Our Tony is still one L of a good driver

Tony Durkin gets a refresher driving course from Donna James from Geared Up.
Tony Durkin gets a refresher driving course from Donna James from Geared Up.
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Last time I sat alongside a driving instructor, Margaret Thatcher was about to take over as Prime Minister and Wigan Athletic had just completed their first season of league football.

Almost 35 years on and probably more than a quarter of a million miles down the line, driving has become second nature, practically as automatic a process as walking.

Years heading up and down the country covering Blackpool Football Club helped hone the driving skills and I have always prided myself on being a safe and confident motorist.

But the downside of such experience is that is so easy for complacency to set in.

With that come bad habits and once such habits develop, they can be very difficult to shake off.

Driving ability is a very subjective matter and generally, unless something goes wrong, there is never feedback as to whether the way we motor along day after day is right or wrong.

That’s why, when instructor Donna James of the Geared Up Driving School offered to take me out on the road for a refresher session, I welcomed the opportunity.

I’m delighted to say that, apart from one slight blip which I will come to later, I ‘passed’ with flying colours but the session around the streets of South Blackpool and St Annes was an eye-opener and a very welcome experience.

For instance, I had never previously thought about exactly how frequently I checked my mirrors.

It’s just the natural thing to do when approaching a junction or about to make a manoeuvre.

But my answer of 10 seconds was greeted with approval by Donna and that is something I will remember on every journey from now on.

The mirrors are there for a reason and awareness of others on the road is a key part of making sure you drive as safely as possible.

And there are plenty of other drivers to be aware of these days.

With 44m vehicles around nationally, Donna estimates that the roads are five or six times as busy as when she passed her driving test back in the 1980s. Even busier then than when yours truly tore up his provisional license back in 1979.

Besides the increase in vehicles, there have been a whole raft of new features on the road over the years, including a widespread proliferation of mini-roundabouts as well as speed cameras and ever more traffic lights, as well as more parked cars on residential streets than we ever thought possible 30-odd years ago.

I sometimes feel like Victor Meldrew when I witness some of the bad habits of others on the road and often wonder it is me who is out of step.

Not using indicators, driving too close to the vehicle in front, jumping red lights and hogging the middle or outer lane or a motorway or dual carriageway are all habits I see others displaying which – as self-righteous as it might sound – I wouldn’t dream of lapsing into myself.

It was reassuring that Donna agreed on all those points – and we witnessed one shining example of a bad habit on our travels when a driver totally ignored the fact that I had right of way at a roundabout and opted to drive on to it from a forecourt and wait to turn right.

“He hasn’t seen you,” said Donna – and that is the real crux of all driving problems: a lack of awareness of other drivers.

My only hiccup on our journey was when I was basically too courteous for my own good.

While waiting at the second of three zebra crossing in quick succession in St Annes Square, I waved in a driver looking to turn right from Orchard Road.

I just thought it was manners – but in this increasingly litigious age, Donna warned to be wary, as if anything had gone wrong, possibly involving another vehicle, my offer for that car to join the traffic ahead of me could potentially have caused an accountability problem.

It perhaps goes against the grain in terms of manners, but I see Donna’s point and I will certainly remember not to do it again.

Donna is a grade six instructor – the highest qualification attainable – and thoroughly enjoys her job.

The majority of the people she teaches are teenagers looking to set out of the road for the first time and most of her business comes from word of mouth.

She also offers refresher sessions for more mature drivers – but has some controversial views when it comes to motorists in the most senior age group. I think 80 should be the cut-off age for drivers – and I have told that to my dad, who is one of those still motoring along beyond that age,” said Donna.

“I just think the roads are so busy these days, they are not the place for someone going out perhaps two or three times a week to the shops or on short journeys.

“I know it would mean a loss of independence but I just think it would be the safer option for them.

“Driving is all about practise, continuity and awareness of other drivers and everything going on around you.

“It is very satisfying to see a teenager pass their test. I aim to make sure they develop the right habits from the start and the hope is that they maintain those habits throughout their driving life.

“A key question to always ask is ‘if something happens in front of you, can you stop?’

“That is why is it vital to drive not too fast, not too close and to keep checking mirrors, junctions and everything else which is going on as you drive along.

“The roads are only going to get even busier, so the right habits – and especially the habit of always being aware of others – are more important than ever.”

n Donna’s one of a team of local instructors who support Blackpool Council’s regular “driver refresher” courses. Lancashire County Council has also started a Drive Safely for Longer course, free to over 65 year olds, in response to figures showing that an eighth of fatal and seriously life threatening accidents in the county are caused by drivers aged 65 and older. In 2012, 704 people were involved in such accidents on the county’s roads, an increase of 11 per cent on the previous year.

n If you want to improve driving habits catch them young, advises a Blackpool-based independent driving instructor.

David Bell’s school Bellway is already part of Blackpool Council’s regular driver refresher courses – but has now become one of the first to offer training facilities, on private land, for wannabe motorists of 14 to 17 years old.

He explains: “Many youngsters can’t wait to learn this life skill but have to start lessons at 17 or older on public roads.

“We offer structured lessons on an off-road site under the supervision of a Driving Standards Agency approved, Criminal Records Bureau checked professional instructor,

“They learn clutch control, use of gears, steering, emergency stop, signals, hazards, steering, emergency stop, awareness, observation and other skills which will give them a head start on their driving lessons upon reaching the age of 17, enabling them to apply for their driving test far faster.

“By 17 pupils may have already picked up bad habits and particularly bad attitudes towards driving either from older friends or observing people around them.

“Recent studies in Sweden have shown that teaching young people to drive at an earlier age reduces their future accident risk by 40 per cent.

Statistics show that four in five fatal accidents on our roads in the UK involve young people between 17 and 21.”

The lessons are priced at £60 an hour but David adds: “The cost can be offset by sharing a lesson with a friend, with pupils alternating behind the wheel - with up to three pupils to a car.”