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[NEWS] What is it like learning to drive in 2023?

What is it like learning to drive in 2023?

Skoda Fabia Mk2 learning to drive front quarter tracking
Top tip: pass your theory test before starting lessons so you can get on the practical exam's waiting list early

Preparing for and passing your driving test is harder than it's ever been. Join our reporter as he tackles the process

Writing for a car magazine without a driving licence is like playing with Mega Bloks instead of Lego: there’s still plenty of fun to be had, but you will always have this niggling feeling that you’re missing out on the real juicy stuff.

In my defence, it’s not a good time to be a learner. As detailed in this week’s issue of Autocar (8 February; ‘It’s L out there’), various factors mean it’s not just prohibitively expensive to learn, but also nigh-on impossible to find an instructor with availability. 

So it is that I find myself learning to drive five – six by the time I’ll have passed – years later than I ever wanted.

In truth, starting now was pretty fiscally irresponsible, but I couldn’t shake the sense that I had to get going. One payday later – and perhaps buoyed by the unconscious spirit of self-improvement that comes with a new year – I was lucky enough to find a local instructor with availability the following weekend.

Join me in this column over the coming months as I review my experience hitting the road, from the very first lesson to (hopefully) passing my tests and finding my first car.

#Month1">Month 2 - #Month 1">Month 1

Friday 10 March 2023: Progress is swift, but booking is still luck of the draw 

Having had my ego battered and bruised by my first two hours of learning to drive, I’m pleased to report swift progress.

The evening after a tricky first lesson, I binge-watched a series of YouTube videos in which other first-time drivers hit the road. I felt a pang of sympathy for these learners, what with their plight being shown to the world and capitalised upon.

Let’s call it a public service broadcast and save ourselves from the guilt: as it turns out, operating a tonne of potentially lethal machinery on tight roads is as difficult as it is terrifying for everyone, at first.

Relieved, I go into my next lesson with a fresh approach. This is a skill that I will use for the rest of my life, so there’s little chance that it will come naturally. Even reading and writing take years to pick up. 

This more relaxed mindset – and a switch to some thinner, lighter trainers – pays dividends. No longer am I trying to fumble the pedals with peg legs, nor steering with oars; I actually have some feel for the controls and their tolerances for the first time.

Lowering my seat is also illuminating, giving me the bent knees needed for finer adjustment of the pedals. Braking becomes smoother, throttle application is more consistent and the neck-snapping bobbing induced by my shoddy gearchanges is dampened – if not quite completely mitigated just yet.

Of course, some anxiety remains. Much to the ire of my instructor, I like to wait a few moments after main-road traffic has passed the T-junction I’m leaving, just to be sure there’s nothing coming.

Somehow, I’m yet to annoy other road users enough to elicit a beep. There is one Vauxhall Corsa – rocking tinted windows, smoked tail-lights and a 4D numberplate – that swerves into oncoming traffic to overtake me, but it’s nothing that a dab of the brakes and a couple of swears from my instructor won’t shield us from.

Now is the time to start thinking about booking the practical test, says my instructor. The wait at my local exam centre is about five months, so, given that it seems I’ve started making swift progress, we should start looking ahead. 

A new driving examiner’s strike – taking place in various areas across the country between 6 March and 28 March and nationwide on 15 March – is sure to make this wait even longer. 

A good friend of mine has found himself caught out by this. Frustratingly, the DVSA is yet to confirm whether his test is definitely on, instead saying he will hear back with five to 10 days’ notice. This just goes to highlight how difficult it is to get on the roads nowadays and why I’m unsurprised by how many friends and acquaintances simply haven’t bothered.

The mate in question has waited five months since booking his test, and now that the day is finally around the corner, it’s unlikely to happen when it’s supposed to. With no confirmation as such, his anxiety is surely rocketing.

This volatility makes it all the more important to pass my theory test and book my practical as soon as possible. The sooner I do, the more flexibility I will have should that final exam be cancelled or pushed back because of unforeseen circumstances.

