Making younger drivers safer

Samantha York working with young drivers

By Cassandra Jardine - Published 03/08/2009

Samantha York working with young drivers

My views on driving are directly opposed to those of my children. They want to get behind the wheel of a car at the first opportunity; I don’t want to attend their funerals.

This isn’t just helicopter parenting. I shove them on to public transport and bully them into going to the park unaccompanied. But driving is different, because the statistics are blood-chilling.

Even Anthony Hamilton, Formula One world champion Lewis’s proud father, admits to terror when his son passed his test. “The first time your child leaves the driveway and turns into the road, that’s when the fear comes in,” he says.

As well it might. One in five new drivers has a crash within six months of passing the test, according to Brake, the road safety charity. A further 70 per cent report near misses. In 2006, 300 newly qualified drivers and their passengers were killed and 10 times as many were seriously injured – not to mention the casualties among those they plough into.

The figures are scary enough to make me grateful for the prohibitive £2,000 it would cost me to insure my extremely sensible 17-year-old daughter to drive my tiny electric car, which has a top speed of 40mph. So what on earth am I doing watching my 10-year-old son, George, driving around a circuit? This is no kart track. He’s in a proper car – a Mercedes-Benz A-class – and going horribly fast…

When I next dare look up, I see that the lunatic adult sitting next to my boy is now encouraging him to put his foot down. Then he’s screeching to a sudden stop. Now he’s whirling around in a terrifying skid. And I’m paying £80 an hour for this Driving Experience, which is open to anyone more than 1.5 metres tall. I must be both completely mad and/or awash with money.

Not so, argues Mika Hatakka, a Finnish psychologist and key player in many EU projects designed to improve (make safer) the training of drivers. “The UK is one of the safest countries in Europe to drive,” he says. “Your death rate is the lowest after Malta, the Netherlands and Sweden. But one of the black spots is still 17-year-old drivers. It’s not a problem just for the UK – everywhere the youngest drivers are the most at risk.”

It seems perverse to imagine that the solution is to start children driving at an even younger age, but those behind the Driving Academy at Mercedes-Benz World, near Weybridge in Surrey, argue that this is the case. In the past two years they have given 15,000 lessons to under-17s, some as young as my son. Max Jukes, 12, has had several lessons and loved it. “No one at school could believe I had driven a real car,” he says.

Max’s mother, Jane, believes the lessons have done wonders for his confidence. “You don’t have to be academic or sporty to learn to drive. I treat his lessons like my daughters’ piano lessons. At least I am spending money on a useful skill,” she says.

Jane maintains she’s not just an indulgent parent. Having experienced the pain of knowing a young person who died in an accident, she’s drawn to the Academy’s claim that early training saves lives. The argument is that young drivers are top of the risk table for two reasons: they lack driving experience and they are immature show-offs. Starting lessons at an earlier age gives them more experience before they take their test; it also takes the edge off their idiocy.

“The Swedes,” Hatakka says, “reduced the age at which people could start driving by a year, giving them 18 months to practise before taking the test at 18. The average number of hours they had spent behind the wheel before passing rose from 50 to 120 – and the accident rate dropped by 40 per cent.”

That’s a lot fewer poignant bunches of wilting flowers at the roadside. If 16-year-olds are going to clock up more hours before being let loose on the roads, they will have to do so off-road, in places such as the old Brooklands circuit where the Driving Academy (which teaches pre- and post-licence skills) is based.

The restriction turns out to be an advantage: the learner doesn’t have to deal with other drivers and, off-road, it’s possible to experience speed, skids and emergency stops that learners on the road can’t try before taking the test. “If you know how to control a vehicle before going on the road,” Hatakka says, “when you go into traffic you are less stressed because there is less pressure on the information processing capacity.”

No doubt it is a good thing to have mastered gearchanging before dealing with the vagaries of other drivers, but it still seems extravagant to start a child on driving lessons years before he or she is within sniffing distance of the test. Not so, according to Andrew Catlin, an instructor at the Driving Academy. He has now stopped teaching skid control to my son, and although the experience doesn’t seem to have thrilled him quite as much as his grinning student, his nerves don’t appear to be shattered.

“The funny thing about teaching younger people,” he says, “is that every time an instructor takes a 13-year-old out for the first time, the verdict is: ‘The child is a genius.’ Driving is like learning a musical instrument – the earlier you start the better. Those who learn before the age of 15 or 16 not only learn fast, they are still open to instruction and are respectful.”

Maybe, but it’s expensive. “They don’t forget what they have learned and will need fewer lessons aged 17,” he points out. “It could even work out cheaper for the parent as insurance companies are considering giving a year’s no-claims bonus to young people who have completed our course because it covers many more skills than are needed to pass the driving test.”

Kart racing, of course, can be less expensive and more widely available. Won’t that suffice as a means of acquiring road sense and getting the urge to speed out of the system? Catlin shakes his head. “Karting is about racing. It’s like playing a live video-game. In fact, it’s the opposite of proper driving instruction where you learn precise control, parking and manoeuvring through obstacles,” he says.

The Driving Academy plans to start similar courses for young drivers at off-road facilities all over the country. But, at present, there are precious few opportunities for the under-17s to get behind the wheel for real, despite a number of driving simulators. The British School of Motoring runs courses in 79 locations, the minimum age being 15. An alternative way to make new drivers safer (and reduce insurance premiums) is to enrol those who have passed the test on a Pass Plus course before letting them loose; the BSM, AA and the Institute of Advanced Motorists all run them.

Other precautions would include insisting on a new driver not carrying passengers during the first few months: the crash rate is five times higher when the new driver has the distraction of two or more passengers, according to research in the United States. Even without drink or drugs – obvious no-nos – the risk of a crash is higher when a driver is tired, so night driving is a bad idea, at least to begin with.

But, take heart. Each hour’s experience and near-miss helps. A month after setting out on the roads, the risk of a new driver being involved in an accident is half what it was on that first day. And it keeps on dropping.