The Veteran Observer and New Examiner talks to
Andrew Carter, Newsletter Editor
John Lang is one of the longest serving members of OAGAM. He is a National Observer for both bikes and cars, holds Masters Distinctions for advanced riding and driving and has been an important and influential committee member for many years. Recently, John qualified as an IAM RoadSmart Motorcycle Examiner, which means that he must relinquish his OAGAM responsibilities, though he will remain a member of the group and, I’m sure, continue to be available for good counsel and advice.
I met John at Hopcrofts Holt, his favourite starting point for check runs, observed drives and rides. This time, rather than venturing out onto the roads of North Oxfordshire, we settled in the hotel lounge over a pot of coffee to discuss his experiences in advanced driving and riding.
AC: Can we start with some information about yourself – your background and your involvement in IAM and OAGAM.
JL: I started as a car associate in 1990. My observer was a surveyor who at that time was working on the building of the M40, so that helps to date it. I passed my advanced driving test in 1991 but it wasn’t until 1993 that I passed the advanced bike test. I’m not sure why there was such a long gap but I think it was mainly family reasons because that was when my daughters were very young.
AC: You must be one of the longest serving members of the local group.
JL: There are a few who have been there longer than me – whose membership numbers are lower than mine – but we don’t tend to hear from them very often now.
AC: So, when did you start observing?
JL: I became a car observer after I did my car test – so that would have been about 1991. I started observing bikes in around 1998.
AC: As you’ve been involved for such a long time, perhaps we could discuss the changes you have seen in the IAM, at both national and local level.
JL: Nationally, I don’t really think there had been much change at all until around 2005. The changes that happened then and the changes that happened last year – the rebranding and the restructuring – came about because of the IAM recognising the need for a more structured approach, particularly regarding how observers were trained and what they were doing.
AC: So back in 1991, when you passed your advanced driving test, you wouldn’t have had a score…
AC: So you couldn’t compare your score to anyone else…
AC: Did people want that?
JL: I don’t think so. If anyone wanted to up their game, they could always do the Special Assessment, which was a precursor to the Masters test. But that wasn’t advertised very widely so there was a very limited take-up. You just got a pass and it was a pass for ever. That is still the case, of course, unless you want to become a Fellow (See page 12).
AC: After you passed your test, what prompted you to become an observer?
JL: I asked about the possibility of becoming an observer for the group. I went out a couple of times with a group member who was a Police Officer. He did cars and bikes but mainly bikes. I went out with him a couple of times and he gave me some hints and tips - and I was an observer!
There wasn’t any kind of qualification process. We were perfectly good observers, but there wasn’t the structure that we have at the moment.
AC: As an observer, did you get any further help?
JL: There were a lot of well-established observers but I don’t think there were many new ones. If you needed it you could ask for it but, to be honest, I didn’t feel I needed any extra support.
Eventually, in 2000-2001, I took over the running of the bike side of the group.
AC: Can we just turn back to the IAM changes nationally. There is a sense that the recent developments reflect a real attempt by the IAM to get a grip on what was a rather disparate organisation and bring about more consistency of approach.
JL: Yes, there’s a higher level of regulation in driver and rider training in recent years. It was considered that an appropriate way to take the organisation forward would be to develop a really consistent approach to driver and rider training and testing. The aim was to make sure every associate got the same or a similar experience in their training and when they were tested it would be to a common standard.
It had got to a stage where the central organisation had lost control of the standards being applied. Now it’s completely clear as to what the standards are. Now I’ve started working as an IAM examiner, I know precisely the standard that I’m working to.
AC: Yes, congratulations on becoming a bike examiner! You’re the only examiner I know of who isn’t a serving or ex police officer. Is there a conscious policy on the part of the IAM to recruit more what we might call ‘home grown’ examiners?
JL: I think there is a move to ‘de-police’ the IAM. There have always been close links between the IAM and the Police Service but it is quite important to stress that the advanced test isn’t the same as a Police test. Couple this with the fact that in some areas – particularly where there aren’t large stretches of motorway - there are simply fewer Police motorcyclists to recruit as examiners and you’ll begin to understand why I know of at least five other bike examiners who don’t have a Police background. There seems anyway to be a larger pool of car examiners and that’s probably why I’m only doing bike tests.
As you know, in our area we have a group of long serving carexaminers who are well known to us.
AC: When you first began observing, was there any contact between the group and the examiners?
JL: There were a couple of examiners who engaged with the group, for example on training runs, but we really had to work hard to make that happen. Nothing happened unless we orchestrated it.
AC: As an examiner, are you now encouraged to engage with local groups or is it still left up to the individual?
JL: The guidelines we are given do suggest that examiners can support their local groups in training observers – National Observers in particular. In fact we are encouraged to maintain a good relationship with local groups. However, in order to remain impartial we aren’t allowed to engage in the training of associates or the running of the group. But there’s no reason why you can’t keep a good relationship with the group.
