Learners drivers got a jump start in Sydney this week, getting a practice run at being stopped at a roadside random breath test site with the help of the NSW Police Highway Patrol.
The learner driver exercise was part of a monthly event run by the Australian Racing Drivers Club (the operators of Sydney Motorsport Park at Eastern Creek) and Driving Solutions (an advanced driver training company).
Once a month, the motor racing circuit opens its gates and grants free access to learner drivers and their supervisors, while professional instructors donate their time to give nervous novices an opportunity to clock up some hours behind the wheel away from traffic.
“It’s not about learning the race track, in fact we have a speed limit of 80km/h on our learner driver nights,” said James Stewart, the chief instructor for Driving Solutions.
“This is all about giving learner drivers an opportunity to drive at their own pace and not feel that they’re under pressure from other drivers,” he said.
The event is held on the first Tuesday of every month – from 6pm to 8pm – and is open only to genuine learner drivers, who must be accompanied by a supervising driver.
The allocation for each event often fills months in advance; tonight there are 42 learner drivers with varying levels of experience.
Surprisingly, there are also quite a few cars equipped with manual transmission – even though the number of manual licence holders is diminishing every year.
The wide, open race circuit is a great place to grind the gears, wear out some clutch material, and bunny-hop until you get it right.
But tonight is primarily about getting learner drivers to understand what to do when stopped for a roadside breath test – and how to get out of the way of emergency vehicles trying to pass.
“Learner drivers and inexperienced drivers really struggle sometimes with RBT sites, or with us coming up behind them going to an urgent job,” says Sergeant Steve Planinic from the NSW Police Traffic and Highway Patrol Command.
“This is a great opportunity for learners to go through the etiquette of a Random Breath Test without the pressures of the road. We really see the value in the extra education. How often do people get a chance to experience a mock RBT site?”
Mr Planinic said in many cases learner drivers “just don't know what to do” when they are stopped at an RBT site.
“They will stop short, or stop in the middle of the traffic, they freak out and don’t know to pull into the RBT lane,” says Mr Planinic.
During tonight’s exercise, learner drivers are stopped randomly as they pass slowly through the pit lane.
When stopped, officers give them tips on what to do when they see an emergency vehicle under lights and sirens, as well as other basic road safety advice. The officers are also happy to answer questions about road rules.
A popular topic of discussion: mobile phones. In NSW, learner and provisional drivers (red and green P plates) cannot use any function of a phone, including navigation or music. And fully licenced drivers aren’t allowed to touch a phone at all when operating a motor vehicle.
The advice for learners and others on their P plates: remove the temptation. Put the phone on silent (or turn it off) and place it in the boot, centre console, a bag, or in the glovebox where it is out of sight and mind.
In NSW, a mobile phone ticket comes with five demerit points, which for a P plate driver amounts to an instant loss of licence.
Although it is not the main focus for tonight’s event, novice drivers are also told what to do when an emergency vehicle under lights and sirens is trying to thread through traffic.
Learning the difference between a police car trying to overtake traffic on the way to an emergency – versus attempting to pull over a vehicle – is only one part of tonight’s activities.
“If we’re behind you with lights and sirens on, pull to the left. But if we don’t pass you, and we’re still behind you, we want you to stop,” says Mr Planinic.
Some learners also got an unexpected lesson in being stopped for speeding.
At the start of the night, learner drivers are told they will be asked to leave the circuit if they exceed 80km/h or drive dangerously.
What many learners didn’t realise, however, is that police used handheld lidar ‘guns’ to detect those who might be flouting the 80km/h limit.
On the night, two drivers were stopped and spoken to for going above 80km/h – after police pulled up behind them with blue and red strobe lights activated and a quick blast of the siren (as they would on the street).
One young lead-foot stopped when directed, the other kept driving until eventually the penny dropped. Both got a polite but firm talking to, and a quick lesson in the accuracy of police speed-detection technology.
While the learner driver program is still in its infancy, if early feedback is a guide, the idea is a winner – and support from police, driver trainers, and the venue is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
For now, the NSW Police Traffic and Highway Patrol Command has agreed to continue supporting the program for at least the next six months.
If comments on the NSW Police Traffic and Highway Patrol Facebook page are a guide, the learner driver education concept has been well received.
“Great idea, being stopped for the first time is daunting. Having the chance to do it in a controlled environment with explanations and able to ask questions is great,” wrote one Facebook user.
“Hope it goes a long way to produce respectful and safe drivers for the future. Whoever thought of this great idea should receive an award, well done,” wrote another.
“There needs to be more of this. When I’m teaching learner drivers they freak out when seeing police on the road. This is a positive experience for all involved,” wrote a learner driver trainer.
More than one Facebook user suggested experienced drivers ought to undergo a refresher course, especially in terms of safely getting out of the way of emergency vehicles.
Let us know in the CarAdvice comments section below if you would like to see this idea introduced in other states.