Category Archives: Driving

Renewing the insurance on my car

This week I renewed my automobile insurance. (For some reason, in the UK it’s called “motor insurance”, but I kinda think I’m insuring the whole car and not just its motor.) I had been warned that on a renewal the insurance company may increase your premium and it’s better to shop around than just to accept their price. I didn’t have that experience, though: my insurance company gave me a 20% reduction in premium for having had a year with no claims. (Not having had a driving history in the UK, I couldn’t get this for my first year.) The best part, though, was that they have a driving app that I started using in July; it monitors your driving and scores you on safety. The highest possible score is 10, the average is 7.6 (says the app), and I scored 9.4. This gave me, additionally, 28% off the new premium. So I’m paying 44% less than I paid for insurance during my first year of owning this car.

Let no one say that insurance companies are all sneaks.


It’s a Toyota!

Island Blue Metallic Toyota Yaris, photo from Hodgson Toyota Newcastle (Note: I redacted the number plate myself)I’ve just arrived home from the Toyota dealer — with a contract to buy a 2016 Yaris. (It’s a 2014 model, design-wise, but was first registered in 2016.) I had considered getting an earlier model for less money, but I looked at the emissions and the fuel efficiency and the road tax and the insurance rating and the length of warranty remaining, and I decided to go for the more recent one even though I think the front grille makes it look like Yosemite Sam. I settled on the color Toyota calls “Island Blue Metallic” (do all auto manufacturers come up with such romantic color names? My last Toyota was a dark green they called “Woodland Pearl”), chosen from similar ones because I liked the color. I had been to the bank earlier and arranged a loan (my bank was offering an interest rate even lower than Toyota’s lowest and was also willing to consider my US income), so I was all prepared.

I had been pondering whether to buy a car this weekend or next, considering that I won’t be moving house for another three weeks, and it turns out that doing it today was perfect timing. The dealer has to arrange the road tax, which they can’t do on a weekend, so I test-drove it and put down a deposit, and I’ll pick it up next Friday. I still have to arrange insurance, but the dealer offers a three-day insurance policy that gives me time to sort my own, and I’ve got a couple of quotes already that I need to pursue.

The sales guy was explaining the controls, telling me that they were all pretty much where I would expect them, from having had Toyotas previously. “Except”, I said, “that the gearshift is to my left.”


Anticipatory car shopping!

This afternoon I went to a local Toyota dealer to do some— window shopping, I guess you could call it. I won’t be able to buy a car for another five weeks (and I told them this), but I learned enough today that I’ve made a tentative decision: I’m going to aim for a 2014 Yaris Icon or Icon Plus and I’m going to buy it before I move to Cambridge. I am driving a rental car right now — rented for ten days during the holidays, partly because public transport in the UK doesn’t run on Christmas or New Year’s — and in addition to a Christmas-Day jaunt that a friend and I took along the Tyne Valley and into the Pennine Hills I’m taking the opportunity to go to a few places that take a bit of work to get to on public transport. (Turns out that two buses that stop near my flat also stop in front of the dealership, so when I go back there to buy a car I’ll know without having to look it up which ones I can take.) The reason for buying it before I move is that the finance company will want to know, among other things, how long I’ve lived at my current address, which will be more than four years if I buy it before I move. And having a car will probably make it easier to do the moving.

At a friend’s suggestion, I started my online searching at (cars for sale by individuals), but unfortunately they had very few suitable cars anywhere near Newcastle. Next I looked at online car reviews, mostly at “Which?” — kind of like Consumer Reports but for the UK, and to get access to the reviews I signed up for a trial membership. I looked at all of the Japanese automakers and a few others, and then I turned to automaker websites (this time just the Japanese ones). When I decided to visit a dealer this afternoon I chose Toyota: I’ve been very pleased with all the Toyotas I’ve ever had, and all of the basic controls (seat movements, lights, wipers, turn signals…) have always worked in more or less the same way. So when I sat in the driver’s seat, even though the last Toyota I owned was a 2000 model (a Corolla) — once I ignored the fact that the gearshift and the heater & radio were to my left — it felt like coming home. Today’s cars have more bells and whistles, of course, than any I’ve ever had — there’s a touch screen for more sophisticated control of the electronics, for example, but fortunately the steering wheel has a radio control thingie that allows you to change the channel and adjust the volume while keeping your eyes on the road. This dealership has two locations in the Newcastle/Gateshead area, and between them they have several used Yaris cars that could meet my requirements. So I’m feeling tentatively sorted with that.

