No.3: Steering Control
Okay pop pickers, this series analyses the ‘Top 10’ test failures, giving you some tips on teaching to help pupils avoid them in the future
Something I noticed around 35 years ago when I started delivering fleet training was that many experienced drivers had ‘inherent’ steering issues that they were unaware of. Later, when I started ADI development work (delivering CPD) I discovered that the steering issues were also present in the driving of many of my ADI customers, despite the fact that some had passed advanced driving tests,
Turning to You
Okay, maybe I’m being over-zealous. After all, if an ADI can qualify and go on to pass advanced tests, the steering problems can’t be that bad. They weren’t, but nonetheless, they were noticeable, particularly on sharp right turns, and manifested themselves in very slight ‘swan neck’ steering after turning (i.e. late straightening up). But when I started looking more closely, I noticed the late steering problem raising its head in other situations as well. Again, hardly noticeable unless you are really looking for them.When it comes to learners, you don’t have to look quite so hard as issues tend to be more exaggerated, and there is one key problem that lies at the heart of virtually all steering problems.
Nearly all of the steering errors that I’ve helped remedy over the years have one common linking factor – observation. Drivers were looking in the wrong place at the wrong time. Perhaps I’m being picky, but how many single car fatalities, where cars leave the road on bends, could be avoided if drivers were looking in the right place? Almost every experienced driver I have trained, including ADIs, look short when coming into bends, particularly right-hand bends, often only lifting their eyes beyond the apex as they arrive. This can often lead to unnecessary braking and excessive steering input. For some drivers it even results in the tyres squealing in pain before finally giving up the fight; the driver loses control, allowing the car to leave the road. Now I’m not suggesting that we should drive around the countryside like lunatics, but many bends could be taken safely at a much higher speed than some people may consider to be dangerous. And when the ‘some people’ are ADIs, it makes me question how much they recognise the observation/steering link (at any speed).
The Steering Wheel
Novice drivers don’t have to be travelling at F1 speeds to have steering problems, and when they are ‘nerve blind’ during a test the potential for problems becomes even greater. So it’s imperative that steering and positioning become instinctive early on in the training process, and ‘second nature’ by the time of the test. Any readers who have seen or used the DriverActive Visual Teaching System will be familiar with my simple rule for steering which sums up the link between observation and steering input: “Aim at what you want to hit!”. This rule often meets with the response “I don’t want to hit anything!”, but drivers must hit clear empty spaces in order to stay safe. So, what are you doing that might be preventing your customers from aiming for empty spaces? Perhaps the first issue, and easiest to fix, is the language that you use. How often have you said “Don’t look at the parked cars”, or “Watch the cyclist”, thereby drawing your learner’s vision, and therefore their steering, towards these hazards inappropriately?
Instead, try: “Aim for the gap between the cars”, or “Look well ahead and allow six feet clearance from the cyclist”. Or better still, and where time permits, use a question: “Where do you need to aim in order to…”. The road position for passing parked cars is not determined when you arrive – the positioning decision must be made early. In the same way that a bow and arrow is ‘aimed’ at a target – the car should be aimed at a space well before it gets there.
Many instructors suffer from ‘reference point syndrome’ in their efforts to correct steering and positioning errors – marks on the windows, instructions to line up the kerb with the screen wash nozzles and so forth. All of these things reduce necessary external visual information getting to the driver’s brain and therefore probably do as much to hinder steering accuracy long-term as they do to help it short-term.
Reference points are sometimes useful for slow speed manoeuvres, as long as they are determined by the learner, but can be positively dangerous in straight line driving at anything over about 5 mph. In order to develop spatial awareness and, thus, a sense of where the car will be positioned next, drivers need to look ahead and keep their eyes moving. A related problem is looking along the length of the bonnet when turning right rather than looking through the driver’s door window – resulting in the classic ‘swan neck’ turn.
Posture: If your learner’s shoulders are not supported by the seat back they will not have optimum steering control. Try driving around the block a few times while leaning forwards in your seat you’ll soon understand! Technique: ‘Push-Pull’ has never been a driving test requirement in the UK. Allow your learners to steer naturally. Also, holding the wheel too high often leads to ‘steering wobble’, and too low to.