Secret Ninja Driving

          Another thing taking up my time these days is taking a
driving course with the Institute of Advanced Motorists.
          Some people I've mentioned this too seem to think I'm studying some kind of secret ninja driving, but it's nothing like that.
          I'm studying the Highway Code again, and the book on Advanced Driving, which was written for drivers of emergency vehicles (so it tells you to concentrate on what's happening around you now, and not to think about 'the incident you're attending'.) I watch these videos by Chris Gilbert, and every Sunday I go out for an 'observed drive' with my mentor, a retired ambulance driver. He gives his time for nothing, and stresses that he is not a driving instructor. I am in complete control of the car at all times, and responsible for it, and he is there only to observe how I drive and offer tips on how I might improve.
          Most of what is taught by the Advanced Drivers (many of whom prefer to call themselves 'Aware Drivers') is also taught to learner drivers by their instructors. It's already known by most drivers, and used by them most of the time, or, at least, some of the time. I own up to the fact that I'm refreshing skills rather than learning anything new - skills that I was taught, but forgot, or never completely mastered, or allowed to become sloppy.
          I mean things like the proper way to hold the gear-stick in order to minimise the chance of going into the wrong gear: the position to take up on the road to allow you the greatest range of vision: the best gear to take at any particular speed or road position, to ease wear and tear on the car and save petrol.
          What I'm learning is to apply this knowledge in a consistent, all-enveloping way - to change gear correctly every single time; to check mirrors immediately on observing every and any hazard, every time; to constantly observe what's developing in the distance, nearby and to the rear of my car.
          It's quite Zen, in as much as it requires you to be 'in the moment' all the time. I can't allow my mind to drift off into plot construction or work on my 'To-Do List.' You can't do things by rote, or out of habit. Each use of the indicator has to be decided as a unique action, and not done automatically: is their any road-user who would benefit from the signal? If not, don't signal.
          Straw on the road? Does that mean horses around the next bend, or a hay-wagon? A woman is pushing an empty push-chair? - Does that mean a toddler on the loose, about to dash out from behind parked cars? In fact, any parked cars have to be carefully observed and thought about as a possible hazard.

        Quick now, what were the last three road-signs you passed? And do they still apply?
          It turns driving into something like three-dimensional, mobile chess. What move is going to be made by that lorry three vehicles ahead? What will the cars near it do as a result?What are you going to do?
         Part of the training is requiring you to give a running commentary as you drive - like Chris Gilbert in those videos. You have to tell your mentor, or examiner, what you're thinking, what you're doing, why you're taking a particular gear. You say, 'Mirror' as you check your mirror, and comment constantly on what drivers around you are doing (or may be planning to do.)
          This may sound simple - I'll admit that I thought it would be a piece of cake until I tried it. It is, in fact, extraordinarily difficult - and I don't think it's just me. You can observe the hazards, know what you're going to do - your hand can already be moving to gear-stick or signal - but somehow, your mouth just cannot frame it into even simple words at the same time.
          But it does concentrate the mind and force you to observe and think about what you're doing. In the four or five weeks since I've been doing the course, I think my driving has improved quite a bit.
          A certain young man possibly escaped at least a trip to hospital because of it. I was proceeding in a westerly direction, driving along a minor urban road with many sharp bends and a 20 speed limit. The young man was walking on the pavement, his back to me, with music plugged into his ears. Without looking, and without any indication whatsoever of his intention, he stepped into the road directly in front of me. I honestly think that the only reason I didn't hit him was because I was practicing my 'Aware Driver' skills, was strictly observing the speed limit and playing driver-chess by considering any and all possibilities. (I had just mentioned him and his head-phones in my driver-commentary.) Because of that, I was able to brake sharply, and do no more harm to the lad than startle him out of his day-dream.
         If this had happened three weeks previously? - I would have hit him. Not because I was a terrible driver then: the IAM assessed me as 'average to good' when I began this course. Not because I habitually drove down that road at high speed - it's not a road that enables high speed.
          I would have hit him because his action in stepping out into the road was so unexpected and careless, and so close to my car, that had I been travelling at a slightly higher speed (which I would have been) and paying just a little less attention (which I would have been) then I would have hit him. And what a horrible, horrible experience that would have been for all concerned.
          So that's me for the next while - talking to myself everywhere I drive, and repeatedly stopping to reverse round left-hand bends in an attempt to achieve the perfect kerb-hugging - but never kerb-mounting - sweep.I'm getting there. I plan to achieve 'good' for my left-hand reverse tomorrow morning.