I’ll also have to investigate insurance policies; I’m told that that can be quite a minefield. I wish Amica Mutual operated in the UK!

Some thoughts on gearshift design

Gearshift arrangement of the hire car, showing 1/3/5 up and 2/4/R down
Gearshift arrangement for the car I hired
I’ve just turned in a car I hired for the weekend, and the UX part of my mind has, naturally, had some thoughts about its design. These thought are prompted by the trouble I had in downshifting from fifth gear. The arrangement of my hire car (see image) has fifth gear directly opposite reverse, and every time I needed to downshift into fourth I was afraid I would put the car into reverse (in fact, I almost did it once). This car had a weak spring that encouraged the lever toward the middle: when the car was in neutral and I was not touching it, the lever stayed in the middle. But the mechanism wasn’t strong enough to help me keep it from going into reverse when I was trying to downshift from fifth. This of course leads me to conclude that the gearshift is not well designed.

My first thought was that the problem is a poor arrangement of the gears — having reverse opposite fifth is risky because accidentally going into reverse from fifth is far more dangerous than doing it from first. Some cars have reverse in the upper left and first in the lower left, with some sort of mechanism that makes it easy to slide from first to second and difficult to go into reverse; my first new car, a 1976 Datsun F10, had this design. I don’t recall ever accidentally trying to go into reverse with it, but perhaps automakers rarely use this arrangement because first-to-second is a much more common move than fifth-to-fourth.

But then I thought about the cars I’ve owned (all of which have had manual transmission), and the last two (Toyota Corollas both) had reverse in the lower right, opposite fifth, just like this weekend’s hire car. So I’m thinking that the human factors issue may be a matter of which hand and arm are doing the shifting. Moving from fifth to fourth involves pulling back on the lever and moving it to the left. When you’re shifting with your right hand, reverse is away from your body and the more natural movement when pulling back is to pull toward you as well, so the danger of going into reverse from fifth is small. But when you shift with your left hand (which is for me the hardest part of driving in the UK), reverse is closer to your body than any of the other gears and it takes more effort to push the gearshift lever to the left while at the same time pulling it back, so the risk of going into reverse from fifth is much greater and a stronger preventive mechanism is needed. (I wish I had time to make diagrams of these movements.)

Some cars have a ring on the lever, just below the knob, that you have to lift to put the car into reverse; some require you to push down on the lever. Still others have a rather strong spring (or something that behaves like one) that will slide the lever from fifth to fourth when you pull back, unless you maintain substantial rightward pressure to force it into reverse. The strong spring is what my Toyotas had, as I recall, and I’ve driven cars with both of the other mechanisms.

Now, I imagine that people who learned to drive in the UK might not have any problem with the arrangement that my hire car had, as they’ve developed from the beginning the habit of the pull-back-and-push-away-left movement and their muscle memory works in their favor. (Or else they just don’t downshift. But I seriously doubt it’s that.) Nevertheless, this movement is, I maintain, less natural than pulling toward the body on a diagonal, and the gearshift should have something more than a weak(ish) mechanism to guide the lever away from the “reverse” position.

I am not sure whether I favor the ring approach or the push, but in any case the Ford Fiesta’s mechanism is not enough. And it’s not simply because I’m profoundly right-handed.

I’d be interested in hearing from people who work in automotive design, especially those who have experience in human factors of both right-hand-drive and left-hand-drive vehicles. What are your thoughts?

Update: A friend has pointed me to some info that indicates that it’s not possible actually to GO into reverse while the car is moving because reverse gear is not synchronized. So  maybe I have overstated the danger here. However, it could still cause damage to the gears (I did hear a godawful noise when I accidentally tried to do it), and that could be dangerous for one’s pocketbook. Certainly it’s no good for peace of mind.

