Pink and flustered

Let’s face it: for attempt number two at the driving test I was a bag of nerves pretty much from the outset, even though I had planned it better and had put several hundred miles of motoring in since the previous attempt. I was amazed that at the end of it that I passed because I thought I’d done too many things wrong: in the end it was just nine minor faults – most of which my instructor P. put down to nerves – and some advice to make sure I was in the right gear every time when setting off.

The planning was to pick my starting point better. Newport test centre has four numbered parking bays for candidates, which can be used later in the test if reverse parking into a bay is one of the two required manoeuvres. The exit from the test centre is a short but steep slope with limited visibility down the road to the left, and it seems more usual to turn right as this takes you quickly into the main roads network into and out of Newport.

Bay 1 is tricky to get into and can’t be done as a textbook reverse parking manoeuvre; bay 4 is too close to the exit slope to make it easy to leave the test centre. First time round I had plumped for bay 3 as it’s the usual one I practise on, but made a nervous exit up the slope because it is still a tight turn. So I decided bay 2 was the best bet, and fortunately got into it before the other candidate arrived for his test. So I started the test with a smooth exit up the exit slope, and turned right – and promptly lost my nerves when a car came round the blind corner when I was part-way out. I didn’t know whether I should have stopped and shown hesitancy or, as I chose, carry on and be considered rash. Whatever. I flushed bright pink, and that was it for Mr Calm and Collected for the next 40 minutes.

After that the exact details of the test have become something of a blur. From the St George’s roundabout we turned right towards Sandown – heading left would have snarled us up in market day traffic, and I’d have spent most of the test virtually stationary. Last time this route took me along the road to Arreton, which P. and I had practised often, but this time we continued on towards Rookley and then along the winding road to Merstone, a route I’d never done. Later, in the debrief, P. said that the route wasn’t used often, and that there was a tricky corner that should be done in second gear. I, of course, had done it in third with gentle braking, and at the point of going round it thought I was going to fail on control, because as soon as I’d started round it I knew I should have been in second. More flushing and increased pinkness from yours truly.

It was a lovely sunny day. I suspect inspectors take this route because they enjoy a nice trip out in the country along a winding narrow lane, and because they know the bus timetable means that the candidate is going to come across one of Southern Vectis’s green monsters in one direction or the other. It also brings the candidate out onto a black-spot junction, just next to a sharp bend on the right, and with a hill start to contend with. I stalled, because for some unearthly reason I hadn’t got the car into first gear, just vaguely towards it. And of course we went right, eventually heading back to Newport via Long Lane, making the route predominantly open road driving until we hit the housing estates.

At this point my memory of the route goes hazy. I know that I performed a turn in the road at the same point as in the previous test, facing downhill. And I know I took five stages to complete it. I quickly realised I wasn’t going to make it in three, and decided to be prudent (and listen to my first thoughts about what to do because they’ve been right up to now) because banging the kerb wasn’t an option this test. I know we then got onto Pan estate, and out the back of it on the winding road towards Shide, and I know I stalled again on a blind bend because I was shifting down gear to crawl around it because a car had parked on the bend itself, restricting both width and visibility. And I got caught at too slow a speed in too high a gear with too much braking for a car to want to carry on. It wasn’t the greatest place to stall, but I managed to keep myself together, restart and carry on.

The turning into Shide off the Sandown road automatically brings with it a sense of foreboding, because it presents two possible routes back to the test centre with one manoeuvre still to complete. One is via Queens Road, the road with the steep camber where I failed last time on parallel parking; the other is the direct road to the test centre, with the heady promise of reverse parking into a bay. You can imagine how relieved I felt when we took the direct route: the bays at the centre are about two feet wider than a standard bay, and if I couldn’t reverse park into one of them I should probably have given up learning to drive.

So, nine minor faults, two attempts at the test, and a couple of days over five months of learning and practise and I am able to drive. I lost count of the number of lessons. My instructor’s booklet shows I had 22 lessons, most of them doubles, or about 37 hours of driving. Most were matched by practice with C., R., or J., with 300 miles of driving in the week before my second test, so total driving time is in the region of 70 hours.

Whether that means it takes one lesson for each year of your life is debateable: with double lessons, I probably had a number of driving sessions into the 40s. But then so did C.’s sons, aged just 17. Fairer perhaps to say that 60 to 80 hours of driving experience is required, and that any connection with age and lessons is in some cases hopeful, and in others way off the mark.

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Through the wringer

I passed my driving test today. My nerves got ready to depart en masse, but no major incident happened and therefore I just ended up feeling like I’d been through the wringer for an hour or so after I was given the blue piece of paper saying that I’d passed.

I’m going to collect my thoughts before taking a stab at writing about the experience.

Well, back to the old drawing board…

Marvin the Martian can cope with failure and so can I. I was doing swimmingly on today’s test until the very last minutes when I fluffed parallel parking by nudging the kerb three times. Until then I had nine minor faults.

