I've got a 12-year-old son who rarely, if ever, reacts with enthusiasm to my suggestions of "fun" days out. 12-year-old boys don't seem to be as excited about going to see dinosaur bones/mummies/buses/trains as 8-year-old boys are... and they certainly aren't interested in art exhibitions, markets or shopping. Consequently days out are filled with me telling him to stop complaining.
I think, however, I've found the ideal day out.
The other weekend I took him to Mercedes-Benz World in Surrey for a Young Driver Training Experience which allows under 17s to drive a car whilst getting tuition from some of the best driving instructors around.
I told him about his a few weeks before we went and he asked about it constantly:
- How long would he get to drive? (30 minutes)
- Was he really going to be able to drive a real car? (Yes, an A-Class Merc)
- Why was he able to drive when he's only 12? (it's private land , it's not a 'proper road, so anyone can drive - as long as they are taller than 1.5 meters)
- If he did well, would he be able to go again? (At £40 a half hour, it's not cheap, so he couldn't go every week, but sure, he could go again)...
The morning of our day out, he was up and dressed without me having to shout at him once. I don't remember the last time that happened. The drive took about 30 minutes from our house and he talked about driving and cars and Top Gear and motor racing the whole way. He had never once expressed an interest in cars before beyond his love of Top Gear, so it was all new to me. He hadn't been this excited about a day out for years.
We arrived at Mercedes-Benz World and met Ed, his instructor, who took us out to the car. I was able to ride in the back with my 6-week-old son in his car seat. Ed said they like parents to come along for the ride so they can see exactly what their child does.
Ed started off by telling my son what he was going to learn in his lesson, talked him through what he had to do to adjust his seat, mirrors and steering wheel, then explained the pedals, which foot to use (it was an automatic) and how to get the car moving.
Ed treated my son as a perfectly capable equal, so didn't over explain things or hold his hand step-by-step. At first I thought my son wouldn't remember everything, but was incredibly impressed when he got it all correct and pulled off!
The first time around the track Ed talked my son through everything he needed to do- where to position the car on the track, when to turn, where to look, when to check the mirrors, when to indicate. My son drove very slowly and carefully and only over-steered and pressed the brakes too hard once.
The second time around the track Ed asked my son what he was supposed to do - How close to the white line should the car be? Where do you need to look when we turn left? Why do you need to indicate?
The final time around the track Ed didn't say a word and just observed what my son did and took notes. They also worked on reversing in a straight line, hand positioning on the steering wheel, observation when driving, turning, reverse, pulling off from a stationary position... It was a proper driving lesson.
At the end, my son got a driver logbook in which Ed wrote some notes and they each graded my son on the things they covered: Steering, Gas, Braking, Observation. Then Ed made a note of exactly what was covered in the lesson and at which level he felt my son had achieved - a 1 means it had merely been talked about, a 5 means that topic had been mastered by the student. Every time he goes back, my son can take the log book so that he has a complete record of what he's learned.
The Young Driver Training at Mercedes-Benz World isn't just about having a bit of fun for an afternoon, it's intended as a long term alternative to traditional driving instruction. The idea isn't just to teach the basics of how to drive in order to scrape by on the test for your licence, it's to give kids a much more holistic education about driving by focusing as much attention on Safety, Risk Perception and Courtesy as on the practical driving skills.
Young men under the age of 25 are far more likely than any other demographic to have an accident or die on the road. I'd like to hope that, by teaching my son to drive very early on and learning about Risk and Courtesy et cetera, he will be a far more accomplished and safe driver by the time he gets his license.
Apparently, Mercedes-Benz is in talks with insurance companies about offering lower premiums to young people who have gone through Mercedes-Benz's driver training. Insurance premiums for under-25s are through the roof, so it would certainly make sense...
I was so impressed with the experience that I am definitely taking my son back again. As I said, it's £40 per lesson so it isn't cheap, but if it makes him a better and more safe driver when he's older so that he doesn't end up as a road accident statistic, then it's more than worth it.
I just hope he doesn't ask for a Mercedes-Benz as his first car...