An amazing story of loss and recovery

I’ve been in Aberdeen for a couple of days. It had come time for me to use or lose some East Coast (Trains) Rewards points (due to their takeover by Virgin and Stagecoach and their rebranding as Virgin Trains East Coast), so I decided to pay a visit to this city. I had never been here before, and it was the farthest I could go from Newcastle in a northerly direction. I won’t go into detail about what I’ve seen and done — that’s not the point of this blog post, and besides, this isn’t a travel blog. But something happened today that I think is worth recounting because it was so amazing.

East Aquhorthies Stone Circle, near AberdeenI had booked a rental car for yesterday and today, as I knew I’d need one to explore what I wanted to see in the surrounding area. Today I visited the East Aquhorthies Stone Circle first, just outside Inverurie, not far northwest of Aberdeen. (And nicely cared for by Historic Scotland, I might add.) As I was returning to the parking lot, I noticed that a car was having trouble parking, so I told them that my car was just next to the space they were trying to squeeze into and that I’d leave to make more room for them. But when I plopped into the driver’s seat, I realized that it was not, in fact, my rental car (although it was eerily similar). So I jumped out and got into the correct vehicle, and we waved as I left and they parked.

About an hour later, what with meandering and all, I arrived at my next destination, Huntly Castle. As I was gathering my stuff to get out of the car, I was dismayed to discover that I couldn’t find my camera. Oh no! I thought, and realized immediately that I must have left it in the car-that-wasn’t-my-rental-car. So I had a quick run-through of the castle, but I couldn’t enjoy myself because I was worried about how I was going to see about finding my camera. So I spoke with the very nice man who was staffing the shop, and he advised me to call 101, the non-emergency number for the police. I did that, and they took my details and said they’d keep an eye out in case someone turned it in. I decided to stop by the site again just in case — perhaps someone had gone hiking and the car was still there, I thought; or perhaps they had left the camera — and besides, it was only a five-minute detour from the route back to Aberdeen. My head was full of ways in which I was going to try to let the finder know how to contact me. I was, for example, going to tweet some of the photos I had already copied to my laptop but had not yet deleted from the camera. I was going to write a blog post here, describing the incident and begging the finder to contact me. As I arrived back at the stone circle, my head spun with possibilities, both positive and negative. (Did I ever mention how good I am at catastrophizing?)

The car was gone. I looked around for the camera, but nothing was to be seen. (I didn’t really think someone would have taken that approach anyhow.) A couple was walking down the path to the car park, so I stood at the gate, ready to ask them if they had seen anything. All of a sudden I noticed that the rock that was sitting on top of the information board had something white sticking out from beneath it. I went to take a closer look, and lo! it said: “Lost camera found! Call me <mobile number>”. So I rang, and got voicemail. I left a message of effusive thanks — accompanied by my own mobile number, of course — and headed off to a nearby cafe for a well-earned break. I hadn’t gone 50 feet when my phone rang. I pulled over, grabbed it, and answered it eagerly. “I can’t believe you found my note!” the young American woman exclaimed. We arranged to meet in half an hour.

It turned out that Stephanie, the woman who had left me the note — the one who had my camera — was the driver of the car I was trying to help park. The other car was rented by an Australian couple, and since Stephanie and her husband are living in the Aberdeen area for a couple of years, she offered to take care of finding the owner. The Australian woman, she said, was miffed at her husband for not locking the car, but laughed that usually you expect to find something missing from what you had left in it. You don’t expect to find a nice camera added to your things. Stephanie went on to say that she had looked through the pictures, hoping to find one of me that she could use to search Facebook, but she found none; and she commented that I take gorgeous photos and not selfies. (I admitted that I do take the very occasional selfie, but I use my phone to do that because when I do, it’s just something I want to post to Facebook and the photographic quality is not very important.) So she decided she would use Google’s reverse image search — an excellent idea once I had uploaded to Flickr the previous days’ contents of the memory card (which I would have done this evening if we hadn’t found each other this afternoon). We had a good chuckle over all of the high-tech ideas that we had both had for putting ourselves together, when it was good old low-tech pencil and paper that really did the trick.

