There aren't many moments that match the one when you're told that you've passed your driving test. But your driving experience only starts when you tear up your L-plates, and many motorists who have spent years behind the wheel are still barely safe to drive.
New drivers have little experience to guide them through unfamiliar situations and those with more driving years under their belt are likely to have adopted all sorts of bad habits, so experience is no guide to ability.
Not convinced? To put this theory to the test we invited along three drivers with varying amounts of experience and put them behind the wheel of a Seat Leon FR with race ace Jason Plato. Our three willing volunteers had between 15 months and 11 years' driving experience, and the results were enlightening, to say the least...
Mark Swayland (recently passed)
We're not off to a good start here. The Seat has been left in gear and as a result Mark stalls it as he tries to start it. “A car should always be left in gear when the engine is switched off, which is why you should dip the clutch as you turn the key,” comments Jason. Mark is quick to retort: “Yeah, my instructor told me to leave the car in gear, but it's a piece of advice that I've always chosen to ignore.“ Cue raised eyebrows all round.
Mark may have been driving for a little over a year, but that's been long enough for him to get into bad habits. One of the worst is a tendency to grip the steering wheel with just his right hand, leaving the left to rest on his left leg.
Jason has a field day with this, commenting: “If you need to react suddenly to something unexpected, you're likely to lose control of the car without both hands on the wheel. Don't feel that you have to slavishly feed the wheel through both hands at all times, but at least use both hands to grip the wheel nice and securely.”
One area that Mark scored highly on was how he'd positioned himself behind the wheel, for the best visibility as well as the ability to use all the controls properly. Jason comments: “If you sit so that your wrist can rest on the top of the steering wheel, the seat is positioned correctly relative to the rest of the controls - which helps maximise comfort and car control.”
Grant Sawyer (six years behind the wheel)
Having held a licence for six years, it was no surprise that Grant turned out to be a smoother, more relaxed driver than Mark - but that didn't mean he was perfect...
More focused on driving and with a closer eye on using the controls properly, Grant's biggest failing was his positioning on the road. Says Jason: “Don't be afraid to straighten out the bends where it's safe to do so; it helps with stability and visibility. Also, steer round surface water rather than driving through it, this minimises the chances of aquaplaning. That's when the car skids because the tyres can't disperse the standing water fast enough, and once the car lets go you'll struggle to catch it.”
As with Mark, Jason asked Grant to estimate his stopping distance from 70mph. Whereas Mark got it pretty much spot on, Grant reckoned it would take the Seat around twice as long to stop as it really did; knowing what your car will do is essential to getting the best out of it.
Dan Joyce (drift king)
He can hold a car sideways for hundreds of yards at a time and has held a driving licence for over a decade, so Dirty Sanchez front man Dan Joyce must be pretty handy behind the wheel - or so you'd hope.
Unsurprisingly, Dan is the most confident of the bunch, but reassuringly, this isn't misplaced confidence because all those years driving haven't been in vain. Swift and safe through our course, it's clear Dan's pretty good at driving.
It ain't all sunshine and roses though because Jason reckons Dan has picked up some bad habits from all that drifting. As a result Dan is aggressive with the controls and has a habit of taking his hands off the wheel when a slide develops on the skid pad we're using.
But Dan claims that he's only chosen such a course of action because we're in a controlled environment; you'd have to hope that Dan wouldn't grab the hand brake and slew the car sideways if he was in his local town.
Dan's positioning could also do with a bit of adjustment. Jason points out: “Even if you're driving on a familiar road, it's essential that you position the car so you can see through the bends. That means staying towards the outside of the bend to get an earlier view, and by checking out the limit points you can also work out what speed is appropriate for the curve so you can also choose the right gear.”
If you're wondering what the hell he's talking about, it's simple: the limit point is how quickly the bend opens up as you negotiate it. A tight curve won't open up as you go round it, while a faster bend will open up as you approach it. It's something that can make you not only faster on the open road, but a lot safer too. Again it’s a skill you have to develop.
It doesn't matter how many miles a year you drive or how long you've had a licence, there's always new stuff to learn.
Something all of our guinea pigs needed to think more about was where they positioned their car on the road for the best balance of visibility and stability. What also proved fascinating was the exercise Jason set where Mark, Dan and Grant each had to guess how long it would take the Leon to stop if it was braked heavily at 70mph in pouring rain.
If you were asked the same question about your own car, would you know the answer? You'd probably be surprised at just how quickly the car can stop, and if you want to get the best out of it you need to know what it'll do.
You don't need a fast car or a test track to hone your skills. But you do need to think about a multitude of factors beyond what you covered in your driving test; check out the tips below for the basics, then make sure you put it all into practice, every time you get behind the wheel.
Plato's 5 hot tips
- Look ahead and be aware of what those around you are doing. Then you can guess what's about to occur and react before it's happened.
- Keep to the two-second rule, so you've got plenty of reaction and braking time if things go pear-shaped.
- Choose the correct speed and gear for any situation; it sounds obvious but few drivers manage it all the time.
- Think about your car's positioning on the road - it affects your visibility as well as the chances of getting hit by other drivers.
- Look after your car. Fail to maintain things like tyres or brakes properly and a crash is guaranteed at some point.