driving lessons, have been in existence for decades, it was how I learnt to drive (there was no alternative at the time), and it typically involves the taking of driving lessons once per week. Some pupils might see their instructor twice a week occasionally, just in the same way that some may skip a week here and there, but on average the space between lessons is about a week and the duration of lesson has historically been an hour, but 2 hours is pretty common these days. Perhaps a big difference in decades past with now is the length of time it now takes using the method of payg driving lessons. Our regulator the DVSA has conducted two pieces of national research to find that the average time taken to learn to drive these days is 45 hours with an instructor and 22 hours private practice. When I learnt to drive, and I have heard from dozens of parents of my generation very similar accounts, I turned it around in about 10 weeks, roughly 10 x 1 hour lessons. Why has it almost quadrupled over the span of about 4 decades? It is not clear. In my time, there were three manoeuvres in the driving test, not one. In my time the theory test consisted of the examiner randomly flicking to a page or two of the HIghway Code and nonchalantly asking a question or two maybe. You never heard of anyone failing the theory side of a driving test, it just wasn’t heard of. 


People will often claim how busy the road system is these days, how much more complex it is and how much more technically difficult it is. I learnt to drive in Peterborough in the 80’s, the dual-carriageway ring-road was already in existence, as was the notorious Eye roundabout, albeit in smaller scale. There were cycle lanes already designed into the infrastructure, dedicated lanes for cyclists who interacted with large junctions, sometimes having their own ‘cyclists only’ traffic lights that worked in conjunction with the other lights on the junction. Although the driving test centre in those days was in a different location, it was still near an industrial trading estate just as it is today but in a different part of the city.  


It is true that the volume of traffic has increased, very true. It is also true that the safety record compared to those days is improved too. So, it is perhaps not too much of a leap to suggest that despite the increased volume of traffic, as the safety statistics are better these days, the quality of the driving training these days is better. I often hear people who make connections between the car insurance premiums these days and the affect that has for forcing drivers to drive more safely. There may be some truth in that, my own 18 year old son has just received a £72 payment from his insurers who are monitoring his driving behaviours over black box telematics. However, I recall from my days of driving a 2.8i Ford Capri, it costing me over a £1000 to insure third party fire and theft, and never making a claim – in fact for both the Capri’s that I owned as a teenager. That was a fair amount of money in those days for a 17 year old. Some may say a brave decision for a youngster to make, others may say foolish and very probably ill-informed. Either way, I’m not sure car insurance has ever been relatively speaking ‘cheaper’. 


In more recent times, learner drivers have had the option of purchasing an intensive course to learn to drive. These courses come in different shapes and sizes, some are quite literally no more than a third party trying to locate any driving instructor who can provide a week course for a customer that they have on their books. The third party has not a care about the experience level of the ADI in providing these kinds of courses, as long as they possess a green badge, they will happily connect up ADI with pupil. The third party takes a cut of the course price, and it is as crude and heartless as that. One of the common traits about these types of intensive course is that they are a fixed number of hours, where the provider dictates to the customer the schedule – quite literally the regularity and duration of the training sessions. But there are superior suppliers of intensive courses, where the provider does pay attention to the skills of the ADI, they provide a range of resources appealing to a range of pupil needs. They allow the customer to select a course that fits their needs in terms of duration, frequency and duration of sessions. They will even have flexibility in the training schedule to accommodate practising in the dark, travelling to different towns, catering for pupils with a variety of learning needs. I am immensely proud to say BIG TOM has been doing precisely this for years – one only needs to browse through our dated blogs on our sister website to see evidence of this fact.  


