My daughter is counting down the days until she can get her learner licence. The closer it gets, the more she talks about it and the more I question whether I’m the best person to teach her.
She’s lucky enough to have cousins that live on a farm, though, and thanks to the family paddock-basher, has already developed an appetite for driving manuals with good ol’ fashioned handbrakes and a keen interest in cars.
However, in my opinion, parents shouldn’t be relied upon to teach their kids to drive – that should be left to the professionals. And, while I’m on the soapbox, there should be a tougher national standard for driver education, and the requirements for achieving both a learner permit and provisional licence should be subject to far more stringent regulations than any region currently demands.
My own driver-training experience in Queensland consisted of around four half-hour sessions each week, over the course of the six-month learner period. At that time, logbooks and minimum hours behind the wheel weren’t part of the process. All you had to do was hold the learner permit for six months and pass both the written and practical tests.
I passed the learner exam at exactly 16 years and six months of age, then later walked out of the Department of Main Roads and Transport on my 17th birthday, freshly laminated licence in hand. I was so nervous during the test, that, if memory serves, I may have rolled through a stop sign and parked too far from the kerb in the reverse-parallel parking test. But that didn’t matter, I had done enough to pass. Excuse me, what? Enough to pass… ‘almost right’, was good enough.
My parents did a great job in teaching me to drive. Mum and Dad both worked long hours and it was hard to find time – let alone catch them in a mindframe conducive to education – but we managed it. Growing up in a country town was beneficial, in this regard.
There were only a few sets of traffic lights in town, not a whole lot of roundabouts and a major highway passed right through its centre. Peak hour didn’t really exist, but there was enough traffic to keep you on edge and learn how to handle different situations without the high pressure that you get learning to drive in the city.
It was years before I tackled that and I think it was a good thing. I’d gained enough confidence driving on my own in smaller towns, gradually working my way up to the big smoke. There was also the benefit of wide open spaces and farm paddocks – you could test the limits of your car and your driving skills (either accidentally or on purpose) without being a hazard to other road users.
This is where country kids have an advantage, in some ways. Gradual exposure and limit-testing isn’t so readily available to city kids. As a parent, am I prepared to let my daughter jump in the driver’s seat, buckle myself into the passenger seat and head straight into crazy Sydney traffic? I don’t think so.
The statistics are scary: young drivers are at the greatest risk during the first year after earning their P-plates and are 33 times more likely to be involved in a crash than L-plate drivers.
Why aren’t learners at a higher risk? Shouldn’t P-platers who have passed the test be at a lower risk than when they’re learning the ropes?
Of course, kids are going to be on their best behaviour with a parent or instructor in the car. What’s the quickest way to instil false confidence in many a young driver? Slap a P-plate on the back and give them free rein to drive on their own – who didn’t feel an urge to show off a little bit when they were in this position? There’s a good chance nothing’s changed!
In my opinion, the problem is in the way they are taught to drive. What qualifications do parents have? In most cases, years behind the wheel – but is that enough? Who can honestly claim they’ve kept up-to-date with changes to the road rules, and not fallen into bad habits or become a little lazy with their driving technique?
Most parents have good intentions and do their best to safely educate their young driver, but I’ve heard stories about some that fudge the logbooks for their kids. How can we be absolutely sure that parents are being responsible and actually supervising the hours they’ve signed off on in the logbooks? Though many states and territories require a certain amount of night driving – what about in wet conditions, on gravel roads, and at high speeds on highways dealing with trucks and impatient drivers?
I believe it’s too easy for a learner-driver to know just enough to pass the test – which doesn’t even touch on the most dangerous real-life scenarios they could easily encounter. When they finally get out on the road, on their own, these situations can develop quickly and seemingly out of nowhere. And, without the proper skills to handle them, the risk is greater.
In many other countries, there are far more hoops to jump through before you earn the right to hold a driver’s licence.
In Australia, there are restrictions for P-plate drivers that vary slightly from state-to-state, stipulating the number of passengers allowed, the curfews imposed to keep young drivers off the road late at night and the speed limitations that must be observed.
Strategies to reduce distraction for young drivers certainly have a place, but having to do an emergency brake or evasive manoeuvre on a wet road at speed is not something that should be done for the first time in a real emergency.
According to Victoria’s Transport Accident Commission, 24 drivers aged between 18 and 25 were killed on Victorian roads in 2014. That’s 21 per cent of the total number of fatalities, even though that age group represents around 14 per cent of licensed drivers. Sixty-three per cent were single-vehicle crashes and 67 per cent were on roads with a speed limit of 100km/h.
We need to be more thorough in the driving education we are giving our kids. I absolutely think I can contribute, but there needs to be a more holistic approach that includes time behind the wheel with qualified instructors, mandatory defensive-driving courses and compulsory car-maintenance courses before they are let loose on the road.
In Australia, it seems we can’t even establish a national standard and decide what is necessary to teach our young people to drive and give them the best possible tools to stay safe on the road.
The differences between the states and territories are vast. In New South Wales, the requirement is 120 hours of supervised driving with a minimum of 20 at night. In South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory, there is a logbook system that is signed off by qualified instructors.
Queenslanders need to complete 100 hours of supervised driving with 10 hours of night driving. In Victoria, it’s 120 hours with 10 at night. In Tasmania there’s an L1 level and a minimum of 30 hours supervised driving is needed before graduating to L2, and in Western Australia there’s a minimum of 50 hours supervised driving.
I find it surprising that in Victoria, for example, you only need to score 25 out of 32 in the learners test to get your L-plates. In New South Wales, an hour-long lesson with a qualified instructor counts for three hours driving experience (other states have similar rules) and you don’t need to complete a Learner Driver Log Book if you are over 25 years old.
The minimum on the learner permit test should surely be 100 per cent. And in what parallel dimension does an hour driving equal three hours driving experience? As for logbooks, regardless of your age, you should have to maintain a record of driving hours.
And again, what about wet roads and hard braking? What happens when a wheel goes off the shoulder, what about icy road conditions, dirt, gravel, steep inclines and declines… what about checking tyre pressure, tyre tread, oil levels, water levels, maintaining a vehicle as roadworthy?
Parents should not be wholly responsible for teaching kids to drive. That’s not to say we’re incapable, but making defensive-driving courses and lessons with qualified instructors mandatory will help reduce the risk of parents passing on bad habits or being lazy and signing off on hours that haven’t been clocked up. Putting young drivers in simulated risky situations is vital, before they are let loose in traffic.
I will not be teaching my daughter to drive, I will simply help her practise and share the knowledge I do have – once she has a solid foundation. We’ll start with lessons with a qualified driving instructor and once she is well on the way, then I will clock up some hours with her. She will also complete a series of defensive-driving courses before getting her provisional licence.
I’m that serious about making sure she has the best possible education and all the experience she needs before she heads out on her own, and I think every parent should expect the same for their child.
She can’t wait to get on the road, but I can.