After I got back to my hotel I phoned 101 again and let the Scottish Police know that I’ve got my camera back. During this process I spoke to three different people at the help center, and all of them were extremely nice and personable. The last one was warmly glad about the positive outcome. Tomorrow I’m going to phone Historic Scotland and ask them to thank the man at Huntly Castle for his help.

In any case, all is well. I have my camera back and my faith in humanity nudged up a notch; and I’ve had glimpses of two Scottish castles that I want to return to visit when I have time to do them justice. All in good time; all in good time.

A satisfying break, with family

I’ve just had a wonderful two weeks — no, I live in the UK now; I’ve just had a wonderful fortnight — with a couple of family members who came to spend Christmas with me and see part of the UK. We spent four nights in London, then had two overnights on our way to three nights in Islay, then they spent five nights at my flat in Newcastle. It was kind of a whirlwind trip (planned by moi) but exciting and satisfying, and they said it was a very rich experience.

My visitors did a lot of the London touristy things by themselves; many of those were somewhat expensive and I had done them before, so (for example) while they went on the London Eye I sat in a cafe below and worked on my data coding. (Yes, I carried my laptop around London in my daypack/rucksack. What can I say? I’m used to carting it around Newcastle.) The day we left London we took a taxi to Heathrow Airport to pick up the car I had arranged for us to rent/hire (yes, I know it’s more expensive at the airport, but we had very good logistical reasons for doing this) and we headed west. We upgraded to a slightly larger car with built-in GPS/SatNav, and although I would have preferred a car about 6″/15cm narrower I was glad we had the GPS (which we ended up naming Synthea).

My personal highlight of London: Dinner with four long-time friends of mine, one of whom had never met two of the other three. My visitors enjoyed them all.

First day out of London: Stonehenge, lunch inside the Avebury circle, half an hour at Tintern Abbey, ending with an overnight in Stroud, complete with dinner & drink with a friend there. Stroud was slightly out of our way, but it’s a family name on my mother’s side and anyway it allowed my visitors to meet my friend.

Second day on the road: Liverpool, with a late lunch in the Beatles’ home stomping ground and a look in the Cavern Club. Overnight in a wonderful cottage in the Lake District. I’ll be back there again, I think.

Third day on the road: No substantial stops because we had at least five hours of driving and a hard deadline for the ferry to Islay. Synthea directed us onto a route that had two ferry crossings but that “she” said was quicker than the road route. After taking the first ferry (Gourock-Dunoon) we took the overland route the rest of the way because we weren’t convinced of the existence of the other ferry. Unfortunately, because we had taken the first ferry we missed seeing the beautiful and aptly named Rest and Be Thankful pass in the daytime. Oh well. We did stop a few minutes in Inverary to take a short walk so one of my visitors could photograph the castle. It was her first castle, after all (other than the Tower of London), and we weren’t going to see any in Islay.

We travelled to Islay on Caledonian MacBrayne’s beautiful new ferry, the MV Finlaggan. (It was new to me, anyhow; and it is only three years old, their newest one.) We arrived to find that the hotel had lost our booking (a mixup on their part) but they had other rooms available and we got profuse apologies and a decent price break. I had been hoping for a peat fire (the hotel’s website says they have one in their pub), but all they had was coal and nobody knew where I could find a peat fire. My guess is that it’s mostly the distilleries that burn peat any more, and all of those were shut down for the holidays. So I settled for buying a box of peat incense. I’ll have to try harder next time!

I had done all of the driving up to this point, as I was the only one with any experience driving on the left. But we had registered two of us to drive this car because my visitors were going to have to drive it back to Heathrow from Newcastle without me. So the other driver did all of the driving on the Islay roads. I thought it would be good for him to start there, as there are no roundabouts and most of the roads have only one lane anyhow. As I had suspected he would, he did fine. Fine enough to brave the roundabouts and the motorways and drive to Newcastle.