I would also be the first to say, and I regularly do to potential customers, the really smart move is to identify which of these two methods is best for the pupil in mind. It is a sad fact that still to this day, the vast majority of trainers will only provide payg driving lessons. It may be all they know, all they have ever done, and they may have no desire to change their way of teaching. And while that is clearly very convenient for them personally, it has zero regard for the learning preferences of their customer. I have lost count of how many people enrol on a BIG TOM intensive course, having done 6-12 payg driving lessons, and say they were bored out of their brains. As much as the pace of traditional weekly lessons might suit some ADI’s, I can categorically say without hesitation that in making that decision, the ADI will consciously or not be providing sub-standard value to many of their customers. I say this with no desire to provoke or upset, it is simply a fact. An ADI who is fixed in the type of training programme they provide, intensive or payg, will, as a product of that fact, be neglecting many of their customer base, it is an inescapable fact. Any ADI who disputes this fact would do well to learn more about the processes involved in how people learn – there are no end of resources available to help them grow their awareness levels. The age-old problem once again raises its head (as it often does whenever the topic of self-improvement is mentioned), we do not know what we don’t know, and some of us will vehemently defend a position, completely unaware of what we do not know.  


What tends to happen as I have witnessed over the years at driving instructor conferences, in digital forums and at CPD sessions, is that a die-hard payg driving instructor (normally having been in the job for 30+ years) will dogmatically pronounce all of the negative views (as they see it) of intensive courses (very probably making a derogatory reference to “crash courses”), to which, all of the other payg driving instructors in the group nod their heads like robotons unwilling to consider how some pupils like to learn. The social proof of having the vast majority of ADI’s either in person or in a digital forum, if not actually saying the same thing, not daring to offer an alternative point of view, is compelling. Group think, herd mentality, however you choose to term the disadvantages of blindly continuing to do what has always been done previously. And consequently, while the industry continues to be influenced by the vocal few, thousands upon thousands of pupils continue to be neglected and have their needs deliberately ignored. The amount of enquiries I have from customers outside of the current location scope of BIG TOM for our intensive courses is immense; the small sample I personally witness regarding my business can be multiplied many times when you consider the scale of this neglect across the UK.  


The problem is, it is not fashionable for driving instructor associations or even the regulator to even hint that an accelerated learning programme may be precisely the correct way for thousands of pupils to learn to drive. Not, an “alternative” way to learn to drive, but, actually the “correct” way in terms of meaningful outcomes for certain pupils. Can you imagine the outrage if a government were to implement a periodical, compulsory assessment of driving ability for all drivers? I occasionally am asked to review the driving ability of a parent for a family, and it is truly shocking the low level of driving ability out there – you would need to physically see it from inside the car to believe it. But also, by nature, all of us forget details, whether it be separation gaps, or “limit points” or principles like “You must be able to stop in a distance seen to be clear”. We naturally become complacent of maximum speed limits or how long we can drive for and still be alert. Our response times slow with time and our senses diminish, our need to dart around everywhere levels fluctuate, our tolerance of others levels change, our ability to empathise with other road users can alter over time, even our attitudes to risk will alter. In theory, there are numerous reasons why a periodical reminder of the fundamentals for safe driving could be very beneficial to millions of drivers – but it simply would not be fashionable. 


Generally speaking, I have found, that if I explain the pros and cons of each of these methods for learning to drive, customers will often make the right choice. I offer both programmes, and have done for years, it makes absolutely no difference to me personally, other than the fact that each method involves different skillsets to deliver the training. Parents of pupils and pupils will know how they like to learn. If I describe clearly and without prejudice the traits, benefits and disadvantages of both training methods, in my experience, most of the time customers make the right choice. Anyone could try to influence a customer in a particular direction for their own personal reasons, but in doing so they could be knowingly or not, enticing a customer into a learning environment that is directly contrary to their needs. Why would a training provider try to do that? Because as stated earlier, it suits them, not the customer. When a payg trainer does not offer both methods of learning to drive, it is far simpler (and less taxing on the conscience) when speaking to a potential new customer, to pretend that there really is no alternative way of learning to drive other than payg driving lessons. Why get into the subject of how the customer prefers to learn when you have no desire to listen to their answer and alter your training programme? And it works the other way too, when a potential customer contacts a trainer who only provides intensive courses, it needs an integrity check to ensure the customer is suited to that way of learning, otherwise, the trainer is putting their needs above those of the pupil.  How much of this is unintentional bias will not be easy to measure, but one thing is certain, if a PDI/ADI can learn the skills to provide both methods of learning to drive, there will be no bias (intentional or otherwise) – it will be the pupil who chooses how they learn, not the trainer.