In theory I’m OK

Heading back to the Island early from hospital I get a call from the theory test centre saying there’s a cancellation at 3pm (my test is at 4pm) and they could fit me in then. I am also apparently the only candidate at 4pm and suspect centre staff want to go for tea early, as I could easily have booked the 3pm slot three days earlier. Still, I said I’d try to get there in time, and public transport doesn’t let me down.

I haven’t stared at the Highway code since the evening and don’t feel the need to cram. I have gone completely through the computer revision discs from the Driving Standards Agency, and the last two mocks have scored 100 per cent. The only worry is the hazard perception element.

The centre’s staff are very pleasant, clear and helpful. I get a briefing sheet telling me what is about to happen, get to put all my kit in a locker, and then get directed to the test booth. There are three others in the room, all horribly young looking.

The computer kit isn’t that modern. The touch-sensitive screens have a slight bow to them, which isn’t reassuring when part of the test involves perception, and a coarse dot pitch. Still, it’s the Isle of Wight and I should be grateful they’re not clockwork.

Running through the multiple choice practice is easy, and is relevant and actually covers the mechanics of answering the questions. It’s a bit odd doing it with a touch-sensitive screen rather than a mouse (as on the DSA disc) but it’s not too hard. I seem to get a bigger number of multiple-answer questions than I’ve been used to, some of which don’t sound vaguely familiar. But I feel I’ve done OK.

And then my nerves desert me. This is, after all, the first exam I have done since my finals in 1983, and I had intended never to do another one. I am trembling by the time I get to the first screens for the next section.

The nerves are not helped by the fact that the practice section for the hazard perception element doesn’t actually involve what I would call practice. It shows you a clip, tells you to click when you spot potential hazards and developing hazards, shows you what you are looking for, and then tells you if you click too rapidly you will score zero for the clip. There is no actual chance to try using the interface to highlight hazards, so you go into the first hazard clip blind, uncertain of what makes good or bad technique.

And so I blew out on my first clip, evidently clicking too often for the system’s liking and scoring zero points. I should add that I’m a cyclist and that every car, driveway, bend, junction or pedestrian is a potential and often continual hazard; I think I would probably click more often. So, with five of a possible 75 points blown on a learning experience, I was far more sparing for the remaining hazard 13 clips.

What the hazard clips really demonstrate to me is that out there are loads of drivers who have been passed by the Driving Standards Agency as fit to drive, and yet are completely unsafe to do so. The hazard clips are real unscripted footage of drivers and motorcyclists behaving badly (not to mention pedestrians who don’t look when they’re about to step out into the path of something that is likely to kill them). And I am being primed to join this band of motoring lunatics.

At this moment, if anyone were to mention the idea of compulsory re-testing for drivers every 10 years, I’d give it serious consideration.

So how did I do? Well in theory I know everything, scoring 50 out of 50 on the multiple choice section (pass mark 43). And despite the no-scoring hazard clip, I still managed 59 out of 75 (pass mark 44), with perfect scores on half the clips. Which is an overall pass, and means the next step is the practical test – to be passed within the next two years, else I have to retake the theory.

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Mock horror

Thirty-two in the countdown of lessons, and it’s a heady day of low-speed junctions and turns round the residential areas of Newport. It’s bright and sunny, the road is wet, and worse, that wetness is a thin layer of slush that is slippery underfoot. We only discover how bad it is at the end of the lesson when I get out to head for a bus and Cowes – and decide to tread carefully. And it’s the time of the school run, and I get stuck behind a bus most of the way into Newport from the point where there are really no safe overtaking places (those winding Island roads).

We covered more new ground, including the Blackwater accident black spot and roads I didn’t know existed, such as the real twister that runs up to the back of Carisbrooke Castle.

Still, there were no serious slip-ups during the lesson as such until P. says the chilling words, “For the next 20 minutes you can assume you’re under test conditions.” In other words, it’s the first mock. We’re in school territory, with speed humps and width restrictions, and then on into town.

I failed, of course, with one serious fault. And I knew I’d failed when I did it. There’s a particularly sharp corner in Newport’s backstreets that I was approaching in third, and had left it too late to drop a gear. A van came the other way round the blind corner, seemingly too quickly, and I had to brake sharply. I didn’t stop or stall, just slowed abruptly. And that demonstrates lack of control of the vehicle, and is a fail. I take consolation that C.’s son failed his test on Friday because the car in front of him missed its turn at a mini-roundabout and reversed to get back to it, by which point he had crossed the line.

Other than the serious fault, I had four minor faults, and had gone the first half of the mock with no faults at all. I have at last been looking in my mirrors before signalling, but not alas always before slowing down (one fault), braked too sharply in the gentle approach to a junction (one fault), failed to signal to a car behind that I was going round a van parked on double-yellow lines once the on-coming traffic had passed (one fault), and failed to advance into a space large enough for the Clio between a Keep Clear zone and a pedestrian crossing (one fault).

It’s not much to eradicate. And I have time to think about it with a trip to see J. on the mainland, and then to be back in time for the theory test at 4pm.