Maol Buidhe

I wanted to show my visitors all of Islay and a reasonable amount of its neighboring island of Jura (whence the Buie surname comes), but two and a half days simply wasn’t enough time. We drove most of the Islay roads, though, from Kildalton to Kilnave to Kilchoman (missing out Sanaigmore, Saligo, and the Oa, unfortunately), and we saw the Islay Woollen Mill, the Kildalton High Cross, the Cultoon Stone Circle, the Kilchiaran Chapel, the Kilnave Chapel and Cross, some prehistoric hut circles west of Gruinart, two places named “buie” (Tigh na Buie and Maol Buidhe), and the Finlaggan Visitor Centre, site of the headquarters of the Lords of the Isles from about 1350 to 1492. That last was especially meaningful for me because we were greeted by Donald Bell, who had showed me around Finlaggan on my first visit to Islay in 1987, which I think was before the visitor centre was even in the full planning stage. We went to Jura for an afternoon and had tea at the hotel, where they were just taking homemade shortbread and mince pies out of the oven. Mmmmmm! As we checked in for the ferry to return to the mainland, my visitors remarked on how great it was to be in a place where people hear your name and know how to spell it. :-)

On the way to Newcastle we made a short detour to Carlisle to have a look at the castle from the outside, and then we stopped by a Hadrian’s Wall site so my visitors could stand on the wall. It was a Wednesday and Birdoswald Roman Fort was closed, but the wall itself was of course accessible, so they stood atop it and I took their photo for Facebook.

We arrived at my flat the evening of Christmas Eve. On Christmas morning we slept in a bit (the first time since they had arrived) and made a pound cake. Then we went to Evensong at Durham Cathedral (one simply cannot visit the North East of England without seeing that magnificent building), and they found the service interesting and meaningful; then we came home and cooked Christmas dinner and skyped with some other family members. In their remaining days with me we did a lot of walking around Newcastle and visited several medieval sites (Tynemouth Priory and Castle, Warkworth Castle, and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne). We were disappointed that Newcastle’s Castle Keep is closed until the spring (renovations, the sign said), but at least they got to go inside two castles and see three others from the outside. And I introduced them to some grand British Christmas traditions — particularly, Christmas crackers and Fenwick’s window. They loved it all.

They left about 6:30am on Monday for the drive back to Heathrow. We were all concerned about possible contingencies, but they made it in good time and now they are safely back at home in the States. We all had a fabulous trip, and now I’m settled back into sorting out my data coding scheme and doing the analysis. Plus preparing several presentations, both for academia and for industry. It’s a good thing the long winter nights don’t much affect my productivity any more!

This was my third Christmas in the UK, and my first with family present. I found it very, very meaningful.

And you know, that fortnight saw me doing more of two things than I had done in the previous two years: driving, and saying “y’all”. :-)

Driving test — passed the first time!

Holding my certificate

Holding my certificate

I am delighted to say that this morning I passed my practical driving test. In about three weeks I will receive my Great Britain Driving Licence. This will give me a lot more freedom and flexibility, as I will be able to rent a car — and I won’t have to shell out £34 and two hours every week or so for a driving lesson.

Driving lessons? you ask. Yes, driving lessons. Not because I don’t know how to drive — I got my first driver’s license in 1968 and learned to drive a manual transmission five years later. And I drive a clutch, too — I’ve never even owned a car with an automatic transmission. But the driving standards here, what they look for when you take your driving test, are extremely precise. They watch how you use your mirrors, how you turn the steering wheel and shift the gears (your licence indicates whether or not you are allowed to drive a manual transmission), whether you stay to the left side of your lane, how well you see things ahead that will make you stop or change direction — a gazillion things.

