Licenced to drive

Ipswich has a new driving test centre and when the editor suggested Lynne Mortimer might like to take her driving test again, she was, naturally, overjoyed…

Ipswich has a new driving test centre and when the editor suggested Lynne Mortimer might like to take her driving test again, she was, naturally, overjoyed…

THE first test of initiative was finding the new test centre on the Ransome's industrial estate to the east of Ipswich.

The centre used to be on the Woodbridge Road, a busy main route just outside the town centre where there were endless hill-starts for wannabe drivers.

It was back in 1986 - 20 years ago, in fact - that I first took my test and failed. What made it twice as upsetting was that I had announced to the entire newspaper-reading population of the town that I was taking it, via my weekly column.

Consequently, a reporter and a photographer showed up, thinking they would help me celebrate a pass and instead they were confronted with a distraught, tear-stained woman who asked them (barely politely, I seem to recall) to go away so that I could wallow in misery.

On my re-take a few months later, I told no one and managed to pass. So the 80 or so lessons were not in vain.

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Faced with the dubious honour of taking the test again, there was one very important thing I needed to find out before going ahead.

“If I fail, can you take my licence away?” I asked.

Reassured that this wasn't going to happen, I duly arranged the date. A few days before, the terror of the occasion struck me when a national newspaper writer did the same thing and failed. I gather that his big mistake was to drive over the speed limit for most of the test.

This was not going to trip me up and I spent a few days checking my speedometer, checking that I wasn't going over 30mph in built-up areas.

I went to sleep chanting: “Mirror, signal, manoeuvre”.

The fateful day dawned. Mirror… I checked my make-up; Signal; I cleaned my teeth; manoeuvre, I thought I'd try flirting.

Meanwhile a trip to the optician ensured I wouldn't fall at the first hurdle - reading a number plate from a distance of 20 metres (minimum).

The new test centre is at the outer edge of the industrial estate, near the big Makro store. Beware the hump(s) in the road. It has a driveway leading to parking bays - all mercifully flat - and I carefully reversed into a space. I was especially keen not to hit another car at this point.

Unfortunately it was also at this point that the nerves hit. Sheer terror consumed me and, as I walked into the bright new building, I felt sick.

I remembered my first test - the unsmiling examiner with his clipboard who ignored my jittery attempt at light-hearted banter and maintained a stony professionalism throughout. When I reversed round a corner onto the kerb I offered to do it again but was told to “drive on”.

It was tragic. I had to go through the rest of the test knowing I had already failed.

I walked away from the test centre and straight to my friend's house where I sobbed and drank brandy. It is a painful memory.

Happily, times have changed. I am met by supervising examiner Graham Waite (obviously drew the short straw) who gives me a friendly smile and introduces himself. I am no less nervous than I was in the Eighties but this time my feeble attempts to joke get a more sympathetic reception.

“We now take nervousness into account… We're not ogres,” Graham reassures me. He has been an examiner for 19 years and is looking relaxed.

Before we go out on to the road, I sign something - I am too stressed to read what it is but I don't think it is a donor card - and my licence is checked. Or rather, the four separate parts of my nigh-disintegrated licence are checked. I apologise for the state of it.

Graham is happy to answer any questions before we depart so I ask about the 'Friday afternoon test'. “Ah, quotas,” sighs Graham. “There is no such thing.”

So, I press on, slightly wary of becoming a candidate for the special 'awkward journalists' test', examiners do not have a limit on the number of passes?

“No.” Graham says firmly and explains that examiners pass/fail rates are looked at over a 12-month period and any noticeable discrepancies will be followed up.

So that's good to know - even though it is Thursday afternoon and doesn't qualify anyway.

The sharp-eyed among you will have noticed that I have not mentioned the driving theory test. I am not taking it for two reasons: first it is more difficult to set up and second … throw me a crumb here, it's bad enough having to do the practical again.

EADT photographer Owen Hines is here to take the 'before' shots and so we all adjourn to the car where, after a bit, the test begins.

“Will you open the bonnet, please,” asks Graham politely.

The bonnet? How do I open the bonnet? This wasn't in my driving test first time around. I think hard and a single shaft of bright intelligence pierced the complete bewilderment.

I swivelled the 'Ford' badge out of the way to reveal the keyhole that opens the lid but you have to use the key in a particular way and it takes the three of us to work out what to do. With the bonnet open, Graham then asks me where I would find the brake fluid.

How unfair is that? If he'd asked me where the windscreen washer reservoir was, I would have known but, as I comment, I get the RAC out for anything more complicated than that. And so it was that before I had even got into the car, I had earned my first black mark.

As I haven't a clue how many black marks add up to a fail, I am considerably worried.

Waving cheerio to Owen who looks almost as nervous as me by now, I check my mirror and drive out of the parking bay and along the middle of the sweeping drive to the exit. Out of the corner of my eye I see Graham's pen hover over the form and then, decisively, he inserts another black mark in the box provided.

Two - and I'm not even on the public highway.

Then follows 30-35 minutes of gruelling concentration. We motor out to Nacton and back along the Felixstowe Road - the 40mph takes me by surprise and even though I am desperately braking, I can still see the pen descend. We then drive on to a nearby housing estate where, to my horror, I am asked to reverse around a corner.

This was my worst fear. I check all the mirrors - yes, it's ok, my hair doesn't look too bad (only joking) - and begin to creep backwards around the slightly uphill corner. I see the pen move again but was this a total disaster (immediate fail) or a totting up error. Now it is wait and see.

Moving off for an angled start was comparatively simple and, though I couldn't see the problem I saw the pen plunge to paper again.

I resist an urge to put the passenger seat heater on full.

Finally, after 35 minutes real time and two years in driving test time, we arrived back at the test centre where my last challenge was to reverse into a parking bay avoiding the cars either side. At last I felt confident. You don't do the amount of supermarket shopping that I do without being able to reverse niftily into a space.

Pause for drum roll. And now for The Verdict…

Isn't it the absolute devil when people don't tell you what happened next…

Driving test facts:

- 65% of candidates have some private practice

- Over 99% take some professional instruction

- Over 95% attend for test in a driving school car

- National Pass rate is under 43%

- 50% have never driven in adverse weather conditions

- 12% have never driven in the dark

- 1 in 5 have some sort of bump, scrape or collision in the first six months.

- Young males between the ages of 17 and 25 are most at risk

- Those who pass in the shortest time, least lessons, fewest faults are the ones with the poorest attitude and have the collisions and commit the most motoring offences

- Every day in Britain, two under-25s die in road accidents

Pass Plus is a low-cost post-test training scheme for new drivers that helps people gain valuable driving experience safely, building on existing skills and knowledge. As well as helping to keep the driver safe on the road it can substantially reduce car insurance premiums with participating companies. There is no test at the end, continuous assessment leads to candidates achieving or exceeding the required standard. www.passplus.org.uk

The new Multi Purpose Driving Test Centres that are being installed across the country promote the Driving Standard's Agency's tenet of “safe driving for life”. They offer:

New and improved education, training and testing of drivers.

Modern and high quality design

Access for wheelchair users and facilities for people with disabilities

Off-road parking for customers

Find out more on www.dsa.gov.uk

The verdict

Graham says Lynne was “displaying many of the faults an experienced driver would do.”

Eg She used her side mirrors a bit too much when reversing round the corner and failed to check right when she drew round level with the junction.

The check on the vehicle's blind spot when moving off was not good enough.

On one occasion she didn't check the mirror before signalling and didn't check it when she changed lanes

Overall she was “showing some bad habits”.

Total faults: 11 (none serious or dangerous). 16 or more of these would have been a fail.

Pass

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