The Island’s Golden Girls

Jimjams and I were in Nottingham on Friday for the British Ice Figure & Synchronized Skating Championships. Nottingham is not my favourite UK city as every visit has been distinctly unimpressive either because of the weather or because the person trying to win me over with its charms believes that all southerners are pooves who drink piss for beer. And so I’ve largely stayed south, hand firmly clasped around a pint of Gales HSB.

But I’ll say this: the ice rink is fantastic as a sporting facility and the south should rightly envy it.

Jimjams was taking part in the synchronized skating events as a member of the Island’s Wight Diamonds and Wight Jewels teams. Members of the Jewels were last year’s championship winning Diamonds, but age and experience has forced a new name on the team and lifted the level at which they compete from novice to junior. The Diamonds still competed at novice level this year, but with a squad largely created from members of Wight Gems (which currently exist only in name). It’s sort of confusing, but the choices for synchro teams seem stark: keep at the same level of ability and lose members who are too experienced or old for the level, or keep the the whole team and give it a new identity to compete at a higher level. The IW adopts this second approach and has constantly raised the levels at which its teams compete.

The Diamonds did well in the closely contested novice competition but made two mistakes that cost them the title. So it was silver this time for the Island, and a well deserved gold for the Nottingham Shadows. But this year the novice competition was almost a sideshow.

The goal this year was the junior title, the highest level at which synchronized skating would be contested at the championships. There were only two contenders, the Wight Jewels and the Nottingham Icicles, and the shortage of teams at this level is a reflection of the difficulty in putting and keeping together a squad of 16 or more teenage girls who have the pressures of academic success to contend with as well as a demanding training schedule at absurd times of the day and night. 

The British Championships are important because they are marked using the International Judging System, the scoring system that has ousted the old and potentially corrupt 6.0 Relative Judging System. The IJS in theory allows skaters to be rated and directly compared between competitions, making possible personal and season’s bests. The IJS is, however, only just reaching the lower levels of competitive skating in the UK.

And let’s face it, a national championship is important because it shows without doubt who is the UK’s top dog in each discipline.

Junior level requires skaters to perform both short and a long program, the scores for which are added to determine the winner. The short program won’t necessarily win you the title, because it provides roughly a quarter to one third of your total marks, but it can cost you the title. And from my point of view among the Island’s tiny camp of supporters, the onlookers were pretty apprehensive about how the untried short program would go.

Icicles skated first and turned in a good performance with high program component score (the IJS marks technical elements and program components). But we’d watched the Jewels grow in strength over the year, and they’d turned in a blistering performance during the Christmas shows. They were true to form and went 4.4 points ahead of the Icicles thanks to a high technical elements score.

And then we waited till the end of the competitive day for the final showdown. The girl had all been up at 7am, practising off-ice at 11am, with a mere 10 minutes on-ice practice at lunchtime. It’s a very short time to scale up the programs from the Island’s minuscule 44 by 22 metre rink to an Olympic-sized 60 x 30 metre pad, and it’s a difficulty that Island skaters will no doubt always face.

With the competitions running an hour or so late, the Jewels would perform their long program over 12 hours after getting up. And what with presentations and travel home to follow, the last Jewel probably stumbled into their beds at home on the Island at 5am (Jimjams and I made it by 4.45am), making a 22-hour day. It’s a lot to ask. Skaters at the forthcoming synchronized skating opens in Sheffield in February have an even longer day ahead of them.

But when you’ve won the title, it’s all probably worth it. The Jewels stretched their lead to 8.12 points after the long, but their coach held them in check until it was officially announced they were in first place. We in the crowd had done the maths and erupted slightly beforehand.

So Jimjams and her teammates are British junior synchronized skating champions. It’s the top level contested at the championships, because the highest possible class, seniors, had no entries following the break-up of Basingstoke’s Storm team. IW skaters have worked hard for years to get there, and the sad thing is that academic requirements mean that, without some determined attitudes, they’ve probably got two more years together before departures to university. In that time they’re aiming at gaining experience to be ready to put in a respectable performance at the world junior championships – the Jewels aren’t going this year, and the Icicles will probably have that honour; they were very sportsmanlike throughout the event, and great competitors.

So instead, the Jewels are off to Switzerland in March to compete and gain that experience. They need it: continental European teams are classy, and synchronized skating seems far more developed as a sport. And who knows, next year perhaps…

You can catch the Wight Jewels’ long program for the 2009 championships on Youtube in glorious fuzz-o-vision: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=lpXqh2pM7i8

The IW club website is at www.iowfigureskaters.co.uk

36… 35… 34… 33… test!

Don’t get excited. Four more driving lessons down the line and my theory and hazard perception test is all lined up for Wednesday 21 January.

I’ve had two brilliant lessons with P. when I felt relaxed and stopped operating the car like a wind-up robot. The gloriously sunny morning of the first one probably accounted for a degree of confidence, although it could easily have all gone wrong on my doorstep as a van hurtled around the 25mph-limited bend just as I committed to leaving the driveway. Dual-control is a wonderful preserver of learner driver in such instances, and is I think only about the second time P. has had to override what I was doing. After that it was a comfortable drive into Newport and beyond, exploring new routes that prevented me from anticipating what I should be doing. Reversing round a corner featured, and seemed surprisingly easy compared with reverse parking into a bay.

