Well I survived my assessment day and so, I’m pleased to say, did the coach I was driving. In fact I can safely say that the only thing that I hit was the brake pedal!
The day dawned grey and showery, but thankfully the rain stayed away during my one-and-a-half-hour driving assessment. To be honest, the weather was the least of my worries!
After my driving licence was checked and copied, I was led out to the training vehicle. I don’t remember much about it except that it was white and VERY big. I found out during our jaunt around the Somerset countryside that it was a Scania coach with an 11 litre engine and 10 forward gears. Yes, ten! This awesome gearbox was the first thing to rear up and bite me once we were on our way. The gear stick travels quite a long way but, due to the many linkages on the way to the gearbox at the back, it feels a bit like stirring treacle. I have to admit that I missed the gears quite often and, in hindsight, should have spent some time exploring the gearbox before starting the engine. There are actually only 5 gears + reverse but the forward gears are multiplied by a 2-speed rear axle (I think). There’s a neat little switch near the top of the gear stick which lets you select high or low ratio. You merely dip the clutch shortly after flipping the switch to implement the change. A bit like the old-fashioned pre-select change I imagine.
The next thing to bite me was the sheer size of the coach. I’d hit the kerb twice before we’d even left the industrial estate! Being 40 feet long and 8 feet wide, it took an enormous amount of effort to adjust my spacial awareness. I normally drive a car which is less than half that size! My instructor told me to keep 18 inches away from the white line by the verge so, as you can imagine, that took lots of concentration and frequent glances in the mirrors.
Thankfully we didn’t do any town driving but the countryside held enough terrors for a beginner like me. The A-road we used was great between villages but the road narrows alarmingly when it passes through them. Add oncoming lorries and parked cars to that and the hazards soon pile up. In fact this is where I came unstuck in a big way. Descending a hill into a village I was struggling to select a lower gear. Ahead of me were parked cars on the left, around which I had to pass. I forgot to indicate right and, to top it all, another car was coming the other way. This car of course had right of way but, in the heat of the moment I neglected to stop and give way. This led to some sharp braking on my part and a reluctant backing down by the other driver as I sneaked through. If it had been the driving test, I would have failed right there. I put it down to being a beginner with a high workload!
During the minutes afterwards I began to doubt whether I could do this. I’m no spring chicken and taking all this new information on board isn’t as easy as it is for a younger person.
The rest of the trip passed without any more alarms or excursions, except for one wrong turn which required a visit to an industrial estate to find somewhere to turn. An unexpected reversing exercise too!
On returning to the garage I parked up and turned off the engine. I visibly slumped in the seat as I finally relaxed after the tension of the journey. It turned out that it hadn’t been too bad after all. My instructor told me that I should be able to take the practical test after another 5 days training. 5 days? Is that all? I felt as if I would need at least 5 weeks! We talked about it and then compromised. OK then, 7 days.