Independent Driving Trials

I have long advocated a move away from driving instruction reliant on memory towards a needs-based practical assessment based on cognitive decision making, so I was enthusiastic to involve some of my clients with Special Needs in the Independent Driving Trials. I wanted to see if the proposals would be inclusive of those who were for example Dyslexic, or who had Sequential Memory Problems, or those whose strengths lay in analysis rather than exclusively in Auditory Memory. As around 20% of people have Special Needs, it would obviously be necessary for the trials to have any validity, for 1 in 5 of those assessed to have some area of Special Need, so I selected four candidates with very different Specific Needs. As it was a statistical survey with no input from the ADI who only acted as observer, my observations would not have been evident to the researchers, so I now present my findings for professional ADIs to judge for themselves.

Candidate 1.

A middle aged right leg amputee who had had many experiences of life, was quite confident in his abilities and was quite a-together-character who had learnt systematically with few problems. He used an automatic with hand controls and was in the control group taking a standard test. At the time he was suffering from pain. (On these trials the examiner sat in the back seat.)

A middle aged right leg amputee who had had many experiences of life, was quite confident in his abilities and was quite a-together-character who had learnt systematically with few problems. He used an automatic with hand controls and was in the control group taking a standard test. At the time he was suffering from pain. (On these trials the examiner sat in the back seat.)

Against all expectations he went to pieces, missed directions, took wrong lanes and his positioning led to me having to physically intervene to prevent us glancing a parked car. I had expected an easy ride where I was just going to sit and observe. Not so and it illustrated how actual driving ability is not always assessed on the test since some people seriously react to the stress of the situation. He could not believe what he had done and it was a salutary lesson for him. I suspect he was trying too hard, believed too strongly in his ability, was too deferent to authority and as he was too distant from his last examinations, fear just overwhelmed him. He passed his second test.

Candidate 2.-

A young woman with Motor Neurone disease referred by her Consultant, who needed very careful teaching since she experienced good and bad days. The thinking processes had had to be condensed into a few specific actions to cope with her slowness. Perceptually she was quite confident and if it had not been for her illness, she would have been able to be a good driver. She used a standard automatic and took part in the directional memory trial.

She drove competently within her limitations until she was given the trial involving a series of instructions. However hard the examiner tried to help her to remember them, it was an impossible task. He tried to get her to repeat them and then showed her a ‘map’ or plan of the route, but she explained she had never been able to follow maps. She decided to ‘have a go,’ but obviously had not remembered more than the first instruction and as she tried to search her brain for what came next, drifted into a box junction and the rest of the instructions were lost. On the second exercise she was so keen to remember the first instruction, that when moving away she lost position on meeting other traffic. She had to be prompted on the third set involving a sequence of two instructions. A broken foot delayed her progress.

Candidate 3.-

A young man studying for A levels whose Educational Psychologist’s Report indicated such a huge discrepancy between his higher and lower skills that it was inappropriate to try to accurately determine his quotient. He had struggled with the Theory Test because, although he knew the answers, he could not understand the questions in the format supplied. His A level papers were ‘differentiated’ to cope with his Specific Needs. He was a very competent thinker and reader, but was educationally classed as dyslexic, because of his difficulty in sequential thought processing. He used a manual car with a standard test. He dreaded being asked to remember anything, as focus and concentration were extremely difficult for him and his problems resulted in a frenetic and confused mind.

He drove well except for some poor mirror work resulting from the effort of concentration and also the specific observations on the Turn in the Road. He explained that he found it overwhelming to try to fit everything in as required and was so pleased he did not have the additional distraction of trying to remember instructions. The next day he passed 1 time.

Candidate 4.-

A young woman with Learning Difficulties who in spite of her Special Needs and poor memory, had under my tuition and with a reader, managed to pass the theory first time. She responded correctly to driving situations, but totally lacked any self confidence because the gaps in her sequential brain processing left her bewildered. If she turned the wheel fully to the right she would panic as to where to turn it next, even though there was only one way possible. Any understanding of left and right was often beyond her. She used a standard automatic and took part in the directional memory trial.