The second lesson with P. took me down a pretty notorious road on the Island: Betty Haunt Lane. This not only has blind bends with high hedgerows, but a hump-backed bridge that once used to straddle the Freshwater to Newport railway (a victim of Beeching’s axe). The bridge is blind in both directions and a completely unnecessary hazard given that there has been no railway for 40 years. Perhaps it’s just there for the benefit of the Island’s driving test centre.

Anyway, before the unnerving bridge and the blind bends, P. told me we were going to practise an emergency stop. I’ve been dreading this because all my experience of seeing this on TV involves the the instructor tapping the dash, which always seemed a very unclear signal. It’s also a misconception: the instructor raises his hand in front of the mirror and clearly says stop. So it was a fairly rapid acceleration down the lane, up into third gear, and…

I could almost have wee’d myself.

As it was I was a shaking wreck for the next 15 minutes. P. said it was very good: I’d reacted quickly on the brake, kept a straight line, and slammed the clutch down right at the last moment to avoid stalling. I just wasn’t prepared for how quick it all was. I now vaguely understand how even a near miss can be unnerving. And fresh from this revelation, and still twitching, I then had the bridge and the bends to handle.

Did I forget to say that these then come onto an uphill junction where, unless you’re an owl with a swivel neck,  it is virtually essential to wind down the window to be able to see down the road so you can commit to turning left up to the Blacksmiths Arms?

There used to be a sign that greeted arrivals on the Island that “Island roads are different”. They’re that different that someone should straighten the little beggars out: they are in essence nothing more than twisting farm cart tracks covered with tarmac, littered with potholes, and where the national speed limit is by and large legal (if not recommended). Removing some of the kinks and providing clearer stretches for overtaking would probably do wonders for the Island’s atrocious accident rate.

P. of course didn’t leave it at that, fitting in an in-road turn on a hill from a downhill start, and parallel parking into a restricted space. I felt pretty much put through the wringer.

In-between have been the lessons with C. who twice took me round the back roads of Wootton at night – an area of the Island I suggest everyone leaves well alone until I pass my practical. This is all 20mph or less stuff with sharp junctions, quick indicating, and severe slopes, which even in street-lighting I find more unnerving than all the daytime stuff with P. Both times are rounded off with a drive into Newport, when Chris takes over again so I can catch a bus home.

With the theory test three days away, I have of course been revising like mad. The Driving Standards Agency discs are invaluable, and with a lot more knowledge poured into me I was able to complete a mock test with 100 per cent success. The hazard perception disc works better on the computer than in the DVD, and I have a bit more faith in the system’s response time. I still find it sort of scary that potential drivers only need to be right 86 per cent of the time to pass.

Into the 30s

Christmas and new year put in a spate of driving sessions, three official with P., three with C. and one with J., getting me down to 36 to go… It’s all a bit of a haze about what we covered in individual lessons, but in essence reverse parking into a bay and parallel parking featured with P. plus more in-road turns. I’m amazed in conversations with drivers of my age but of more experience that they never had to learn to park a car as part of their tests.

I am beginning to be taken on different roads. C. took me round the back streets of Wootton to practise junctions and clutch control; P. took me of down the Sandown road and out round to Arreton, which is pretty notorious for accidents. the special journey was with J., who is medically cleared to drive while at home, and who could therefore bravely sit in while I drove Jimjams to Ryde for an early morning skating lesson. She didn’t go pale or scream at me, which I take as a good sign; Jimjams was slightly less complimentary about some of the gear changes.

New year’s day brought about a trip to one of the beaches of south west Wight for the annual freezing cold BBQ. It resulted in a prolonged driving session, and me missing the turning for the chine car park as I couldn’t see where C. wanted me to turn into and because I knew that way was largely cliff with an abrupt drop. We had to go on to Isle of Wight Pearl, turn round in the car park and head back for the chine. After the BBQ, and thoroughly frozen, C. accompanied me on the drive to his place in Wootton. I’d expected to go the straightforward way, but C. took me through central Newport and round some of its streets first, and it’s here I developed my glitch for the day: I simply couldn’t change down from third to second. I’d like to think it was a one-off, but no; every critical time I blew it and was left coasting while I faffed around until eventually I got it in gear again. (cue male chorus of “it’s never happened to me before…”).

No doubt that one will come back to haunt me.

P. has also said that I should go ahead and book my theory test. I’ve been practising using the computer programs for the multiple choice test and in general improving my knowledge of the highway code. And over the holidays I turned to the hazard perception DVDs. I can confidently predict that the hazard perception element is where I may fail, not because I can’t see or anticipate the hazards, but because the response of the DVD to input is so poor and locks up. It’s like trying to play the old Dragon’s Lair arcade game which depending on you learning when to twitch the controls rather than timing it to what visually seemed right. If the hazard perception test is just learning to play a video game by knowing when to twitch the controls, then it is failing in its aim.

I should have learned when I was 20…