Unfortunately, the fluster factor took over. Nudging the kerb once is retrievable, but I couldn’t think clearly enough to recover from it (doubtless it would have been less of an issue in a non-test situation). I should have just started again, but instead tried to correct the distances involved and just ended up repeating the error, getting more flustered. It’s that catastrophic moment when someone adds water to a jar of instant Martians.

I was possibly unsettled by the fact that it was a drop kerb, which is hard to see in the mirror, and the fact that the vehicle I was initially parallel to was a white Transit, which instantly blots out what is happening on the pavement as far as potential pedestrian hazards go. An hour earlier with P. I had managed several parallel parking exercises with no problems, though it is probably my weakest manoeuvre, and the night before with C. I’d done it in the dark with nothing to guide me.

Until that moment I was perfectly calm and confident. And was immediately after I knew I’d failed. I know I can pass this test, but alas my next attempt has to wait until 21 April because there are no clear slots until that date. Bother.

Aliens in the car

Building up to the practical test, which happens only on Tuesday, a mere three days away, I’ve been trying to prepare for the experience by having different people in the passenger seat of the car apart from P. or C.

C.’s wife S. bravely sat in with me last Sunday after C. had warmed me up for an hour to knock off the accumulated rust of the week: it takes a few minutes to redevelop the good habits when I haven’t been driving for a few days.

It wasn’t quite the experience I’d expected. Early on, an alien in the car was deeply unsettling and guaranteed to bring on an attack of nerves. S. however kept talking to me the whole time (she says to distract me) and this kept me entirely relaxed. S. is my “other wife” when my J. or her C. doesn’t care to go to particular events like garden or country shows, so we’re used to keeping each other company. We did the usual run of the back way from Wootton to Newport (via Staplers Road), into the driving test centre, practised reverse parking into a bay in the Honda “tractor”, and then whizzed up and down the dual carriageway a few times to practise roundabouts (there’s one at each end) and getting up to speed. You can hit 60, but pretty much have to slow down immediately afterwards; I did it just to show that I could.

The debriefing revealed that S. hadn’t felt the need to apply her imaginary brake once, which at least shows that I can drive with consideration for my passengers, even if it didn’t create the whole alien encounter I’d wanted.

The was another lesson with P. on the Tuesday, which ended early because we’d arranged that another instructor, M. should take me out on a mock test, thus fulfilling the needs of providing an alien passenger and marking my performance. He has the same type of car as P., a Renault Clio diesel, so switching between them wasn’t an issue. 

But first I had a quick coffee break, heading for Coffee Republic on the recommendation of Jimjams, who seems to hang out there a lot after school. I had an Americano, which had a good crema but lacked the full body of the ideal one I’d had at Gossips in Yarmouth a few weeks earlier. The taste of the coffee was excellent – a good strong roast – but it probably needed another shot of espresso. I’ll be customising this drink next visit. The accompanying raisin Danish was excellent.

M. picked me up at Newport bus station, and after 10 minutes or so of chat and a warm-up to get familiar with his car we were off on the proper mock test. I had two “moments”, one where I didn’t understand where he wanted me to pull up relating to the wording he used for relative positioning, and one when a double-decker bus came out of a width restriction on a hill and I pulled over  to give it the most room possible and, I thought, kerbed the car in the process (which would fail me). However, in the analysis M. said I’d only touched it, and would only get two minor faults on the encounter with the bus (undue hesitation and an observational fault). The manoeuvres of choice were reverse parking into a bay, reversing around a corner and a turn in the road, all of which went OK.

Despite previously discussing where I thought I made most of my faults – mirrors and gears – mirrors didn’t feature at all in my minor faults, and gears only twice, and the result was that M. would pass me with eight minor faults. My old friend the not fully released handbrake featured twice… I can do better.

Last night’s session with C. showed again that I can drive with confidence, and that when you’re learning at that point it the becomes a matter of coping with situations that other people create. Like cars parked on double yellow lines a short way before a traffic lighted junction that suddenly set off without indicating.  I went on about that for minutes…

So do I feel I can pass on Tuesday? Yes, and I feel ready for the test: but I think I should fail. I just don’t think that I have enough experience of different situations. And I finally watched the Driving Standards Agency’s DVD on preparing for the test that reveals the less that comforting statistic that the pass rate for the practical test is only 42%.

Anyway, as on test and mock days I’m sure that someone pays people to be idiots in front of learners just to test them to the limits, success may depend on how much these idiots are bank-rolled on Tuesday.

In the stalls…

So where was I? Another eight sessions with either P. or C. have passed, and the ones with C. have been eventful. I am tempted never again to speak of the Staplers Road junction just above the Coppins Bridge roundabout because it has resulted in the most memorable event of all the lessons so far.

Every time so far the lights have been green, and I have never had to worry about stopping and doing the tricky hill start at this junction. That is until one evening with C., near the end of a two-hour session, when they changed, leaving me at the line ready to turn right. I thought I’d conquered hill starts, but this patch of road is particularly steep, I didn’t give the engine enough revs, and I stalled. At the point I thought “O, I’ve stalled”, C. acted promptly to stop us rolling back downhill by applying the handbrake.

