It is a cold, hard fact that drivers between 18 and 25 years old are more likely to be killed or seriously injured on the roads than any other age group. One in five new licence holders has a crash within six months of passing their test and young motorists are also far more likely to fail a roadside breath test than older drivers.
In the face of the growing problem of young people dying on our roads, there have been calls to overhaul the way drivers are trained. Raising the minimum age, graduated licences and curfews for newly qualified drivers have all been put forward as possible solutions.
But what about teaching kids to drive from a younger age? Not just 15 or 16, but from as young as 11. While it may sound like madness to let children barely out of short trousers behind the wheel, that’s exactly what the people at Young Driver believe is necessary and are offering tuition to 11-17 year olds on private land at a growing number of centres across the country.
To see if they’re right, we got hold of our own young teen and enrolled him on his first lesson at the company’s founding site at the Birmingham NEC.
Arriving at the vast, coned-off section of car park, it is initially somewhat perturbing to see a multitude of cars, all with a fresh-faced child at the wheel, as though someone were making a Bugsy Malone style remake of The Fast and the Furious.
As it turns out, all of the children on the course of roundabouts, dual carriageways and junctions – all of which are laid out by coloured cones – are accompanied by a fully qualified driving instructor.
The cars too are full learner spec with dual controls, allowing the instructors to bring the car to an immediate halt should any of the youngsters try to run before they can walk.
Though as we sign our Guinea pig, 13-year-old Anand, in for his session, there seems to be no fooling about; most of the learners either too wide-eyed in concentration or displaying the calm collectedness of an old hand.
Their respective parents can be read from their similar behaviour. The first-timers eye-up their offspring’s every move and unsubtly wave every time they drive past the spectator’s area. Those who are regular attendees stand out with their clock watching and abuse of the tea and coffee facilities.
And plenty of regulars there are too. While some of the children are here for a one-off birthday treat, a large number have been at least once before.
“This is my son’s fourth lesson,” one father tells me. “And my daughter is going out for the first time today.”
“It’s a matter of safety. Driving is a life skill and I want them to get as much practice as possible before they’re in a situation where they could potentially hurt themselves.”
Watching Anand jump in the car and slowly hop off the line, it’s hard not to agree. I’m reminded of my own first driving lesson: the flurry of excitement and nervousness as you first try and control what is a very expensive and potentially lethal object – it’s a wonder these these first tentative steps are allowed to be conducted on the road at all.
However, it’s not just a basic grounding that Young Driver offers. Those committed to the course have their progress tracked in a ‘Drive Diary’, allowing for structured tuition and a focus on any weak areas.
Kim Stanton, MD of Young Driver, explains: “We base the scheme on the DSA’s standards of teaching 17 year olds to drive, but we’ve broken it down into smaller sections.
“The focus is on teaching children to control the car safely and learning maneuvers and observations, rather than driving in the higher gears which is only really possible on the open road.”
That said, for students who are progressing rapidly, Young Driver offers a number of skills days, in which real-world driving scenarios are recreated at larger test tracks, giving children experience of potentially dangerous conditions in a controlled environment.
“There are a number of things we can simulate, from joining a motorway to driving in wet or icy conditions,” says Kim.
“It’s not about advanced driving techniques – we don’t teach them how to drive out of a skid, we just show them what happens when the tyres lose grip, so they get that feeling and understanding that they don’t want to get into that position.”
But is there any proof that such intensive early driver training is having a positive effect on the number of crashes amongst young people? A six-year study in Sweden – which inspired the creation of Young Driver in the UK – showed that drivers who were taught to drive at 14 were forty per cent less likely to have an accident in their first six months on the road than those who had started learning at 17.
With the scheme being offered in a growing number of locations, Kim has even bigger ambitions in getting youngsters behind the wheel.
“We’re seeing a lot more involvement from schools. Ideally we would like to see driving introduced on the National Curriculum.
“Our own research has shown that we’ve halved the accident rate in 17-year-olds who’ve had lessons with us. We want to get the Government involved and show them that this training is saving lives.”
The most striking thing about the course, however, is that despite the seriousness surroundings the calls for reform to driver training, the Young Driver course hasn’t lost its sense of fun. The children’s evident wonderment at being given control of a car isn’t diminished in a hail of safety lectures from stern looking tutors, something which was backed up by our own teen learner.
“It was really hard, but it was fun,” said Anand once he’d gotten over the excitement of his hour at the wheel.
“The first thing we did was familiarise ourselves with all the controls, then we did the biting point – I got the hang of that eventually!”
“The hardest part was the roundabouts, but the instructor was really helpful, and you feel safe because you know he has control of the car too.”
It is this safe environment where young kids can learn car control not only without the dangers of the road, but far away from the pressures of passing their driving tests, that is seemingly the key to making safer and more confident drivers.
“I was really nervous at the start, and I don’t think I’d want to have done that on the road,” said Anand. “But now I can’t wait to have another go.”
Do you think teaching kids to drive from a younger age is a good idea? Have your say below.