One L of a Testing Time

This article - in which I re-take my driving test to see if the local area really is one of the toughest places in the country to pass - featured in the Spenborough Guardian in December 2005.

"THERE are very few drivers who would re-pass their test without some kind of professional tuition," claims instructor Martin Day.

Before I can prove him wrong, we set off on a little practice run, and I explain that I earned my licence eight years ago over in Cleethorpes.

"What's going on with your hands?" interrupts my makeshift examiner.

Apparently they should never grip below quarter to/past.

My right hand clearly can't tell the time, and as for my left... "Don't drive with your hand on the gear-stick, son."

We both laugh, but Martin's eyes roll like spare tyres.

The 53-year-old had four students pass last week, so who better to explain why 69 per cent of learners fail in Heckmondwike?

"The roads are crap," he says. "It's really busy, the surfaces are bad and the system is very old. But you've also got fancy new bits like Junction 27.

"You go to North Wales and it's a lot easier because the surfaces are lovely and the markings are good."

Martin points to similarly low pass-rates in neighbouring Leeds, Huddersfield and Wakefield.

"The examiners are not harsh," he insists.

"If you present a pupil and they're good enough, they'll pass. If you drive well on the day, they can't do anything else but pass you – there's no fix."

It's time to find out for myself. Having completed the cockpit drill (shut the door, check my hair) we set off from Bath Road.

But before the blink of an indicator I earn my first fault – dodgy clutch control. (For the record, I'm allowed 15 of those.)

Not used to driving without music, I tell him to bang on a few tunes. (Strictly forbidden under normal circumstances.)

But what's on his CD player? Tony Christie!

Now, in true journalistic fashion, I planned to leave the result until the last paragraph to keep you reading.

But the narrative goes belly-up off Jeremy Lane, where a straight road disguised as an unmarked junction gets me in a tiz. I slow down and am awarded an automatic fail.

Damn.

The reverse parallel park goes smoothly enough ("Your control is atrocious, Jimmy") and as we slip through avenues and alleyways, I set about a damage-limitation exercise.

Is this the way to Amarillo? I ask, to lighten the mood. No, it's Gomersal, Martin replies.

Which is where I incur the first of four speeding faults passing Hill Top.

Is this notorious blackspot partly responsible for the low pass rate, I wonder?

"It's a busy junction, you have to grasp at opportunities – but anyone who has been put in for their test should be able to cope with it," says Martin.

And what about the Gildersome roundabout? Isn't that deemed the most dangerous junction in West Yorkshire?

"Okay, it can be intimidating – there won't be many test centres with a set of roundabouts like that.

"You have to be on your toes. But can you honestly say you're a good driver if you can't negotiate a roundabout?"

In that case, I suggest, I must be a good driver, having escaped without a bump or scratch worth mentioning.

"You're worse than my wife," says Martin, "and she's shocking."

At the Smithies traffic lights I slip into the wrong lane, stop too close to the car in front then jump an amber light. Martin is seeing red.

When I unwittingly cut a corner on to Leeds Old Road – incurring another automatic fail – he bawls that I'm "like a bloody racing driver."

The ordeal is being recorded by a unique in-car camera, so, like his students, I can go home and re-live the session. It gives a new meaning to the phrase car-crash TV.

Ticking off another minor for "tailgating", my instructor quizzes me on stopping distances at 20mph.

"I don't know," I say, "I never drive at 20mph."

Oh well, nearly done; just a couple more disasters to go, including starting my reverse round a corner in fourth gear.

To be fair, I am still flustered at having to pull over sharply for an ambulance (and Martin's claim that he's never tempted to jump on the paramedics' tail to skip through traffic).

As we reach the test centre, Martin prophesises that anyone who passes in Heckmondwike is a good driver.

Six automatic fails and more faults (17 minors) than Wimbledon means I am in no position to comment.

"Don't take this the wrong way, Jimmy, but you're driving as if you shouldn't have a licence."

How can I take that the wrong way, Martin?

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