Want to learn to drive a truck? At Convoy in the Park you can sample one of the hardest parts of the driving test: the reverse manoeuvre. Here’s how George Barrow got on with his C licence training, courtesy of Scania.
You need to get the London out of you,” said my Scania driving instructor Eddie O’Brien. And therein lay the problem of the next five days of learning to drive an 18-tonne rigid and gaining a Category C licence.
Driving in London is often best summed up with a cartoon-like image of an angry, fist-waving, horn-tooting maniac, but despite being a London driver I wouldn’t class myself as an aggressive one. In fact, I would describe my driving style as the polar opposite of that caricature, usually. Yet when I arrived for my first day of HGV training and Eddie asked me to score my own driving out of 10 – “Two,” I joked – a look of panic crossed his face. “Really?” he probed.
“Well, I drive a van in London, mostly at rush-hour and only ever in first or second gear. I’m definitely not a bad driver, I just probably couldn’t pass my driving test again.” His response was unprintable, but as a former native of Millwall, south-east London, and one-time Routemaster bus driver, he knew what I meant by my approach to driving.
Despite telling myself, as I travelled to Scania’s UK headquarters and driver training centre in Milton Keynes, that I was just learning to drive a really big van, the challenge of driving a truck was always going to be on a different level.
In order to reach the training stage there are a few administrative hoops to jump through. Having a clean bill of health is unsurprisingly a requirement, so months earlier I’d had my personal MoT and submitted my licence to the DVLA to update my entitlements. Training centres can often arrange a medical on site or nearby if you haven’t already had one.
I booked my training with Scania training services, who offer one-to-one tuition in ultra-modern trucks – mine was a 65-plate G-series – and will tailor the course and teaching time to your abilities. Emails arrived confirming a provisional date for my training and three theory test bookings – HGV multiple choice, HGV hazard perception, Driver CPC module 2 case study. All I had to do next was log on to Scania’s prescribed training partner www.drivingtheory4all.co.uk for some revision, covering anything and everything from drivers’ hours, safe loading and road signs to basic medical assistance.
Behind the wheel
Finally my turn behind the wheel arrived and, buoyed by not having to contend with a manual gearbox or hand-operated exhaust brake – HGV drivers can train in an automatic truck but still gain a full licence, while the G-series allows the two-stage footbrake to double as a retarder – I began my first drive on public roads in an HGV.
Eddie didn’t rate my chances of passing as hopeless, but did observe that inbuilt ‘London-ness’ that saw me refusing to give an inch to an overzealous taxi driver as I pulled away from a busy roundabout, and the White Van Man trait of barrelling into corners in an attempt to round them on two wheels. Neither of which is desirable for any road user, let alone one in an 18-tonne truck. Clearly there was work to be done…
On day two, Eddie introduced the principles behind the dog-legged reversing manoeuvre I was to carry out on test.
Then we set off on a drive, just like the day before; me driving and Eddie observing, commenting and coaching. The difference came when travelling across a high piece of exposed ground. The surface’s camber was severe, leading to a not insignificant gully, while the road ahead looked, to me, impossibly narrow for a truck and a car to pass each other. Throw in the tail-end of a storm and I had my perfect excuse for what happened next. Out of nowhere, I found myself engaged in a bitter battle with the steering wheel. I’d dropped the nearside rear wheel into the gully and was fighting hard to pull myself out of the four- or five-inch gutter without veering into the oncoming traffic. The truck did pull comfortably back onto the road but my confidence had been dented. Eddie’s analysis was swift and accurate. “You’re driving to the centre line,” he told me. “Position yourself with your left mirror, not where the white line in the road is. I want to see yellow lines in that [nearside] mirror.” I also hadn’t quite got to grips with other road users.
London driving taught me to judge a passing vehicle within a hair’s width, but apparently this is frowned upon in an HGV driving test. So I spent the third day relearning everything I’d subconsciously learnt over the years about road positioning by steadfastly watching my left mirror and also garnering a new skill – the persuasive art of being bigger than anyone else and subtly suggesting the space you need without bullying other road users out of the way. That, it transpired, was what Eddie meant by ‘getting the London out’.
On Monday, my last day of training, and with a test booked for Tuesday afternoon, I was told there wouldn’t be any real time for anything more than driving to the test centre, so any mistakes had to be done with today.
On to test day, and that extra bit of added pressure and nerves served to sharpen my drive. After answering a handful of show-me-tell-me questions to test vehicle knowledge, it was on to the reversing exercise and then out of the test centre and almost straight into an independent driving section of the test where you follow road signs rather than the examiner’s instructions. After just over an hour of driving, including several stops on a variety of roads to check your observation and ability to safely pull out into traffic, the test was complete.
With a driver shortage estimated to be about 60,000 people, I’m pleased to say there is now one more truck driver on the road. The training is gruelling, as driving a truck is not easy. But if you are wondering whether learning to drive an HGV is for you, take note that if a van driver with more than a few bad habits can pass their Category C licence, you could too.
Convoy in the Park
At Convoy in the Park, adjacent to Paddock 3, you can get behind the wheel alongside a professional driver in an 18-tonne rigid and experience the in-test reversing manoeuvre. Mind you, it’s not easy. The test is to reverse back and to the left in a sort of dog-leg shape and pull up into a defined parking bay. It is as if you were backing up to a loading bay to unload but had an obstruction that stopped you from reversing in straight.
Although used to reversing big vans, a quarter of a turn of the steering wheel in a rigid does a lot more to kick the back out but takes longer to take effect – so the trick, I found, was to put all of the steering lock on (to the left) straight away. That way you can line up the truck with the marker cone in your right-hand mirror and gently ease yourself backwards in a straight line until it is time to turn the wheel completely the other way to bring you perfectly aligned into the box. Then it’s merely a matter of judging how far back you need to go. It’s hard to picture on paper, but go and watch the Scania driver training experts do it and you’ll see what I mean – then have a go yourself.