Vijay Pattni02 October 2013

“Drivers don’t get better, they get luckier”

TG chats to the chief examiner of the DIA on learner drivers, and his scariest moment EVER…

"I've not had any ‘Maureens', if that's what you're looking for," laughs Mike Frisby, chief examiner of the Driving Instructor's Association. "The nearest I got to being properly frightened in the passenger seat was when I was teaching a particular lady in an automatic," he explains. "She was coming ‘back to driving' - she'd not driven for a number of years - and asked me about the ‘kickdown' on the accelerator (where the car drops a gear under full throttle).

"I told her we can use it once we get to a national speed limit zone. So we moved out from the 30mph limit to 70mph, and I told her to put her foot right down. To this day I don't know what possessed her, but she came off the accelerator and onto the brake pedal, and pushed it all the way to the floor." At this point, Mike lets out a hearty laugh. "I remember garbling something in a squeaky voice because there was a bus coming right up behind us. I think it took him more by surprise than me."

Though Mike's a seasoned examiner, this was the scariest moment he's faced. "It's not a particularly amusing job to be honest," he tells me, in matter-of-fact tones. And we should hope not, because his knowledge and skill is guiding the next generation of learner drivers onto British roads. And one learner driver in particular: TG staffer Nicola.

You may have read on these pages that Nicola is currently learning to drive. Sick of being lambasted by the TG office for not being able to drive - and itching to get behind the wheel of the TG fleet - she's taken it upon herself to learn. And quickly. She's currently mid-way through a week of intensive driving tuition, and Mike's first impressions are good.

"She was good, quite reserved, actually," Mike says. "Because she's had previous experience on the road, she started from a good place. I know that's a shame for you because you were probably looking for a good one liner," he jests. He's right: we were hoping for some inappropriate swearing and perhaps driving over someone's foot, but there you go, that's Top Gear's mentality for you.

"I asked her at the end about her concerns, and she said panicking in traffic and her driving manoeuvres were the biggest worries," Mike tells me. "It's not a big area of failure, but dealing with other drivers correctly and judging their speed correctly are common mistakes on the driving test. My advice would be to relax - don't rush anything."

Sage advice, but Nicola is rushing - at least through her week of intensive training. But even this Mike isn't so sure about. "I'm not saying intensive courses are no good, but for the majority of learners they're probably not the best." Thankfully, Nicola isn't ‘the majority of learners', because Mike says for somebody starting with zero knowledge, a week isn't nearly enough time. "When somebody's had prior experience - like Nicola has - they're recapping what they already know, so it's very beneficial."

And this time and experience factor is a key part of Mike's argument on learner drivers, especially as he supports the government's proposals for a minimum learning period on new drivers. "A 12 month period after the test allows a learner to drive in all seasons, as long as it's monitored correctly," he says. "If they're just driving with mum and dad, that's not going to work, because they'll not get the necessary feedback. But if they get some professional training over a year that's got to be a good thing."

And why so? "A driver who's learnt in the summer has never seen rain or snow, fog, driven at night etc - it's very different. What we, the DIA, would rather see is graduated learning, rather than graduated licensing, because you're mentoring that person. I'm not for putting restrictions on people [the idea being new drivers are restricted from driving at certain times/areas etc], because all you're doing is delaying the problem. Plus, 17 year olds being what they are, they're not going to heed their ‘restricted licenses', are they?"

He suggests a combination of the black box which records ‘events' in driving, as well as ongoing training from a professional driving mentor, rather than a restriction for six months and then "suddenly letting them go". But what about ‘letting them go' in a first car that's a little... faster than the rest?

"It's a difficult one: at the end of the day any car these days will go over the speed limit - gone are the days when first cars struggled to get to 70mph, so potentially they do the same damage. The stats show young people are most at risk, then the figure drops until you're in your mid 40s, then it rises again as you get older. My personal feeling is that a young driver is no worse than a middle aged driver - and I've sat with some pretty bad 45 year olds - it's just that the young driver doesn't have the equipment on their car to keep them out of trouble.

"Drivers don't get better, they just get luckier," he says, knowingly. "I've got to be honest though, in my heart I don't really want a 17 year old driving a 3.5-litre sportscar or a big 4x4, but it would be nice to see cars adequately equipped in that lower range."

Which brings us neatly onto Mike's first car. He laughs. This should be good, then. "A Ford Capri, 1600 GT, Mk I. A proper ‘Delboy pratmobile'. I jacked it up, put a dog catcher on the front, whale tail on the back, wide wheels, flared arches, the lot. It did struggle to get to the speed limit with all that stuff on it, mind..."

What's your take on the minimum learning period? Should drivers just be ‘let go' and left to their own devices, and should there be restrictions on the type of first car you can buy (a bit like they have on motorbikes)? Let us know below. And to keep up to date with Nicola's progress, click the link below, and wish her luck: the big one's on Monday...

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