I didn’t panic, and re-started the engine ready to try again, revved, and then found I couldn’t move the handbrake. C. had applied it so firmly that I couldn’t budge it. And so I stalled again, panicked by the fact that I couldn’t work out how I was going to move forward. There was a moment of tense discussion…

Anyway, I tried again, and this time the lights had changed back to red, so I had to wait calmly, trying not to think too much about the queue of cars that had built up behind me.

Attempt four was balked when a young driver screeched up on the inside lane and cut in front of us for the turning. I can only assume that any problems he’d had when learning had all been forgotten; I can only hope that after I pass I show the tolerance of and patience with learners that others have shown me.

We made it on go five. C. worked the handbrake and I just floored the accelerator. The tyres protested noisily, but we were up and round into Staplers and on the route home. We got back and then went for an emergency pint of tranquillising Gales HSB at The Cedars in Wootton in order to restore a feeling of normality.

I am amazed by C’s tolerance and patience, especially as next time out we had one of those moments when I turn crimson after missing two turnings in East Cowes, which I simply can’t see in the dark, but which C. knows are there because he works there. In daylight, of course, there would be no problem.

Still, the most recent night’s session with C. was great: the first one since P. recommended I book my test that I actually felt like I was ready to take the test, now just over two weeks away. I’ve at last managed to park the Honda by reversing into a bay, twice, meaning I can do it in our own car and in the instructor’s.

P. has arranged an hour with an “alien’ in the car, another instructor who will take me on a mock test. The idea is that I have someone in the car who I don’t know, rather than someone with whom I feel comfortable, so I am as prepared as I can be when I take the test for real: I know I will be a bag of nerves, but I would like to have the experience of being a bag of nerves when it’s not quite so crucial.

The last session with P. was good too. I hadn’t realised he’d been marking me from the outset, and it was only right at the end of almost two hours, and having successfully reversed round a sharp corner, that I clipped the kerb on coming out of the junction again, haven forgotten to edge out further. He said it was the first serious fault all lesson, and up till that point I had made only five minor faults, three on mirrors, two on gears. I may yet master how to control a car!

Mocks, idiots and beer

P. put me through my first mock test today, gaily saying that he’d never passed anyone on their first full mock. Fortunately I’d just had one lesson’s worth of knocking the rust off, built up over the past week thanks to a lack of driving. It takes me time to get back into the routine of checking all the mirrors before signalling or moving off, simply because it’s not something as yet that I do every day.

I felt I’d cocked it up good and proper, and at the end my mouth could have been used as blotting paper it was so dry. And I fully expected not to pass, after stalling spectacularly at a roundabout because I left signalling to late on the approach, so my hand was nowhere near the gears when it most needed to be.

But P. said it was a borderline pass: nine minor faults, all connected with operating what is still an unfamiliar piece of machinery, and none in the general areas of road sense. He said the stall was the borderline element, on usage of gears, but as I’d then gone round the dual roundabout combination of B&Q and St Mary’s smoothly and confidently, he was inclined to come down on the side of a pass.

Part of it was me just thinking about junctions more: with previous criticism about undue hesitation (I’d actually spent most of the week thinking about how to improve my approach to junctions), I was more inclined to go for it at give way signs and the approaches to roundabouts. And just before I stalled I was hoping to carry on, rather than having to stop.

So I have to improve on using the car. And I have four weeks in which to do so. P. told me to go ahead and book my test for late March, which seems so short a time after our first lesson in late November – potentially just four months between me first getting into a car as a driver and being able to fail my practical test for the first time…

With nerves a very real possibility, I fully intend to find some more willing victims to ride shotgun as I build up driving experience in that time: I need to be able to cope with the nerves of having someone I don’t know as well sitting in a car while I try something that is only gradually becoming second nature.

Taking me from 28 lessons to 27 lessons to go, C. cycled over in the late afternoon so I could drive over to Ryde and pick up Jimjams from the rink. I don’t know what it was about the evening, but the journey from Newport to Ryde was a matter of avoiding loads of cyclists riding with no lights. Idiots every one. Even as a kid I’ve never ridden a bike without lights in the dark because you simply can’t be seen, and of course since I’ve started driving I now believe in a high-visibility jacket too because I’m more aware of a car driver’s restricted view (not that it makes much difference to the elderly drivers, who still can’t see the glowing ball of fluorescent yellow).

It was worse on the return journey with two cyclists on BMX bikes riding two abreast, only one with lights, and the one without lights alternating between pavement and road, including an amazing decision to shoot straight across the front of the car from the pavement just before a set of lights. With a constant stream of cars coming the over way it was impossible to pass them, if only because their direction was unpredictable.

With about three hours’ driving behind me for the day, I was quite tense, and once back at C.’s we walked to The Cedars in Wootton for a pint of Gales HSB, still one of the finest pints in the UK despite a change of ownership to brewing giant Fullers. It’s worth hunting down, but finding a pub that keeps it in good condition all of the time is still a challenge.