Except for muddling the reverse park she drove well, until she was asked to follow the instructions. She surprised herself by remembering the sequence of four directions and was even more amazed she remembered the actual direction to take, but it took her concentration away from the driving and during this time she drove with the handbrake on and almost clipped a parked car. At the time of the near collision, she was talking through the instructions and was so intently focussing on the sequence that her driving concentration was diverted and she did not even notice that I had taken action since she had been intent on remembering the next stage in the memory task. It could have been a competent drive. The next week she passed 1st time and undertook an excellent Pass Plus course.

My Analysis. - 

I was disappointed that my candidates did not have the trial involving following signs, because when I drive in France I am like a dyslexic reader and am too slow to recognise the words as I have to focus too hard on the signs to make sense of them. I have an idea what the place name should be, but the letters are muddled and don’t make immediate sense to me. Would that make me an unsafe driver, because when travelling in unfamiliar France I make sure I am safe by using the strategy of enlisting the help of my wife, or using a Sat Nav, or only travelling on roads I know well when I am on my own? I also considered what I would do if I was confronted with the sequential directional scenario as I know I would struggle to remember two bits of information, so when faced with this situation I would either write them down, or after following the first two instructions, stop to ask for the next ones. Preferably I would use my Sat Nav to give me very specific instructions, rather than relying on my poor memory. Just like other drivers with problems, I would use my own strategies to make sure I remained a safe driver. Taking a test under such conditions would be unfair, stressful and distracting.

In my book I included a chapter about learning to switch safely between Modes, but apparently it is now all right to be distracted - because the examiner distracts in order to test one’s ability. What the candidates were subjected to in this trial was deliberately dangerous and anti all good teaching. Drivers with problems develop strategies to avoid their problems, so the test could have been more appropriate by asking them to do something they would realistically encounter when driving. e.g. demonstrating the ability to ignore a hands free phone comes to mind. It seemed all too reminiscent of the ‘selection of drivers by memory’ perpetrated by many of the Theory Questions which discriminates against those who have different skills, different memory abilities and a different understanding of the language used.

At a time when many of us are acknowledging that intelligence should not be assessed by memory based criteria alone, but by the practical application of knowledge, I struggle to understand why this pointless task of following instructions was considered in the first place and even more so why it was allowed to reach the costly trial stage when people such as myself had voiced our concerns directly to Rosemary Thew at the Consultation Meetings. Were experienced instructors really being listened to or were those meetings a P.R exercise?

This research project failed even before the data has been analysed, in that it should be moving us forward towards deeper thinking and safe responses when driving and not backward into shallow memory assessments. It would have been of much more value if they had included in the research the Independent Driving Manoeuvres I use when assessing brain damaged patients. “Please turn your car round.” This enables me to assess logical thought instead of basic handing skills reliant on memory or the Pavlovian responses to instruction, from which many of us are trying to move away.

The problem is that these hair-brained schemes are not thought up by driving instructors who are daily busy trying to make our roads safer, but by statisticians and civil servants who are trying to justify their existence by raising money for the DSA by selecting drivers via a fixed dogma, rather than by their need. If the same conclusions to these trials are drawn as happened with the latest Theory Test disaster, they will discriminate even further against those with Special Needs whom they should be helping to gain safe access to driving rather than putting impossible obstacles in their way. Many drivers will only ever need to drive in locations they already know and I invite the Road Research Laboratory to explain what relevance this memory test has to do with driving. Surely, it is what we do with our memory which counts in relation to what we need to do in our daily lives, not what we can remember and regurgitate for situations to which we will never expose ourselves.

This pointless memory exercise must be strangled at birth and those instructors who teach the ‘less than perfect’ amongst us should think carefully about the effects this constant raising of the bar is having on many of our those less fortunate in our society. Our parent’s generation fought to prevent selection of a ruling elite by the spurious use of intelligence quotients and it is something we should actively guard against. Safety and relevant ability must be the only basis of deciding those who are permitted to drive

John Brown  February 09