I passed my driving test first time (with the chief examiner in the back assessing the examiner no less) after 14 one-hour lessons. That was in 1992 and I've always considered myself a sensible driver, having never had so much as a speeding ticket.
That was until February this year when a letter arrived from the Suffolk constabulary. I'd been caught doing 35 in a 30 zone through the rural village of Yoxford on the A12; a crime of which I was blissfully unaware.
The letter laid out my options; a £60 fine and three points on my untarnished licence, or pay £83.75 and attend a four hour National Speed Awareness course in Bury St. Edmunds. The points would then be waived. Not fancying driving back to Suffolk from London for the day I rang up and got the course changed to London, the nearest place for Londoners is Bromley or Ealing (and costs £95).
So there I was, in Ealing at 8am on a Saturday with 24 other lead-footed offenders. Far from being the bullet-headed boy-racers I expected, my fellow law breakers looked like a cross section of modern Britain. Men outnumbered women two to one, there was a smattering of different nationalities and races, and the average age must have been in the early 40s. All in all we were a pretty average bunch. We'd have probably made two good juries between us.
Much like a school detention, there are two ways to approach the course.
A: Moan and whinge and incur not only the wrath of the group and instructor, but also the possibility of not passing and therefore still getting the 3 points and £60 fine.
Or B, accept that you have to do it and just join in. I was all set to expect 'death by Powerpoint', but in their defence AA Drivetech have at least tried to make the presentation interesting and informative. I for one have sat through duller slides from clients and employers in my time.
Leading the group was Henning Fischer, who hailed from Germany and ran the session with a deft balance of humour and Teutonic efficiency, delivering such lines as 'when I say the break is eight German minutes I mean eight German minutes'. We then COASTed through acronyms and watched various videos, guessed speed limits and stopping distances and analysed UK road signs. I was amazed at just how much of the highway code I'd forgotten.
Indeed one of the most interesting points was that out of the 24 people there, only two had passed their test since the introduction of the first theory test in 1996. During my driving test all those years ago I was shown a few symbols and asked to read a number plate and that was about it.
Henning talked about how driving tests are conducted on the continent, where a process of gradual licensing is in place. Another difference is that there's also a compulsory first aid element. We ended with the tale of the 1991 M4 crash in which 10 people were killed and 25 injured.
Afterwards Henning talked about who came on the course, including some minor celebs. He also told me that once a woman turned up pretending to be her daughter, which as well as being illegal (the police were informed and took a dim view) is also a shocking example of bad parenting.
It seems we live in a fast-moving more monied age, where fines - from late DVDs to parking tickets to overdraft charges - aren't really an effective deterrent anymore. The cost just gets subsumed into our daily lives, but habits often don't change. But we're also much more 'time poor' - or like to think we are - and so taking four hours of my time (as well as my money it must be added) actually made me stop and consider my driving.
The next day my wife and I went out for a drive; my hands were at ten to two, the mirror was checked every 6-12 seconds, and I set about boring her with the stats and stories I'd learned. We'll have to see how long it lasts. If I'm caught again in the next three years it's an instant three points, but according to Henning the stats show I won't be; people who attend the course rather than take the points are much less likely to re-offend. But more than that I came away not feeling so much punished as re-energised as a motorist. Another benefit is that I don't have to tell my insurance company about any of this, shhhh.
Have any of you been on a speed awareness course? Did it make a difference to you driving or was it a complete waste of time? Let us know in the comment box below.