My Driving Report: Year One

39 Pontiac Dream, Going Postal
“This could be art or result of a car crash” by Miika Niemelä is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

When I passed my driving test last year and we bought our first car on the 4th of September, I vowed to jot down – a year on – what I had learned from driving in the first year. Maybe it’ll help me as I continue, maybe not but I usually find it helpful to write these kind of things down, for the sake of memory and for future learning. It may also aid those who have recently passed their test and are now in the process of buying their first car and taking it onto the road without the persistent chatter in their ears from the person who has sat beside them for so long. Trust me, that chatter will remain for a while as you navigate Britain’s packed roads and certainly when you make mistakes; you may have passed but don’t think you’re Nigel Mansell – you will never stop learning.

The majority of new learners will usually have a parent or guardian to guide them through the mire of insurance, tax and the acquisition of the car. I didn’t, being an older driver (42 when I passed) and had to learn through trial and error. I checked everything I could, used comparison sites and made sure that anything we bought wasn’t dodgy or stolen – Autotrader and Gumtree are pretty good for that – before I finally sauntered to a local car dealer and made the purchase. The bloke seemed dodgy as anything but the car, a 2008 Vauxhall Vectra Sri, looked good, ran well (on the test drive – though I didn’t take it far through nerves) and had all the relevant paperwork so we picked it up. We didn’t get a guarantee for it though so make sure, all you first time drivers, to get one if you can. Despite a few issues with it – we had to get the cluster repaired, the tyres resealed and one of the headlights fixed but the cost was minimal – it has run like a dream. In my first year, we’ve driven over 1300 miles and it’s been better than I imagined. I’ve had no claims to make and only on one occasion – where I was wooed by the Christmas lights on a house I was passing – have I been close to bumping into something else. Thankfully, my lovely passenger shouted out and I braked in time. A phew moment, I don’t mind telling you.

There are certain things I’d advise any new driver for when they buy their first car and take it out on their first independent drive:

Take it out at night. Certainly, the hardest thing for a new driver to do. Some people take to it like a duck to water but for a lot of us, it’s a necessary learning curve and something which takes a little time to adapt to. My main piece of advice to any new learner is to take someone out with you when you take your first night journey and to go somewhere close. I drove to one of our locals, only 3 miles away, for my first night drive which took me through our village, out of a neighbouring one and then down a national speed limit road. The main issue you’ll have is keeping your line when faced with oncoming lights. Even though I know the route like the back of my hand, it was interesting. Faced with oncoming lights, I blocked them out by focusing on the mid point of my own lights at a steady distance, lifting my eyes at regular intervals to check junctions and road signs. I drove a little slower than I might do in the daylight and relied on the notion that other drivers wouldn’t admonish me for doing so – most drivers appear to be okay with fellow travellers slowing down ever so slightly when driving on pitch black roads. I’ve found other drivers do it too. Well lit areas will be a doddle so it’s good to navigate through the odd pitch black area. Do not, though, however much you might want to, whack on your main beams or fog lights permanently, as some drivers do. You will dazzle drivers going the other way which could be fatal. I’ve seen this all too often and find it irritating as hell, more annoying than drivers who flick on their headlights when faced with a little cloud during the daytime.

Drive on all types of road to build your confidence. For me, personally, I used to love country driving as a passenger but they can be tricky as a new driver. Most are bendy as hell, some are poorly maintained and will make you feel as if you’re driving on 2 wheels and many will be narrow with the sides chipped away. If these are routes you may have to take, go out on them as and when you can – the last thing you want is to find yourself afraid to take certain types of road head on. Slow down, if you need to and be alert – country roads demand a keen eye – and don’t get sidetracked by the beauty of the scenery around you. You may adapt to them much quicker than I have – though I have got better at driving on them – but these are the roads I’ve found to be the trickiest.

Take your car somewhere you’ve never been to, as a passenger or learner driver, to test your awareness to new surroundings. Driving somewhere you know is relatively easy because you know where the signs are, where the speed changes come, where the junctions are, you know the parking habits and how to navigate those areas. Even if you go somewhere new using a satnav, you’ll still be faced with changes on the road that you don’t know about so it’s important to remain alert. On a drive to a nearby town last year, I came around a slight bend at just over 50 to be faced with a sign for 30 about 50 yards ahead which I just about made. You’re never going to anticipate everything straight away but it’s good to build up your knowledge on the workings around certain places and drive accordingly.

Continue to work on your manoeuvres, especially if you think you’ll be using them a lot. When parking in a car park, for instance, I prefer reversing into a spot because driving straight out, when you leave, is much quicker and easier. I haven’t parallel parked since I started driving – because I don’t need to – but if you live somewhere where it’s needed, keep practising. One of the things I did when I was learning was write down each manoeuvre in detail and I’ve kept them because they might be useful to someone someday.

When driving long distances – whether by motorway or dual carriageway – try to keep yourself occupied. Long drives on the same type of road long distance are tedious. You’ll find, in some cases, that you don’t have to change gear for miles at a time and having nothing to do is incredibly boring. Even if you have to slow down, when you have nothing behind you, just to change gear and change back again, can help.

