If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Monday, 22 February 2010

Young Drivers

Driving a car is a complex skill, requiring manual dexterity, spatial awareness and an ability to read rapidly-developing situations and plan responses in real time. It's enormously difficult if you look at it from that point of view, and yet most people manage it to a fairly successful degree.

Most people learn to drive on the road. They are told how to start and stop the car, and then are expected to drive around some quiet roads to get the hang of it before venturing into more challenging situations. In this way, the muscle co-ordination required to control the car and the ability to read and respond to the events around you have to be developed simultaneously. It is very noticeable that people who learn to drive at a young age seem to be the most instinctive and natural drivers: those who pass their test later in life often remain nervous and reluctant.

I was very lucky. My Dad worked about half a mile away from where I went to school, and if I missed the school bus I would walk down to his workplace and get on with my homework until he was ready to leave. When I got to 16 or so, I used to ask him is I could get the car out ready to go home. He parked his car in a garage on a piece of private land, and if he was in a good mood I would take the keys and reverse the car out and perhaps shunt it to and fro for a few minutes. After a while, as my confidence grew, and as I learned his movements better, I was able to spend 10 to 15 minutes driving up and down this piece of land, changing up to second gear and getting used to the oddness of reversing in confined spaces. At this time, Dad would occasionally take me to Elvington airfield near York, where for a small fee you could drive about unlicensed, and there I learned about going faster than 5 mph and dealing with junctions and corners. Of course, when it came to 'proper' learning to drive, I had no fear at all. I could control the car quite well, and was able to concentrate on learning the roadcraft side of things. I passed my test first time, and have driven ever since. Driving doesn't hold any fear or apprehension for me, and I am sure that this level of confidence is because I learned to drive in easy stages.

So what? Well, it appears that this was a very unsafe way to go about things. The BBC reports (under the scary headline "Fears as children aged 11 take driving lessons") that:

Thousands of children - some as young as 11 - are enrolling for driving lessons at a growing number of specialist centres, but the trend has police and safety groups concerned.

A company called 'Young Driver', amongst others, is offering courses to children and young people who want to master the basics of driving before they ever get anywhere near a road. I would have thought this was an admirable aim. But the 'authorities' don't seem to agree.

But Insp Alan Jones, from the Police Federation of England and Wales, said he had reservations.

"Driving on one of these courses at 11 years old, it's another six years until you can get a driving licence. How does it replicate the real world, the spontaneous incidents?" he said.

It doesn't, you plonker. That's the whole point. Learning to deal with the real world, the spontaneous incidents, will come later when they get lessons on the road - but they will be better equipped to understand and deal with them because they have the basic control of the vehicle mastered already.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents has warned the courses could make youngsters over confident and more likely to crash.

Kevin Clinton, from the group, said while early education was a very good thing, the same did not apply to driving a car.

"It will probably mean youngsters will take fewer lessons when they come to learn to drive and if they take fewer lessons they will get less experience," he said.

But they won't need extra experience, because they were already half-way there.

"That means when they pass their test they may be at greater risk of crashing because they won't have had as much experience when they are supervised."

Good God, these people are thick! Learning a foreign language as a child is a good thing; learning Maths as a child is a good thing - because learning young makes things natural and easy, and you are fluent and comfortable with the subject when you become an adult. But somehow this doesn't apply to driving a car? If time spent under the supervision of an instructor is desirable, than why not make it compulsory, as they do with pilots' licenses, where a trainee has to demonstrate a certain number of logged hours before they are allowed to fly solo? Deliberately hampering the acquisition of the skill to prolong the instructor contact time seems a strange way to achieve this.

Make no mistake - only about 10% of safe driving is about actual skill. I would say that another 40% is about observation and concentration, and a whole 50% is about attitude. A youngster who comes to driving lessons with a good degree of basic control over the car has got all of his or her mind free to concentrate on learning how to drive well. The instructor has the time to pass on all the good stuff about safe and efficient driving because he or she has to spend less time explaining how to use the clutch.

In Britain, one in five newly qualified drivers has an accident within six months of passing their test.

But in Sweden, allowing drivers to practise on roads from the age of 16 cut accidents amongst newly qualified drivers by 40%, according to a study.