My instructor, a lovely Sikh guy and new father named Jas, had told me that a minority of people pass the practical test the first time they take it. (At £62 a pop, not having to do it again was really important to me.) We had been hoping for fewer than than the seven “minor marks” I received (you’re allowed 14), but Jas said that with the examiner I had, seven was quite good. My examiner was a bearded guy in late middle age, and although I liked him and found him congenial (he even made a joke as we were finishing up), Jas said that he tends to be very strict and has even been known to reduce examinees to tears. No doubt he could tell that I am an experienced driver, and maybe he factored that into his evaluation. Whew. 

Anyway, I am very pleased to have this behind me. #happylittledance

Update: I should add that I needed to obtain this licence because the UK allows me to drive on my Maryland license for the first year only.

Thoughts on next week’s driving test

I’ve booked my practical test for a week from Friday. Every time I have a lesson I do something that my instructor says would be a “fail” on the exam. (You can’t do anything that would cause another driver to slow down or change direction.) Yesterday we had to decide whether I’m ready for next Friday, and he said yes, as my general driving is fine and he himself tends to be more demanding than most of the examiners. We’ve pencilled in a second lesson for next week, and on Tuesday we’ll decide whether or not I need the second one.

I’ll be glad to be able to drive here. I’ll be even gladder to get rid of the expense of the lessons. Whew.

Driving theory test – Passed!

With flying colors, I might add.

The multiple-choice questions were, as best I could tell, exactly the same ones that I had answered 100% correctly ten days ago. I breezed through them again (finishing that part in about ten minutes), and again got them all right. No sweat there.

The hazard perception part was very different from last time — if any of the 14 clips were among the ones I saw last time, I didn’t recognize them. There were no sheep wandering into the road; there was (thankfully!) no night scene. Oddly enough, this time I was less confident about how I had done on it, but I did much better! I had to score 44 or better on it (out of 75), and where I had had 40 before I had 60 this time. I did spend a little time with a test preparation website (more useful than the software I had bought), and I am sure it helped. I am pleased!

And now I have two years to pass the practical test. I hope to have that done within 5-6 weeks. My instructor is going to phone me tonight and we will book the test then.

Driving Theory Test — mixed results on the first try

Today I took the Driving Theory Test — with mixed results. As I had expected before I went (and as I suspected while I was answering the questions), I scored 100% on the multiple-choice questions about driving in Great Britain. The test prep software (not the official one — that’s Windows only, and in this day and age!) was invaluable in helping me learn this material, and I breezed through this part. You get 57 minutes to answer the 50 questions, and I finished in under 12 and got them all right. I’d say I was fully prepared for that part.

But then I hit the Hazard Perception part. In this part of the test, you watch 14 one-minute videos from the driver’s perspective and click when you see a developing hazard that requires you to “slow down or change direction” (i.e., brake or swerve unexpectedly). The test instructions tell you to click as soon as you recognize the hazard. Thirteen of these videos contain one hazard that counts toward your score, and one of them contains two. (They don’t tell you which of the 14 that is, of course, so you have to stay alert.) I had practiced a fair bit with the test prep software, which gives you your score on each scenario after you finish with it, and at your option runs you through the scenario you’ve just finished, explaining all of its minor hazards and the one or two critical hazards on which you were scored.

Thing is, each critical/scored hazard has a “window”. If you don’t click within that window, you score zero for that hazard. If you click within the window but then click again too soon after the window closes, you lose points. This means that another potential hazard that you see too soon after the critical one can cause you to lose all your points. I have begun to suspect that the way to pass this is to click only at the time when I would brake or swerve if I were actually driving. I’ll test this hypothesis with the practice software.

So I have booked my second attempt. I tried to get in for this Friday, but they won’t let me take it again within four days. (I have no idea why; that strikes me as totally arbitrary and unreasonable.) The next opening in Newcastle is 4 February, so to retake this test before three weeks from now I have to go to Sunderland, and even there the first slot is nine days from now. Oh well, at least that location is close to a Metro station, and it’s a part of the area I’ve been meaning to explore. I just wasn’t planning to do it right yet.

I could also give Pearson some UI pointers on their test software. But you knew that. ;-)

Oh, and my UK friends who’ve been driving for a long time tell me they are very glad they don’t have to do this hazard perception nonsense. And these people are very good drivers, I can assure you.