How To Drive: As a New Driver

The number of cars in the UK grew from a few thousand at the turn of the century to more than 2 million by the mid ’30s. People with no formal training and no idea how to operate heavy machinery were discovering new ways to kill themselves and others on the roads. They notched up 7,305 fatalities in 1930 alone, and the average police driver had a crunch every 8,000 miles. 

The world population of motor vehicles exceeded 1 billion a couple of years ago. Car crashes kill 50 per cent more people than malaria, and the World HealthOrganization predicts that road deaths will rise 52 per cent by 2030, overtaking HIV/AIDS as a global killer within the decade.

How To Drive: As a New Driver

In America, the first driving exams were set up by high schools before state legislature intervened to regulate traffic with a licensing scheme for vehicles and their operators, starting with Chicago in 1899. The red tape started flowing in Europe with authorities looking to everyone from steam boiler associations to car salesmen for guidance and training in how to drive. A test finally materialized in Britain in 1934.

The modern driving test allegedly teaches safe driving for life, but the newly passed are four times more likely to crash than the rest of us. The majority of ‘us’ believe we would fail the test if we had to retake it. So, being ‘good’ at the test does not equal being a good driver.

Lord Trenchard (1873–1956) was a visionary with a taste for speed. Having lost a lung and been paralysed from the waist down after being shot during the Boer War, he took up bobsleighing during his recuperation in Switzerland. When the impact of a hefty crash on the Cresta Run miraculously cured him, he returned to active duty, became a pilot and laid the foundations for the Royal Air Force with Winston Churchill. He was appointed Police Commissioner in 1931.

The number of cars in the UK grew from a few thousand at the turn of the century to more than 2 million by the mid ’30s. People with no formal training and no idea how to operate heavy machinery were discovering new ways to kill themselves and others on the roads. They notched up 7,305 fatalities in 1930 alone, and the average police driver had a crunch every 8,000 miles. The new commissioner decided to do something about it.

He picked up the telephone to a man who had been busy writing the history of motoring with his right foot. A Grand Prix winner in the early days of the sport, Sir Malcolm Campbell would take the world speed record to beyond 300mph by 1935. Having evaluated the fleet, Campbell concluded the lack of training and experience was the root cause of the police’s attrition rate.

Trenchard recruited Lord Cottenham, the Stig of his time, and MI5 agent Mark Pepys to oversee the creation of a police driving course. Cottenham set out the Ten Commandments of Motoring in his book Steering Wheel Papers, a manual on maintaining control of the cumbersome vehicles of the day. He taught the police:

• since power steering hadn’t been invented, to pull the desperately large, heavy wheel with one hand and push it with the other

• to apply their 10 horsepower gently and continuously through the corner so as not to upset their delicate suspension and hard, skinny tyres

• to use the brakes independently of changing down gears so that both feet were free to ‘double de-clutch’, which mean pumping the clutch several times to engage the gears while matching the engine revs with the right foot

The results spoke for themselves. His training saw the police accident rate improve to one in 27,000 miles. Cottenham’s work was done. He left the Met after just three years, but his gospel of Police Roadcraft was canonized and passed through the generations unchanged.

Roadcraft’s system of car control continues to form the backbone of police driver training and is at the root of the physical skills we learn to pass the driving test. The fundamentals of car control, however, have changed a bit since the 1930s. Some 80 years on, the number of registered vehicles on UK roads has grown from 2 million to more than 34 million. A Ford Fiesta has ten times the power of a 1930s cop car, could leave Sir Malcolm’s Grand Prix racer dead at the traffic lights and hit corners on tyres with twice as much grip. Power steering turns the vehicle effortlessly and braking distances are up to 40% shorter than yesteryear.

Cottenham wouldn’t have expected his 1935 methods to remain unchanged any more than an RAF pilot would expect a Spitfire manual to help him fly a Harrier Jump Jet. Yet with the creaking gospel according to the Highway Code in one hand and gear knob in the other, we duly line up to receive this wisdom. Somewhere during the grinding of gear ratios, burning clutch plates and jarring emergency stops, we stop thinking about what we are doing and sometimes even sacrifice good sense on the altar of just passing the damn test.