Dry mouth, clammy hands, a general feeling of unease and an unfamiliar and rather official man with a clipboard in the passenger seat of my car. I remember this feeling. Oh, I remember...
It’s the dreaded driving test day – a challenge I never expected to be facing a second time around – well, fourth if you count the times I failed.
I ripped up my L-plates after passing the test 10 years ago – but as Hemel Hempstead now has its own driving test centre for the first time, the motoring milestone could not be allowed to pass without someone from the Gazette taking on the challenge. I don’t think I volunteered, but somehow it turned out to be me.
The test centre, based in Apsley’s Halfords store, opened in June under a government initiative instigated by our very own town MP Mike Penning during his time as transport minister, in a bid to make test centres more local and easier to get to for learners ready to make the big leap.
Nervous candidates meet their examiner at a seated area set up just inside the store’s sliding doors before setting off on their test, which lasts between 30 and 40 minutes – but as anyone will tell you, seems to take an eternity.
And yes, nervous novice drivers, some of the six test routes on offer do include the town’s infamous Magic Roundabout.
But don’t despair, you won’t be expected to make a complete circuit of the famous gyratory system made up of five mini-roundabouts linking into one giant circle.
And it’s not as tough as most people think, according to Driving Standards Agency area operations manager Phil Bettle, who was a driving examiner for 10 years.
“I don’t think people should be worried. With all driving tests, wherever you take them, the key to it is practice,” he said.
The new examination centre runs tests on two days of the week – Wednesday and Friday.
So far around 300 people have taken their practical test from there but it is too early for figures to be released on pass rates. The national average for passing first time is 48 per cent, though – thanks for the confidence booster!
Phil’s tip for making it into that category is practice, practice, practice.
“Be prepared and ready for your test,” he said. “Research has found that on average people who pass have had 47 hours of tuition with an instructor and at least 22 hours privately – with mother, father or a relative and so on – so make sure you are absolutely ready for the test on the day and you will pass.”
I hadn’t done any preparation for my driving test but I do drive every day – surely that should be enough?
But I had mentally prepared myself for a fail verdict from examiner Andrew Browett before even getting behind the wheel, because of all the bad habits that I must have picked up over the last decade.
To my surprise Andrew, who is the sector manager for this area, passed me with just four minors – less than I picked up during my real exam.
And two of those faults were ticked off before I even got out of the Halfords car park, because my parallel parking didn’t pass muster.
Yes, I’m a female driver but I can still just about park, although my observation wasn’t great and I had to move forward to re-adjust my position, which got Andrew scribbling away on his clipboard.
The other two minors were for forgetting to check my blind spot once and stopping too close to the car in front at traffic lights – I’d forgotten the ‘tyres and Tarmac’ golden rule.
But Andrew did dispel some myths.
Apparently not all habits are bad. It doesn’t matter as long as you are in control of the car and safe, he revealed – so no feeding the steering wheel through my hands for me.
The driving test has changed over the years. These days you have to answer a couple of questions at the beginning about the maintenance of your vehicle, such as how do you find out what pressure your tyres should be and how would you check them.
Examiners are also trying to make the nerve-racking test more user friendly.
Phil said: “We have made big inroads into being more friendly and making the event as pleasant as it can be.”
So L-plate drivers, take it from me – all you need to do is practice, master the Magic Roundabout, stay calm on the big day and before you know it you’ll be unleashed onto the open road. Good luck!