Advanced driving is about reading the road ahead, planning and anticipating, giving you more space and time to react. There's a perception that it's all about speed but it isn't: it's about car-control and making progress whilst keeping yourself safe. It doesn't matter what type of car you have either: I used my Land Rover Freelander.
There are two main advanced driving organisations in the UK: The Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) and RoSPA Advanced Drivers and Riders (RoADAR). Both are based on Roadcraft: the Police Driver's Handbook, which teaches what's known as The System.
You will probably have had the MSM mantra drummed in to you by your driving instructor: Mirror Signal Manoeuvre. The System expands on this to IPSGA: Information, Position, Speed, Gears, Acceleration.
Give information (indicators, position on the road, speed) and receive information (mirrors, observations)
Putting your vehicle in the optimum position on the road
Adjust it to suit the manoeuvre by braking or accelerating if necessary
Select the right gear
Once you've made the turn, bend or whatever, accelerate if necessary
You can buy the Roadcraft book from most good bookshops and read it yourself, but it helps to have an independent observer to help guide you because, like trying to proof-read something you've written, it's very difficult to spot your own mistakes.
Your observer will meet with you regularly, and you'll go for a drive in your vehicle. Together you develop your skills and work towards the test itself. You will probably be given a summary of each drive so you can see your progress and the things you need to concentrate on.
Doing some homework is easy: you can practice your skills on every journey you make.
For most people the goal is to pass the advanced driving test, and this is where the two schemes differ. IAM offers a simple pass or fail whilst RoADAR has a graduated result of bronze, silver or gold.
If you're wondering, the IAM pass mark is generally considered equivalent to a RoADAR silver award.
How long does your qualification last? That's the other difference. IAM is a one-off test and whilst you can re-take the test or have an assessed drive, there is no obligation to do so. RoADAR's test is valid for three years and then you need to take it again to retain your qualification - as long as you're a member there's no charge for the re-test.
Why re-take the test? It's those bad habits we all have that creep in! By re-taking the test and having a few observed drives beforehand you can ensure your skills are still sharp.
What are the benefits of being an advanced driver? Some people will tell you that you get a discount on your insurance, and in some cases this is true, but the main benefit is being able to make smoother progress by reading the road ahead and not needing to brake or accelerate as hard - both of which add to the wear and tear on your car and waste fuel - and by doing that you'll make better progress whilst keeping yourself safe.
Your passengers will have a more comfortable ride too, and by reading the road ahead, positioning yourself accordingly you'll make life easier for yourself and have a less stressful journey.
You can find your local group via each organisation's web site.
So which is better? In my opinion RoADAR is best. A gold RoADAR pass is the highest civilian driving qualification there is, and as the test is retaken every three yours you know that the high standard is being maintained.
The IAM pass, being a simple pass or fail, is harder to gauge in terms of the overall quality of the driver. Which, combined with it never having to be retaken, makes it hard to determine how good the driver is now.
Both organisations have schemes for motorcyclists too, which are based on Motorcycle Roadcraft: the Police Rider's Handbook: a modified version of The System tailored for those on two-wheels.
Update - 12 March 15
Since I wrote my initial piece I've been informed that IAM does have a top-tier grade: F1rst. It is awarded to those drivers who achieve top-marks in their assessment, but there is no indication on their web site as to how long that status is retained for, or whether re-tests are required in order to keep it.
Normal re-tests or assessments are chargeable with IAM but are free with RoADAR.
Both organisations have local groups that provide the observers, and you will need to join your local group to avail yourself of their assistance.