Nevertheless, even booking a theory test slot has proven a hurdle. My original payment went through to the DVSA, but the website stated that my booking failed, with no confirmation in sight.

Cut to the next Monday and a customer-service representative explains to me that the slot I selected probably got snagged as I was paying. We then proceed to arrange a new test over the phone, but this also fails, the chosen slot having been booked in the 30 seconds the rep took to read out a list of available dates.

It’s all well and good that the DVSA has created a flood of new slots, but when demand is so high that booking becomes a matter of luck, surely the system needs a ground-up overhaul?

Total hours completed: 14

Total hours booked: 14

Cost: £70 (first two hours), £487 (next 12 hours), £28 (theory test booking and DVSA revision app)

#Back">Back to the top

Saturday 4 February 2023: it was supposed to be so easy

“Waiting outside. AA driving instructor”: my phone dings and I race out the door, trying to get a handle on the fact that I’m quaking like I’ve been possessed by a 1980s breakdancer stuck on planet rock.

Before we depart, my instructor first checks my licence and notes down my details. He then takes the wheel and drives us five minutes away to a quiet neighbourhood I’d been around hundreds of times growing up.

He tests my vision against a blue Citroën C3 parked down the road and then I take the driver’s seat, running through 20-30 minutes of the basics: which pedal is which; adjusting the seat and mirrors; the correct procedure before moving off.

Before I know what to do with myself, I've indicated and am moving at a whopping 15mph, the Ford Focus’s engine grumbling for second gear. Clutch in, second gear, clutch out. It all seems so simple, but now the car had taken to popping and locking too – “too fast,” my instructor remarks on my treatment of the pedals.

The next half hour is nothing short of disastrous, in my mind: not slowing early enough for a T-junction, then coming to a screeching halt; not applying enough steering lock; taking my hand off the wheel to flick the indicator… The list goes on.

We come to (an abrupt) stop at the side of the road to dissect the experience and so I can collect myself. “Stop thinking,” I’m told. “I’ll be your brain, so just listen to my instructions and focus on the road.” 

Having banished thought from my mind, instead listening to instruction and going off the feeling, things begin to make more sense. Sure, my road positioning leaves much to be desired and I can’t do anything resembling smooth braking, but my gearchanges are becoming smoother and I can crawl up to a junction.

Confidence builds quickly, and we soon expand the route to include merging with 30mph traffic. “Fourth gear!” my instructor says, explaining that it’s rare for somebody to get past second within the first couple of hours.

A few laps (and one embarrassing stall at a zebra crossing, having been too eager on the brake pedal) later, it’s time to have another chat before heading home. I'm told that things are going fairly well, and that passing by the summer is within the realm of possibility if I pass my theory test sharpish.

Hot tip for other learners: get your theory before you start lessons. You can’t book a practical test without passing the theory, so the sooner you do, the earlier you’ll be on the waiting list for the big one – and it's a long list.

“Do you want to drive home?” my instructor asks. Pensive, I say the prospect of crossing a busy dual carriageway is a little terrifying but I’ll give it a go. I’m reassured that control will be taken from me if I do anything dangerous, and that the roads are quiet in any case.

With lots of guidance from my instructor, I make it back home without causing a pile-up and even top the day off with a shoddy first attempt at forward bay parking.

I thought I’d been a hazard to everyone within a mile radius, but the reality is different, my instructor says. I've put in a strong first lesson, and although there is much (much) to learn, it is a solid foundation to build on. 

Ego bruised by the experience, but having signed up to a further 12 hours of lessons on the spot and feeling a wave of excitement, I return home and kick back. The first song to play when I hit shuffle on Spotify? None other than The Streets’ ‘It was supposed to be so easy’.

Total hours completed: 2

Total hours booked: 14

Cost: £70 (first two hours) plus £487 (next 12 hours) = £557

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