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Taking inhibition onto the roads

Barry Collins shares some of his experiences of training to be an iInstructor/Observer with the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM)
First published in STATNews, May 2013.
 

I cannot give any real reason for submitting myself to the rigorous test procedure of the IAM in the first place, but it certainly has something to do with being fascinated with all things motoring, and possibly liking a difficult challenge. Perhaps also it was because I had just re-read the revised edition of FM Alexander's Conscious Control of the Individual, published in 1946, and I was looking for an ‘application’, other than hands over the back of a chair…

Although I considered myself a good driver, especially as I had never been involved in accident, after 40 years there was no or very little conscious thought left in driving. However, when finally sitting next to a grade one police instructor for the big one hour driving test, it was interesting to see how mind and body sometimes struggle to come together. 

On the road 

But that final examination is well down the line. The first thing I had to do is to get an IAM Observer to take me out in my own car for four to six training runs. Each one involves a one and a half to two hour drive around the suburbs and out into the country. As a qualified teacher of the Alexander Technique, I also tried to keep my neck free, my head forward and up, and my back lengthening and widening. These supervised driving experiences were very revealing. I wondered afterwards how in the past I had managed to drive the car, chat to a passenger,  listen to Celine Dion, AND swear at  other drivers. Not to mention that engrossing conversation on the hand held mobile. Life seemed much simpler then…

 Now, it seems, driving the car and at the same time verbally describing the approaching hazards that I'm seeing -other road users, road layout, the low sun in the sky, the driving rain , and in fact whatever can be anticipated, plus prioritising and having a plan as to how I am going to deal with these hazards, was (and still is)  is a major challenge. Perhaps similar to getting out of a chair, AND being aware of the room, your neck, your head, your back, your knees etc and, of course, not holding the breath.

The format of instruction follows a similiar pattern at each one and a half hour session. My personal  instructor, after familiarities have been completed, told me in which direction to drive, and then  would go into his litany of continuous-spoken commentary , basically describing whatever he could see that could affect our progress, or what he could anticipate that might develop to affect our progress, and this was what he was seeing 20 feet in front of the car, 200 yards in front of the car, to the horizon in front of the car,  in the side  mirrors, and  in the rear view mirror.  All together, one after the other, so to speak …

It was almost like we were in a very large cocoon of awareness, which he was continuously upgrading, as we made our journey. At this degree of awareness changing events would be predicted and planned for, rather than something to which we would merely respond. Pro-active and never reactive.

Now what I am describing here is my instructor's level of awareness, not mine. For me there was just too much information to process at this stage of my training, and one got the feeling that 1600 hours of instruction as on an Alexander Technique teacher training course might not be a bad idea here, either.

So if I could get over my end-gaining tendencies, and just stay with the IAM means-whereby, there was every possibility that I would gain my end. Almost by default, ease and openness slowly took the place of a constant startle pattern. But there was no escape from the here and now. Interestingly, at no time was there any criticism or any tendency by the instructor to excite my fear reflexes. His job was not teach me how to drive, but to make me aware of the poor habits that I had slowly added to my driving technique over the years, habits that had nothing to do with safety and car control. 

Field of Awareness

This was seriously asking me to live in the moment. And also to look, to see, and describe.

As we journeyed along, we were awash in the constant flow of changing information, details that needed to be assessed and prioritised, and either discarded or if necessary responded to very smoothly. Always smoothly. Passengers must not be aware of all the work going on. All other road users must be left totally undisturbed by your behaviour -nobody to have to change speed or direction on your behalf, for example. It was all very much like skilled ballroom dancing, where everything is effortless, and seriously well-coordinated. Quite simple really.

Attitude is all-important in driving a car. And the ante is being upped the whole time with the cry from my instructor to "make progress". Once the national speed limit restriction signs hove into view one was expected to maintain 50/ 60/70 mph as allowed. But only if it was safe to do so.

Whatever the hazard, one needs to be in the right position on the road, at the right speed, in the right gear, with full acceleration when appropriate, and always with the ability to stop safely, judging by the distance that can be seen to be clear on your side of the road. There are ongoing checks and balances, like the relationship between the lengthening and widening of the back. No un-thinking habits allowed.

At another level of awareness, I am also asking myself: Can I drop my shoulders? Can I give my weight to the seat? Can I allow the information to come to my eyes, rather than my eyes going out, trying to see? Can I have an open and extensor grip on the steering wheel? Can I sense the amount of resistance in the gear lever, and use just enough effort to ease it through? Perhaps I could ungrip my neck, and maybe take another breath...

But very gradually one learns to coordinate the various component parts of the ‘system of car control’, and keep a level of personal awareness that at one time seemed impossible. Adding inhibition and direction, raises another set of challenges, but the satisfaction if you can make it happen is very great.

The IAM are always recruiting new members, especially aiming for young people who are most at risk on the road.  Youth often brings good physical coordination at the wheel but engenders unfortunate attitudes of optimism, with little appraisal of potential hazards, and so high accident levels. But all members of STAT would be welcome as IAM candidates. I think many would find the process fascinating and, best of all, really great fun.

 After all, the Alexander Technique only really ‘works’ at a point of application.


© Barry Collins 2013 & 2014

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