Saturday, June 13, 2020

learning to drive in the UK: behind the wheel

So, back to my series: theory aside, it was time to get behind the wheel.

I had been cautioned that driving lessons could be expensive, but there were also a couple of friends who went with cheaper instructors and ended up failing their driving tests. I decided to go with reviews instead of banking on my personal network, and called the best rated guys in my area. While that worked out well for me, and I don't know of what groundwork they do regarding quality control etc, it was interesting to note that they operated more like a franchise - my instructor was simply passed on my contact details and handled everything else himself.

We started off by an assessment of my driving skills: he picked me up from home, drove till an isolated spot in a residential area nearby, and got me in the driver's seat.

The first thing you do is called the "cockpit drill"

The first thing he asked me to do was adjust my seat. The basic thing is that you should sit back all the way in the seat, back to the rest, and be able to hold the steering wheel comfortably, with arms neither cramped nor fully extended, and left foot should be able to push the clutch pedal all the way in. The seat position determines your feet, while the incline determines how you hold the wheel. This is the most basic requirement, but getting it perfectly comfortable is something I actually didn't get right consistently for a while - more on that later. Once in place, the seat-belt goes on (obviously).

The next step was adjusting the rearview mirror. The tip is to get it to a point where you can see the corners of both rear side pillars (so it's symmetrically aimed backward), and can see the entire rear windscreen, so a bit of edge from the top and bottom, or as close to that as possible.

The wing mirrors don't need adjusting as long as they're set up right, so I never had to deal with them, but it's important to check they're not folded in and offer a full view starting from the sides of the vehicle, and aimed horizontally (so not tilted upwards or downwards).

Cockpit drill done, the first time, it's important to find your spot on the road. To aid getting used to positioning, he placed a number of coloured dots on the dash, just below the windscreen. The car was parked about a foot away from the kerb, and he asked me to make note of which dot lined with my view of the kerb. I was to remember that as my reference when parking.

Interesting thing about the dots: We had them placed at various different parts of the car, and I had to use them as references for a lot of things. Things are obviously different when in your own car, but I think the precision of those dots is more important when learning, and to pass the test without any flaws (some of these things are an instant fail!)

Now comes the exciting bit: getting moving (also known as moving off). Turn the key in the ignition, once the engine is on, you're ready to go.

First off, the controls, for someone who doesn't know them (I did): the foot pedals are from left to right, clutch, brake, accelerator. The signals are the stalk under the steering wheel, and you push downward to signal left, upward to signal right, and bring back to the centre to cancel. Unless being used to change gears or signal, the left hand never leaves the wheel (and even then, the right hand never does). Hands should be in the 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock position, and should never cross over to the other side, or cross each other.

The first step in moving off is finding the "biting point" - push the clutch in all the way, get the gear into first (stick to the left and forward, pushing firmly left until it won't go any more, and then forward until it won't any more, then let go of the gear stick, letting it get back into its resting centre position). Then gradually start letting go of the clutch until the bonnet rises slightly. In the tiny car I was learning in (a Nissan Micra), I could also feel noticeable vibrations once the engine was beginning to engage - but as I learned later, that's not always the case, and finding the biting point probably becomes second nature with practice. The bonnet needs to rise perceptibly, because if you begin to feel the vibrations but the bonnet doesn't rise, it's probably not engaged enough to hold the car on a slope, and that's going to end in disaster.

The next step is making sure it's safe to move off: start from looking over your left shoulder (your chin should align with your shoulder, something I found quite awkward, but I see the importance of it now), then the left mirror, then the centre mirror, the road ahead, the right mirror, and then out from the right window, all the way till you're looking backward over your right shoulder, chin over shoulder. You're looking for anything that is or could be moving into your path. Vehicles coming from behind at any speed, pedestrians walking by, pedestrians who might cross, oncoming vehicles (especially if you're moving out on a narrow road or from behind a parked car or another obstacle).

He had me practice just looking around multiple times, which felt strange holding the clutch at biting point, but I guess it developed some sort of muscle memory as well).

At any point, if there is any reason to not move off, you wait (optionally pushing the clutch in - a chance to practice finding the biting point again!) and start again from looking behind over your left shoulder.

Once good with the drill of looking around, the next step is to look and signal in time - while looking from left to right, once looking through the right mirror, and if it's all clear, push the signal stick up to turn on the right indicator as you look over your right shoulder. If you see something in your right blind spot, you cancel the signal and start again. If not, you move your hand down to the parking brake lever, push the button on its end, pull it up a bit (that;s when the button will go in), and then push it down all the way. It's better to move your fingers out of the underside of the lever as it goes down, or you may not end up pushing it all the way down (the parking brake alarm will start beeping in that case). Done right, the car should immediately start moving. Turn the steering to the right (up to half turn, definitely not more) and straighten it immediately once in the middle of the lane. While straightening, it's easy to let your fingers push the signal stalk downward to cancel the turn signal. Simultaneously, let go of the clutch completely (no need to throttle when learning to move off on flat ground). And... we're driving!

Once we started moving, he guided me to the point where we were in the middle of our lane, and asked me to make note of which dot aligned with the kerb at that point - that was my reference when driving. For the lane marker, I had to mentally note how far off the headlight seemed from the lane markers when the left dot was aligned, so I had a reference on both sides. The lane marker wasn't going to be too accurate, but that's not as big a deal as getting the left alignment I guess. To illustrate:

positioning within your lane

Finally, the second most important thing (or possibly the most) - stopping!

To stop, you first check the road ahead, rearview, and then the left mirror, if it's clear (i.e. no vehicle approaching from behind, cyclist or motorcyclist trying to cut from the left, etc), signal left as you look over your left shoulder, and start to brake while moving left towards the edge of the road. Do not brake before signalling left, and once moving in, keep an eye on the "parking dot" to make sure you don't get too close. Push the clutch in (and push it all the way in) only once the car is about to stop, and hold the brake firmly. Cancel the left signal, put the gear into neutral, engage the parking brake (again button in before you can move it, and pull it up as far as it will go before letting go of the button). Once the parking brake is engaged, you can take your foot off the brake pedal, although hands should remain on the wheel unless doing something that requires you not to.

We also practiced using the wheel to turn left (it was a road that curved left, almost like a rectangle, so plenty of left turns). The important bit about turning was making sure the dot marking the left edge (green dot in the image above) stays on the kerb. Also, hands slide on the wheel one at a time, while the other one holds the wheel and pushes in the desired direction. Hands only move between 8 and 12 o clock for the left hand, and 4 and 12 o clock for the right hand. We spent a lot of time practicing this, and he told me I can even practice at home with a dinner plate - smoothly moving one hand into position while pushing/pulling with the other, then switching to pushing/pulling with the first hand while moving the other into position.

Phew, that was one long first day of driving! Two hours, to be precise. At the end, I was dog tired, quite stiff (I was pretty tense, somehow!) and waiting for my couch :D


WeirdISgooD said...

I loved this post ! Im really missing my lessons and I feel like ive forgotten everything. The hardest part for me is finding and keeping the car going at the biting point, i never seem to manage my feet !

krist0ph3r said...

yeah, it's really tricky! I rented a car once and it kept stalling all the time... at one stage, so badly that I literally asked someone to help me get it out of a tricky spot! i clearly need a lot more practice myself :) the Nissan Micra I learned in was very forgiving though... that's probably why i passed my test :D

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