AC: And are you planning to do that?
JL: Oh definitely. Actually, most of the tests I’ve conducted so far have been with candidates from other groups. Though my very first candidate – the one for which I was assessed – is an OAGAM member (See page 10)! I remember it was during a period of very cold weather and we really struggled to get it done.
Since then I’ve had five or six candidates from adjacent groups. Where I live, near Banbury, is on the edge of a number of local IAM groups. Candidates are allocated to me according to how close their postcode is to mine, so I’m expecting to see candidates from Coventry, Birmingham and so on.
AC: It must be quite interesting to find out what other groups get up to – what activities they put on, for example.
JL: Yes, but remember most of these other groups are dedicated bike groups. Originally, I think the IAM consisted almost entirely of car members but with the growth of interest in motorcycles there are many more bike members than when the IAM was founded.
AC: Is it fair to say that, within OAGAM, the car group and the bike group have tended to be quite separate?
JL: Well, first of all, it’s important to understand that the objectives for driver and riders have been quite different. This may be a factor just in our group but I guess it may also be more widely the case.
Among the car associates we havefewer what I’d call enthusiastic drivers who live and breathe their driving and really get a buzz out of it. Whereas bikers who join the group as associates are nearly all enthusiastic motorcyclists and their reasons for doing the advanced programme are to improve their enjoyment as well as their safety.
AC: And the group is able provide enjoyable experiences for them?
JL: Yes. There are more proactive social functions within the group for bikers – ride outs and longer trips like the ones to Keswick. On the car side there’s been some interest shown in doing that, but with very limited take-up. I think that’s because the reasons why car members join the group are quite different from those on the bike side.
AC: So, with your relatively unusual experience of being both a car and a bike observer, you are in a good position to talk about the different cultures in these two sides of the IAM.
JL: As I say, the bikers tend to be enthusiasts who think of the group as a way to feed their enthusiasm and build their network of like-minded enthusiasts. On the other hand, car associates come from a much wider range of backgrounds and those who sign up for the advanced course are not just keen ‘petrol heads’.
Quite a number of our car associates come to us because they have had an unsettling experience – a speed awareness course, a bad accident or a narrow escape. Or they may recognise that their skills are failing a bit due to age and they want a refresher, a second opinion. That really doesn’t happen with the bikes to the same extent.
AC: Do you think, then, that it’s a mistake to try to encourage our car members to be like the bike members and organise similar activities for them?
JL: I’m not sure what the benefits would be of doing that because the objectives and the type of person in most cases are different. That’s not to say that the programme of drive outs that is being planned for this summer won’t be of immense benefit for individual associates, observers and members (See page 4). But we must acknowledge that, although we have some real driving enthusiasts among our car members, there are others who joined for completely different reasons.
It has been suggested that the best structure would be for combined groups like OAGAM to have two quite separate sections, each with its own membership, leadership and programme of activities. However, at the moment, the IAM is looking to reduce the number of groups nationally – often by amalgamating smaller groups – rather than encourage combined groups to split into two. Larger groups offer economies of scale in terms of cost and labour. And remember, there is a large area of common ground between the two sides when it comes to the best ways of managing associates and guiding them deftly through the advanced programme to a successful test. In any case, our group is functioning very well at the moment offering good support to both car and bike members. I wouldn’t want to compromise or weaken that, as long as the differences of culture are understood and taken into consideration, for example when planning the monthly meetings and other events.
I must emphasise again that we must not forget the main reason we’re here.
AC: Which is?
JL: To improve driving and riding standards.
Admittedly I’ve only done a few tests so far, but one of the most interesting things for me since becoming an examiner is that I’m seeing the same strengths and areas for improvement across candidates from different groups, particularly when it comes to positioning and cornering. I think we should be offering more demo rides to demonstrate these skills to associates as part of their observed runs.
It’s the same with demo drives. A good driver gets the car balanced and set up well for a corner; it’s difficult to explain it but it’s relatively easy to demonstrate.
AC: As always, John, you home in on the practical essence of good advanced driving and riding.
JL: Yes, thank you – but I must say that, particularly for car associates, alongside the practical skills we are often helping them to overcome a lack of confidence. Improving an associate’s confidence is often the key to success.
AC: Finally, can we take a brief look to the future. Obviously, we all wish you the very best as you embark on your new role as an examiner and I’m sure you’ll relish the new challenges that will bring.
JL: Well, from a personal perspective I’m going to miss training people because I have very much enjoyed doing that over the years. However I needed to do something different and when the opportunity came along I jumped at the chance and I’m looking forward to the challenges ahead.
AC: John, thanks so much for giving up time to share your experiences and insights. We look forward to hearing from you soon at one of our ‘Meet the Examiner’ sessions…