Learn, as quickly as possible, how to practically do the things you’ve only learned in theory – how to check and change your oil, refuelling, topping up your coolant and screenwash, putting air in your tyres. If you have someone who knows all this, you’ll be fine but I learned by asking other drivers; I tend to learn better watching someone practically do something than in books or on YouTube so, for me, this was very helpful. You’ll want to learn these things as quickly as possible so you don’t get caught out, driving on your own and having to do these things for the first time with no help.

But what of the things I’ve seen on the road? You get arseholes in every facet of society and there’ll be plenty on the roads – most drivers are fine but some are idiots and you have to expect it. I have plenty of bugaboos, which many of you will either share or have some of your own:

My first annoyance is speed snails. My term for drivers who go too fast in 20/30 mph zones and then drive too slow in 50/60/70 mph areas. If you’re on a dual carriageway with more than one lane, it’s not too bad but if you’re sitting behind one of these numpties on a single lane national speed limit road, it’s annoying as hell. It’s more irritating when they’re behind you as they will ride your bumper in the slow zones, some of them flashing their lights or beeping their horn, and then as soon as you enter the quicker zone, will be choking on your dust as you shoot ahead of them only to repeat the pattern when you inevitably have to slow down ahead. I drive with a black box – as it keeps the insurance costs down – and keep as well as possible to the speed limit so I’m careful to slow down or drift into a new speed zone at exactly the speed required. For these idiots, anything goes – I had one overtake me on a bend on a 20 mph road (when I was still learning), not even bothering about what was coming the other way and another who overtook me on a 30 mph road who I then sat behind, tapping the steering wheel, as he crawled along at 45 mph on a wide 60 mph road. Some people, eh? There are some new drivers who, like myself, find their temperament challenged by these lunatics but the key is to stay calm even when you find your patience waning. These speed snails are small in number, depending where you are from, and not something you will come across every day.

Cyclists are another. I used to be one myself but after an incident a few years ago, in which I was chased by a driver and knocked off on purpose, I tucked my bike away and haven’t returned to it since. There are some decent cyclists who will adhere to the rules of the road and are considerate, if they think they might be causing a tailback, to tuck into the side of the road and let drivers pass them. Other cyclists aren’t like that though. This group will disobey all road laws – and cycle on the pavement. They will ride side by side on busy roads and some will use their phones when doing so. My other half has a collective term for this group – an annoyance of cyclists. A few weeks ago, driving on the Fakenham road, I watched 4 cyclists hold up traffic going in the other direction. The two blokes were cycling like billy-ho, trying to get to a place where they could tuck in but their partners seemed perfectly happy as they cycled side by side, chatting to each other as they crawled along and completely aware of the queue extending behind them. That said, I find pedal bikes less annoying than motorcyclists who 9 times out of ten will look to pass you wherever you are and no matter how fast you are going. Some people, eh?

People who don’t indicate is another gripe. I don’t understand it. The tiniest flick of a finger to tell other drivers where you are going doesn’t seem like such a big deal to me but it’s amazing how many drivers don’t do it. Not only that but when you find yourself having to break hard to avoid a collision, these drivers will scowl at you as if it’s you in the wrong. The majority of drivers don’t do this but, like I said, you can’t avoid the arseholes forever.

Selfish/Entitled drivers who will wait for no-one is another bugaboo. In our village, when you’re driving through on the way up to the coast, there are usually a line of cars on the right and drivers on that side of the road, who do not have the right of way and who should tuck in until they do, will more than often try to pass you as weave through the centre. The road isn’t massively wide so when they do this, you’ll find yourself doing a series of manoeuvres to escape a bump while the other driver passes you without a by or leave. I’m not an angry person in general but these right of way issues have had me yelling on more than one occasion. Not many drivers have an ounce of patience and more often than not will make ridiculous and stupid decisions to cut their journey time, no matter how dangerous they are to other drivers. A year of driving will get you used to the habits of other drivers.

My last annoyance, though it’s hardly so, are people who turn on their lights if a cloud presents itself. On my driving test, the first thing the examiner asks is whether you can read a number-plate a certain distance away. If drivers cannot see another car in the middle of a cloudy afternoon without their lights on, then they shouldn’t be driving. I have to admit, I get nervous when I see drivers flick on their lights in these conditions. It makes one wonder how many drivers on our roads have poor visibility but it’d make you nuts thinking about it too much.

Over the last year, I have learned a lot. I have more knowledge about my car and how it runs. I’m still a bit sketchy about insurance but thanks to getting through an entire year without a claim, my insurance costs have been cut in half so I’m happy with that. My learning curve continues every day as I am met with new challenges on the road and I have continued to use the manoeuvres I learned in my lessons. The one thing that has stuck for me though is learning that I love driving. Absolutely love it. This year has been a blast.

© 39 Pontiac Dream 2020