In a previous blog post I covered everything necessary for me to pass the DSA’s driving theory tests for a big motorhome, and having done this I’ll now share with you my experiences of actually learning to drive a rigid truck. To me at least, who wants the licence to drive a big motorhome rather than earn a living, and then to take that big overland campervan to explore far-flung places for months at a time, with family aboard, it’s very important that I learn to drive something of this size and weight safely in as many different situations as possible.
Following a considerable wait for a spare slot, I was booked in to spend a full week (Monday to Friday) with the Scania Driver Training School in Avonmouth for my practical driver training and test. However, on Friday afternoon the guy who had done my assessment and was due to be my instructor phoned in sick, with a problem that was going to keep him off for at least a week. This meant that my 2-1 training (2 pupils in cab with instructor, one driving one watching) with him could no longer take place. I was offered an alternative instructor, who I’d not met before, on a 1-1 basis. Regardless of any reservations I may have had I had no real choice but to accept, either that or wait another month or two for my training.
So on Monday I drove down to Avonmouth, arriving at midday, to meet my instructor: Senior Driver Trainer Mike Child who you can see in the rare photo below (and read all about him on page 74 of this magazine) who would be training me in the afternoons.
We started off with an introduction to the truck, where Mike showed me around the main features, and explained how the main controls worked. Mike then took me out for a demonstration drive, before putting me behind the wheel. We drove out into the countryside and around various towns and villages, with Mike providing a superb and almost non-stop commentary on what was happening ahead. I later learned that he’s been nicknamed “Professor Parrot” because of his superb knowledge of all matters relating to road traffic law & planning, and because of his uncanny ability to provide a commentary that his pupils can “replay” (parrot style) while taking their test.
As the week went on I learned that Mike also holds an ADI certificate, has driven trucks for a living, and had been a driving instructor in various vehicles for 20 years. This is his vocation, and it shows, because he’s very good at it. At least, that’s my perception as a pupil of his. And in an industry that’s completely unregulated, that’s important (and assured if you get training from a reputable organisation such as Scania). As an aside, the only requirement to become a “professional” truck driving instructor is to have held a licence for the class of vehicle you wish to teach in for at least 3 years: meaning that having passed my test in October 2012 I can go nowhere near a truck until October 2015 and then promptly start teaching people to drive them! Compare that ease of “qualifying” to teach someone to drive a 32 tonne vehicle with the requirements to become an instructor in a 1 tonne car! It’s ludicrous, and something that urgently needs to be addressed by legislation.
For those who’re interested, here’s the technical specification of the truck I was learning on. It’s not what we’ll be using as the basis of our new motorhome because we need 4×4 drive-train, but it would certainly make a great basis for a 4×2 race truck (or horse box) as it’s a surprisingly pleasant vehicle to drive and sensibly priced on the second-hand market:
- Make: Scania
- Model: P230 4×2
- Engine: 230hp Euro 4 Diesel
- Gearbox: 8 speed manual (4 over 4)
- Wheelbase: 6,300mm (6.3m)
- Width: 2,500mm (2.5m)
- Length: 10,500mm (10.5m)
- Suspension: Steel front; Air rear
- Tyres: 315/80R22.5
- Gross Vehicle Weight: 18 tonnes
I’m not going to recount the week blow by blow but suffice it to say that it was a very structured approach, with reversing practice and city driving being introduced on Tuesday, independent driving (where you’re given a destination and expected to spot and follow signs) and some test routes on Wednesday, and more reversing and test routes on Thursday. On Friday we had a very useful practice of a few tricky spots, followed by the test itself.
I sat in the waiting room until a DSA examiner came out and called my name. On the way out to the truck he introduced himself as “Bob” and asked me some questions about the truck, daily safety checks, and how to operate some of its equipment. He then called me forward onto the reversing area and explained the exercise to me. This was naturally the same as I’d practised several times with Mike, but I couldn’t help thinking that the gaps between the cones seemed smaller than when I’d practised on Scania’s land! No matter though, I successfully reversed around two corners and stopped the back of the truck (some 10+ metres behind me) within the foot wide area that was marked out for the purpose, without stopping, going forwards, getting out, or hitting any cones, and had thus passed that aspect of the test.
Bob climbed in the cab and told me that we were about to head out on the road, and that we’d be starting with the independent driving part of the test. He picked a major destination that was clearly visible on the sign, and told me to head towards it.
While I was driving he started chatting with me, asking me such things as why I want a Cat C licence (my answer was somewhat different from the norm, involving an all-road motorhome rather than commercial use…), and then started telling me about his brother-in-law’s large motorhome (an American RV it transpired), and his own aspirations for a somewhat more modest VW campervan. I’d been warned by Mike that DSA examiners have been told to “be more customer friendly” and it seemed I was to be the beneficiary of this new approach. Bob then started asking me about my own motorhome plans, and what my family and I will do with it once built. This was of course my downfall because if you’re a regular reader you’ll be familiar with my enthusiasm for all things camping, and as I started to evangelise so I also managed to take the wrong exit from a roundabout and get us lost.
Once I had realised my error, and assumed that I’d pretty-much blown my test in the process, Bob calmly reassured me that this was not a test of navigation and that what mattered far more was how I handled my error. Luckily I got this bit right and, after an hour or so, we returned to the test centre somewhat later than expected.
Once back at the test centre I parked where instructed and was delighted to hear the magic words from Bob: “I’m pleased to say you’ve passed.” I saw I had a couple of minor faults (15 are allowed so I had plenty of room to spare) and asked my examiner to explain these, to help me improve. He explained that on a couple of occasions he didn’t feel I was making adequate city-centre progress in the face of oncoming traffic, and was consequently inconveniencing those vehicles following me. I explained that to an extent this was because, being on test, I was very nervous of causing anybody whatsoever to “stop, swerve or swear” (all pretty-much guaranteed instant fails) and was thus being very careful not to. He confirmed that he had suspected this may be the case, but left the minor faults recorded as he was unable to delete them.
As Bob left the cab, so Mike congratulated me and took the wheel to drive us back to Scania’s depot.
An interesting quirk of the law is that while my car driving licence for my 2.5 tonne Land Rover allows me to tow a 4 tonne trailer behind it, and my 2.5 tonne motorhome can tow a 1.8 tonne trailer behind it, my 32 tonne truck licence only allows me to tow a 750kg trailer behind it. I understand the commercial reasons for this, but in our case it means I can tow a small car behind a 2.5 tonne campervan but not behind a 25 tonne motorhome. It’s utterly perverse, but it’s also the law, and it means we’ll no longer have any way to get out and about when on a campsite because even if a Ducato-based vehicle is suitable for day trips out a commercial truck is somewhat less so.
The solution then is for me to take more training, followed by a C+E driving test. This will allow me to drive a 44 tonne articulated lorry, and thus (theoretically) to tow a 30 tonne trailer behind our new 14 tonne motorhome. Obviously this isn’t something I’ll be wanting to do, but it’s certainly better to have surplus capacity rather than none at all.
In my next blog post I’ll share my plans to get some relevant driving practice in before my forthcoming [C+E (Class 1 HGV – i.e. articulated lorry) training and driving test], and of course tell you about the training and test itself. In the meantime if you’d like to leave a comment please do so below, and if you’re enjoying this occasional series please say thank you by sharing this blog post with others.