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Sunday, 3 February 2019

Do You Speak Highway Code?

One of the most frustrating parts of teaching people to drive is listening to pupils who tell me "my Dad says you only learn to drive properly once you've passed your test"

Is this really true or is it some well-intended but misguided advice?

It's true that experience teaches us many things but only if we are able to turn experience into a positive change of behaviour.

The problem is, the perception that there are two standards of driving means not everyone is speaking the same driving language.


I was recently drawn towards a TED Talk video entitled "How to Learn a New Language in Six Months". Learning a language fluently in just six months is some achievement. This intrigue me, not primarily because I'm interested in learning a new language, but more for the insight into the teaching and learning techniques used.

As I watched the video it became clear to me that learning to drive has many similarities with
learning a new language. A language student is taught the formal way of speaking and writing. However, when they listen to a native speaker, they often have no idea what the native is saying. You probably know from experience how frustrated or embarrassed you feel when you don't understand what someone is saying.
This is exactly the same for learner drivers. Driving is so much about communicating with others that it really is a language in itself and therefore it is little wonder there are so many misunderstandings on the road.

Highway Codian or Highway Code-ish?

Learner drivers are taught a formal and grammatically correct version of driving. A version that is available to everyone in the form of the Highway Code, however, once the driving test is passed, many of them quickly begin using the simplified "slang" version in an effort to fit in with their peers and most probably because this is what they've grown up experiencing. We can draw many similarities with "simplified English"

In order to help them understand what the other drivers are saying, I find myself not only teaching the formal version of driving but also interpreting the informal slang version so that learner drivers can respond safely to the strange and confusing messages being communicated.

It appears that many experienced drivers get to the point where they no longer recognise the formal language or even see this as  applicable to learner drivers only.

Misplaced courtesy creates its own issues. "After you! No after you! No, I insist, after you..."

Here's an example we regularly deal with. We're waiting at a crossroad to turn right, there's an oncoming vehicle. Because we arrived at the junction slightly before them, the oncoming driver flashes their headlights or waves us to proceed. In the formal language version, priorities are based on safety and do not change on the basis of who's waited the longest.  Most of the time, the other driver hasn't bothered to look to see if it's safe for us to go and on many occasions they are inviting someone into danger.  Just stick to the formal rules please, it's safer and simpler!

Think about the things you dislike most in driving - Learners; buses; cyclists or pedestrians; traffic lights. These all share the same trait - some level of unpredictability. Learner drivers, on the whole, dislike dealing with roundabouts. It's not that these junctions are particularly difficult, it's the unpredictability of the traffic using them.

There is often a complete lack of communication at roundabouts despite there being a really simple way of communicating your intention and although BMW and Audi drivers are stereotyped and get the bad reputation, the truth is, the vast majority of drivers fail to signal correctly, if at all.

"Where there's doubt, there's danger" 

Miscommunication ultimately creates unpredictability and that is the enemy of safety. If I know exactly what you are going to do and when, I can avoid you, if not then we introduce an element of chance and therefore a higher risk of collision. With so much unpredictability, there's little wonder that many rear-end collisions occur at roundabouts along with unnecessary delays and congestion.

In the absence of a clear signal and in the same way we use body-language when trying to understand someone's real intended message, we have to fall back on interpreting more subtle clues in order to form an educated guess as to where the other vehicle is heading. I find myself teaching pupils that they should check the vehicle's position, if that isn't enough or it's unclear, consider the speed the vehicle is going, is it even possible to turn right at that speed? and if that's no help, look at where the driver is looking. Imagine trying to read all of that information instead of a simple, well-timed signal.

When someone is barking orders at you thick and fast and you're struggling to keep up, you would be forgiven for asking them to slow down so that you can take it all in. The next time you encounter a learner driver "holding you up" because they didn't go as fast as you would have or didn't take the gap you would have taken, please understand that they are trying to gather and process lots of information and decipher misinformation in order to make the right decision. You won't help the situation by harassing them.

The learner driver may be at the very early stages of learning to drive and it takes time to read a situation. When a person first learns to read and write they begin with learning each letter of the alphabet and then learn the sounds that two letters make and so on. Reading a word involves breaking it down into smaller chunks and then eventually, with time and practice, you no longer even need to do this, you can simply look at a word and know what it says.

"It deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe."

Each time you encounter an inexperienced driver, remember that they aren't yet able to glance at a situation and decipher it immediately. Added to this muddle of information are the additional "slang" terms used by experienced drivers. Keep in mind also that you may deal with a junction daily and have done so for years. The learner driver may not have seen or experienced this particular junction before in their life. There may even be missing signs or worn out road markings to contend with. Do you remember when you first encountered an unfamiliar junction and how it made you feel? This is exactly the way learner drivers feel.

I'm often told by pupils how impatient their parents are when following a learner driver. This only adds to the anxiety a learner feels because they know from experience how their presence is making other drivers angry.  Can you imagine this? A parent teaching their children to be impatient and not even considering that the learner driver may well be a child or young adult too.  Would you bully a child if they couldn't read well or as quickly as you? 

When you bully a learner driver because they are not quite as quick as you at reading the situation, their performance may well be directly and negatively affected by your actions. 

The next time you meet a learner driver, all that we ask is you speak the same driving language as they do; you give them a little more time and space and show some patience. They will be out of your way as soon as they are able - literally.


Do You Speak Highway Code?





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