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Ben Collins

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Young Drivers

Posted: 28/10/2013 00:24

I can't remember the last time I fell over in the shower but it bloody well hurt. The shock of being catapulted in a nanosecond from "I think I'll have a boiled egg this morning" to tits up lasted a good 10 minutes, and I've been in no rush to repeat the experience of plugging the hot tap into my forehead ever since. That's learnt behaviour for you.

My driving test was pretty much the same deal. I only needed three whole driving lessons to pass first time - which lured me into the (false) assumption that I was actually a good driver. I joined the road and after a few bites of the airbag became part of the statistics the government is now using to bash young drivers.

For giggles in my spare time I've spent the last two years reading road safety reports provided by the Department for Transport, amongst others. I'm thereby fully versed to put any human being into coma within seconds of opening a conversation on topics that now fascinate me: such as risk homeostasis and the paradoxical consequences of danger. The experience has left me deeply cynical of the way in which statistical evidence can be bent out of shape. For instance, one report claims that we are 'statistically safer' on icy roads than during the dry summer months. If you pull the other one, it's got a Christmas bell on it.

This is why I believe that young drivers should be actively encouraged to learn their craft as early as possible. And actually, they do anyway, even without us realising it. Every toddler that ever sat in a car, chewing the seatbelt and thumping the back of your head rhythmically with a rattle, has been watching the way you drive - and more importantly, learning your attitude. My wife has already been dubbed the 'slow coach' by our three-year0old, and as for me... I do my best to break the stereotype.

The driving process makes two fundamental demands upon us that we find easy or difficult to varying degrees: there's the physical operation of the vehicle, and the mental strategy. The first is relatively straightforward, as long as we understand what we're trying to achieve. The second is what most of us refer to as experience, and is generally harder to come by. After a couple of years behind the wheel and perhaps the odd close encounter with a solid object, these more challenging lessons gradually sink in. In fact your risk of crashing plunges during the first two years behind the wheel.

Rather than just ignoring the vital, potentially life-saving experiences that occur in the early stages of real world driving, they should form part of the school syllabus - to inform and truly educate 'youngsters' on the captivating combination of speed, physics, roadcraft, responsibility and social skill.

A study in Sweden, and elsewhere, has shown that pre-license training can cut the rate of attrition for young drivers by 41%, compared to their late-starting peers, because it prepared them mentally before and during their first experiences on the road.

But, not in Britain. A UK government report by the Transport Research Lab is currently proposing the exact opposite. It suggests that the future kings of the road should be prevented from taking the test until the age of 18, and banned from driving at night. For those of us out there with licenses as old and parched as the Dead Sea scrolls, who think this won't apply to me, so who cares? Think again.

A driver's risk profile, our likelihood of crashing, is shaped like a horseshoe when married with age. We start out young and dangerous at the top of the curve, then we improve dramatically so our risk level plunges off a cliff - until we get old and dangerous again. That's right grandma, you could be next for an 'OAP Plate' that comes with police surveillance.

By the age of 50 the average driver requires twice as much light to see as well as a teenager in the dark - so I know who I would prefer to ride with. And besides, the main contributing factor to the higher proportion (three times as frequent) of road fatalities at nighttime, is booze - not youth.

The police have far better things to do with their time, and far more to offer, than chasing young drivers off the road between the hours of 10pm and 5am. As for the proposal that youngsters should log 120 hours of parentally supervised driving before they can shed the 'L' plate - even the most superhuman parents don't have 30-hour days.

The dangers on the road for young drivers are ludicrously high, and urgently need addressing. But don't let's confuse 'prevention' with 'cure'. Coaching young minds is incredibly rewarding, because their rate of learning is so rapid. Young minds are open. Rather than banning them from the road and unleashing the high-vis-vested Gestapo, why not start them early in the classroom, with the life lessons you just can't fit into the test?

 

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