Until last week I hadn’t driven in five years, since the day I passed my test. Living in London, like many I rely on public transport and the thought of owning a car in the capital feels a little frivolous given its superb public transport links.
But recently, I had started to yearn for hitting the open road again and to step back into the driving seat for that taste of freedom I spent so many hours working towards in my early-20s.
With holidays at home looking like the only option again this year, hiring a rental car is starting to sound much more appealing – but I feel too out of practice to simply take the plunge and do it.
Instead, I took up the offer a driving confidence course from a company called Drive Doctors.
Many say they have lost their confidence in driving since the pandemic, NFU Mutual has said
Mark Johnston is the founder and it recently teamed up with insurance giant NFU Mutual to help people get safely back on the road after many stopped driving during lockdown.
While he says Drive Doctors was started nine years ago to help younger drivers in rural areas learn how to drive safely in more urban areas, this has now expanded to include anyone, of any age, who wants to become more confident in their driving.
Lockdown has been a catalyst for more people to sign up to the service as not driving for such a long period of time has led to one in four drivers becoming nervous about getting back on the road when restrictions are fully eased, research by NFU Mutual found.
To help ease them back onto the streets, the insurer gifted 1,000 driving confidence sessions to its car and light goods vehicle insurance customers via Drive Doctors.
As someone who sits in the slightly nervous driver category, I decided going on one of the courses would be a good opportunity to test my abilities and hopefully ensure I would feel safe enough to drive alone in the future.
I was certain I would not be able to remember how to start the engine, let alone drive on a dual carriageway – but all of my fears disappeared quickly.
Rather than trying to drive for the first time in London – after all I initially learnt in my quiet hometown of Eastbourne – I was offered the chance to go to Bedford Autodrome where the chances of me crashing are slim.
The large racing track has played host to a number of celebrities – and even royalty – over the years with miles of space to cover.
Previous driving experience
Whilst Grace enjoyed her driving lesson, she is probably not quite ready for the race track
Before the session started I was worried about how I would find navigating a car again as my previous driving experience was tumultuous.
I started learning at 17 and I failed my first practical test before heading off to university where learning to drive took a backseat.
I started again, with a different instructor, at 22, having to retake my theory test as the two year time limit had passed.
Another two attempts at the practical later and I had finally passed my test never to drive again, until last week.
I reckon a fair few people are in a similar situation – they have their full licence, but live in cities and thus get completely out of practice.
The thought of being in control of a vehicle after a long break is certainly nerve wracking for many with 45 per cent of drivers saying they would be interested in a confidence session.
In particular, 39 per cent said they would most welcome training on how to use their vehicle in an emergency situation, such as skidding on ice.
45% of people told NFU Mutual that they would be interested in a driver confidence session
How the session works
The first thing Mark, a race car driver turned safe driving teacher, was keen to do was highlight that the session wasn’t a lesson, rather time to get reacquainted with knowledge you already have.
After driving me from Bedford station to the Autodrome, we swapped seats in a quiet part of the track where no other cars were around.
This was the first time I had driven any other car than a Mini Cooper – it was a Ford Fiesta – and the only time I had been in a vehicle where the passenger did not have dual controls, meaning I had full autonomy.
Before actually setting off, I registered Mark’s concern when I told him the best way I could remember the pedals was by saying ‘can’t be a*sed’ – clutch, break, accelerate.
However, to my surprise – and his – the first part of the drive was much easier than I thought it would be. I easily found the biting point and started driving away, slowly.
He asked if there was anything in particular I needed help with – something he does with all clients to ensure they get the most out of their time – which for me was simply changing gears confidently.
After several, slow, laps around the Autodrome practicing this, Mark suggested we tried moving to the public roads.
I progressed from 30mph to 70mph, moving away from the track and driving around the Bedford countryside where I drove on the dual carriageway and successfully navigated a three lane roundabout, which boosted my confidence.
The skills I had learnt years prior, including checking mirrors carefully came back to me.
Only on a couple of occasions did I find myself veering a bit too close to the kerb with my steering somewhat clunky.
As we drove, Mark told me many of those who have signed up to do a confidence course are mature adults looking to build confidence in their ability again.
Some of the customers include a woman who had a fear of driving over bridges while another was a man with early onset dementia who wanted to feel confident enough to drive whilst he still could.
Mark Johnston is a former racing driver who now works with motorists on confidence courses
How can I complete a session?
Confidence driving sessions have proved popular. When NFU Mutual offered the chance for customers to have a confidence lesson, interest was high with more than 2,000 people applying in less than half an hour – despite only 1,000 places being available.
The sessions were offered after research showed driving support was highly requested.
However, at the moment this isn’t a product that people can buy from NFU Mutual.
What they can do is book them separately themselves with sessions with Drive Doctors costing £150 that ordinarily take place in the customers own car with the instructor travelling to them.
Sessions take about two hours and all are tailored to the individual driver with the instructor calling in advance to ask what aspects of driving they are least confident with and set some learning goals.
On arrival, customers do a vehicle-check together and then drive a pre-planned route which would cover as many driving scenarios as possible.
Afterwards the driver receives a report outlining goals, progress and any advice for the future with the instructor offering a follow-up call a week later.
Other companies that offer confidence courses include RED, The AA and BSM, while it is worth checking with local independent instructors to see if they offer any packages.
The two hour refresher was in my opinion well worth it and I now cannot wait to start driving solo.
At the end of the session, both Mark and I were pleased with my progress and I was relieved to know I would feel safe, and confident enough, to drive on the roads by myself.
While I might not be ready for the busy streets of London, I would certainly feel happy hiring and driving a car around a quieter seaside town on my future holidays.
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