  1. Driving is complex bit of 'behaviour' which, I suspect, gets less attention than it should simply because of its familiarity. Learning to fly gets more attention because the apparent consequences of getting it wrong are higher. Flying training is divided into 'skills' and 'judgement'. You teach by adding skills to the point when the student can control the beast. And then you start adding demands for judgement. At first any call for smallest judgement results in all skills evaporating. A good instructor will keep adding measured calls for more and better judgement and then building the deteriorated skills back up again until the skills and judgement are good enough to go solo. You then should a have reasonable foundation on which to START to make a pilot. The training of a pilot should should never stop. All pilots (including airline chief pilots) are required to have periodic check rides to make sure the skill and judgement sets are up to standard and have not been corrupted or modified by lack of use or over-familiarity.

    Training that gives you a skill set that will continue to work faultlessly under potentially life threatening pressure takes time. And in my limited experience generally works best in younger students. The nice man who plonked his Airbus with no power into the Hudson with no casualties went through absolutely text book procedures - and his skills were well enough embeded that he maintained the capacity to make near perfect judgement calls.
    Perhaps the H&S experts have agendas other than road safety.

  2. Thanks for this interesting stuff. All makes sense to me. Your last point is good - there's more to this than just a faux concern for the safety of youngsters. If there was, it would make no sense. I think it's part of the general feeling that cars = bad, so getting children involved in any way = bad too. They might actually enjoy it, and then where would we be? We must learn to hate what our masters want us to hate. That way lies peace and happiness.

    Or HaPenis, as Peter Sellers used to say.

  3. It sounds to me like the usual load of self appointed experts spouting cobblers. What worries me is that these people seem to exhibit very little evidence of real life experience - you know th sort...careers advisors who have never had any other job.

  4. Hi, I thank you for a really good article - I for one had driven similar to yourself as a young lad with realtives having farms and plenty of ground to drive on from a young age.
    I have been offering 'under-age' driving for the last 8yrs as part of my driving lessons and you are right, generally the younger a person starts to learn the easier they master the controls which does free up other thinking time for dealing with problems on the road.

    I think I would rather think outside the box than be blinkered by a standard approach that doesn’t seem to be working too well. What do we need to do to make ongoing driver training fun and worthwhile for young drivers? Maybe give them opportunities that are just a wee bit different. So much is in the head or mind, if you think something it may happen. Most instructors will have had students already who said after a test, ‘oh, I knew I was going to fail’ so basically they thought it and did it! How much are we telling young drivers all the way through school that they are at high risk of crashing …………. A lot I think, so what are they likely to do …………… yep crash !

    Are you familiar with the brown eyed, blue eyed video that is available for equal opportunities presentations? In a nutshell, if you tell someone often enough that they are terrible or not good enough for something, eventually they believe it!!!!

    I also think it is better to give young drivers the opportunity to drive sporty looking cars safely, rather than not at all. We have had sporty driving school cars of some sort from the word go in 2002 - I initially had a Punto 1.8HGT, Golf GT TDi, Golf GT Sport, Honda Civic 2.2’s, Fabia vRS’s, Mondeo ST, Octavia vRS and the VXR8’s. Let’s face it many drivers including young drivers look up to and want to drive something a bit different. How many young guys and girls want to modify their car in some way and with many young guys, that tends to be mods under the bonnet that aren’t seen.

    Where are most young or new drivers involved in ‘Killed or Serious Injury’ accidents – yep, rural roads – that’s why we also teach as a matter of course limit point analysis to learners during normal lessons and spend more time on rural roads on Pass Plus. Sorry I better get off my soap box.

    I must also add that the youngest lad we had started driving when he was 9yrs old and drove now and again for over 7yrs until he turned 17 last month. Passed his test first time within 11 days of his birthday and with only 2 faults and the examiner made comment about how excellent and smooth the drive was. He was my own son and he had 74 hours onroad before test even although he would have done it in about a third of that time but I made sure he got as much experience as possible.

    He has also just done over 1,000 miles since last Tuesday and loving every minute of it.

  5. Hi Brian, and thanks for your interesting input. I didn't expect to have my ramblings assessed by a professional, but I'm glad to see I got it mostly right! I like your website, but I hope I won't have to attend one of your intensive 'crash courses'!

    I appreciate your interest, thank you.


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