Sarah started her career as a driving instructor over 14 years ago.
“My instructor in Cardiff was really good,” she told me, “I had previously had some bad ones, but he inspired me.”
So inspired was she that, when the time was right, she went on to obtain a Diploma in Driver Education (Dip DE.) which gives her more in-depth knowledge than the average driving instructor.
“I see my education as ongoing. I put myself through an advance driving test every three years. I also have an NVQ in driving Instruction.” She explains.
Sarah uses her many skills as Assessor in Driving Education with her business A1 Roadskills in Haverfordwest along with her partner and a dedicated team of 9 instructors.
Mallan House theory training centre was opened the week after her beloved Dad passed away. It is named for her Dad Alan and her Mum Marilyn.
“ I don’t think I could ever move from here ,” Sarah, says, “We like to think of ourselves as a hidden gem,” She goes on to describe that all her team have diversity training and come from a background of working with people with learning disabilities.
I wonder where the interest in working with disabled people comes from. Most people in my experience don’t really think about disability until it happens to them.
“My Dad was wheelchair user so I learned early on of the importance of mobility to one’s self esteem and independence. You can blend in in a car and with suitable adaptations most people can drive. Being able to drive is freedom.”
Sarah started to work with people who were anxious. She realised that some instructors couldn’t find a way to work with the pupils stress, and so they gave up. People started to come to her who had tried with other instructors and had lost their confidence. Her successes brought more and more people who might otherwise never have achieved their goals , either because of fear or disability.
“My view is that you never give up. Sometimes it takes a long time, the longest was 18 months, but I tell people that I will hold on to your ankles. I won’t let go. When people pass, they are so excited and happy.”
You must have to be very adaptable and creative.
Sarah agrees. “We found that the Theory test was presenting so many challenges to people who might have autism, dyslexic, or anxiety. We need to be very patient and encouraging.”
Sarah designed a structured programme and that programme is tailored to meet the needs of each individual, incorporating different learning styles and using her extensive knowledge of diversity issues.
“There is so much to think about, including environment. We have hosted theory tests at the training centre because the access to the local training centre has about 27 steps. The next nearest training centres are either Swansea or Aberystwyth.”
That sounds like a huge barrier for disabled people.
Sarah agrees. “We understand about accessibility. Our training centre is open and all white. No distractions. We prepare people not just for their test but for the whole experience of being at the Theory Centre. There are more security checks there than at the airport which is intimidating for anyone. If you are challenged with anxiety ,or a spectrum disorder we know you will need to manage the feelings that can overwhelm you. We do all of this in preparation, before the test. We take people down there, but we are not allowed to stay, which is difficult for them.”
What else do you do to support disabled pupils?
“There are a range of things. We work very much on an individual basis. For example we will do our best to match people with the cars that will be best for them. Even colours can be an issue for some people. Then there are other sensory issues. One autistic girl I worked with would keep taking her hands off the wheel. I realised that she didn’t like the feel of the steering wheel, so I put different covers on. She chose the furry cover and afterwards she would keep hands on. We have some people who used ear defenders so they can still hear me but the engine noise, which made them anxious, is toned down.
I have also used velcro on the steering wheel to help with anxiety too.
I realised with one person who kept touching the roof of the car that if I stuck some of the same fabric on the side of the steering wheel, they would be able to focus better.”
Sarah sees being able to drive as a life changing freedom. I tell her that I didn’t drive until I was forty and that passing my test felt more grown up to me than having a child.
She agrees that it is so important to give every encouragement so that her pupils get to enjoy this unique freedom.
“Everyone has a folder with homework and a plan of what is happening next. Some of my pupils ask for homework for mum and dad too. Families join in. Lots of them come to theory sessions and they are welcome in the car, adults and kids are welcome. Whatever helps my pupil feel confident.”.
Having helped hundreds of people from a variety of cultures, including Philipino, Chinese, Syrian and Romanian to enjoy this freedom of the open road, she stresses that English not being someone’s first language is no bar to learning to drive. Neither is age. Her youngest pupils start off road at aged 14. Her oldest pupil was aged 81. They are all taught, not just the pleasure but also the huge responsibility of being a driver.
While obviously a warm and caring person with her pupils, Sarah is quite fierce about bad driving.
“I am rather critical of bad drivers,” she tells me. “I want to stand on a roundabout with a placard telling people to slow down. We offered free lessons about a year ago to help people understand about the roundabout at Morrisons which everyone complains about, but no one took it up.”
Sarah has shown me how to negotiate that roundabout correctly, so I know how valuable that lesson is. Why do you think people didn’t take up the offer?
“I think its pride.”
Is that a big problem, do you think, with driving in general?
“As far as I am concerned, it’s the worst …people thinking they are better drivers than they are. Its very dangerous. The other main problem is speeding. The two often go together. “
Sarah has hosted and facilitated speed awareness courses with the police for 8 years across Wales and other parts of England. She has met some brilliant people she tells me but the increase in drivers going on speed awareness courses, has grown hugely in the years she has been involved in this kind of education, so she is not convinced of their efficacy.”
What would Sarah do to make our roads safer?
“I would redesign the roads and put in proper cycle paths like in Europe. People get upset about cyclists but it’s an older form of transport than the car and bikes have the right to use the road safely. I would also insist on standard indicators on cars as the variety is distracting.”
I agree. I find the weird and wonderful array of indicator lights very confusing.
“Drivers should indicate more, she goes on. And I think everyone should read the highway code….update their knowledge every three years. There are 3017 rules in there at the moment.”
Sarah hasn’t confined her driving to the UK. She has driven all over Europe citing Italy as a bit of a nightmare. “People like to sound the horn too much,” she explains, “and the roads are terrible, full of potholes. Driving in Italy is rather erratic.”
She laughs, “It makes driving in Pembrokeshire feel like a dream.”
She has also been to Doha in Qatar five times to run a Driving Education programmed for the biggest fertiliser company in the world.
“I get treated like a queen there.” She laughs,” Chauffeured to work at 6 finishing at 1 because of the heat.”
Sounds exciting. Is there anything else she would like us to say about driving?
“Well not everyone with a trailer or caravan realises that if they passed their test after Jan1997 they need a B and E test to tow the max authorised weight above 3500 weight. Without it they risk being prosecuted for no insurance and can have their vehicle confiscated There can also be a fine. We are in our second year now at our Trailer Training site up on the showground, having trained 167 people last year. People are coming from all over Ireland. London, Birmingham. According to the DVSA biggest trainers.”
To contact Sarah:
“I’ve had more lessons than hot dinners over the years and then I met Sarah – incredibly calming, professional and THE best instructor. If you want to learn to drive as well as pass your test you won’t find better than A1.”
“Sarah is the most professional calmest instructor who flew me through my test after having little confidence after being on and off with my driving for so long! Honestly can’t thank her enough! The car is a dream too drive! She has little way to make you remember each thing she teaches whether this is theory help or the manoeuvres which she tailors to you to help remember! Ganna hugely miss our chats, felt like a friend as well as an instructor! Thank you so much!! See you on the road!! 10/10 would give her more than 5 stars if I could!!”
“Highly recommend A1 road skills! My instructor Tony helped me so much and was so supportive throughout I wouldn’t of passed my test without him. Anyone who needs help to learn to drive should choose A1 for there professional tuition in helping myself or any other pupil to pass there driving test and special thanks to Tony Llewellyn.” 7 Colorfu