31 July 2015

School children learning to drive: a good idea?

This week, a government petition has been started in the hope that politicians will get driving tuition added to the school curriculum as soon as possible, in a bid to reduce accidents and deaths among young drivers. The petition is led by Young Driver, the largest pre-17 driving lesson provider in the country, and has attracted the support of several major motoring organisations. Backed by the Association of British Insurers, the Institute of Advanced Motorists, the Driving Instructors’ Association and the Motor Schools Association of Great Britain, motoring journalist Quentin Willson has also come out in support of the petition and his 16-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter have taken up lessons.

Statistics quoted by Young Driver and the petition’s supporters, such figures typically based on research and data published by TRL and the RAC Foundation, highlight that 400 people are killed each year on UK roads in accidents involving young drivers. Drivers under the age of 19 are more than twice as likely to die in a car crash compared to drivers in their 40s, and 20% of new drivers are involved in an accident within just six months of passing their driving test.

The petition doesn’t aim to get the government to lower the minimum driving age, but seeks to see the introduction of classroom and practical driving tuition within schools. “Driving a vehicle is potentially one of the most dangerous and responsible things a person can do. Learning to drive should be done over a long period of time, and from a young age, when pupils are more receptive to safety messages”, comments Kim Stanton from Young Driver, who goes on to say that “evidence-based research shows that road safety messages are better absorbed by children in their early teens rather than at driving age.”

Mark Lewis from the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) adds “Quite obviously the driving education that youngsters are currently receiving is inadequate. There needs to be more done at an earlier stage. Learning such an important skill shouldn’t potentially be done and dusted in a few short months.”

Hannah Tripp, winner of the 11-13 age category of the 2014 Young Driver Challenge


Is it quite as simple as that, though? Back in 2010 when specialist centres began emerging to teach pre-17s to drive, it was met with concern from the police. Inspector Jones from the Police Federation of England and Wales perhaps commented: “Driving on one of these courses at 11 years old, it’s another six years until you can get a driving licence. How does it replicate the real world, the spontaneous incidents?” He went on to say “Are kids mature enough at 11, 12, 13 years old to understand what’s happening on the roads, to be able to manage all the demands and pressures? I’m not persuaded it’s a good idea.” Perhaps incorporating safe but nevertheless surprising situations into young driver tuition to simulate danger is therefore essential.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) warned that such courses could make youngsters over confident and more likely to crash. Their spokesperson Kevin Clinton mused that “It will probably mean youngsters will take fewer lessons when they come to learn to drive and if they take fewer lessons they will get less experience,” he said, going on to say “That means when they pass their test they may be at greater risk of crashing because they won’t have had as much experience when they are supervised.”

A more measured, philosophical view was expressed by Brian Mooney from the Association of British Drivers, who commented: “Anything that gets young people accustomed to the car and a bit of responsibility and co-ordinating movements, is a good thing particularly if it also teaches them to be considerate of other people.”

Former Top Gear Stig, Ben Collins, made some good points in his October 2013 article in the Huffington Post in which he says “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.” Ben criticised TRL’s pleas for the UK minimum legal driving age to be increased to 18 and commented: “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?”

A Young Driver behind the wheel


Sweden is often brought into the conversation, as youths there have long learnt to drive from an earlier age, resulting in what many point to as a 40% reduction in accidents. Norway did the same as Sweden and lowered the age of driving lessons to 16, but according to research referenced by RoSPA, this actually resulted in an increase in self-reported accidents. Perhaps this is simply because young learner drivers are getting more miles under their belts, though, which is a good thing.

In a debate on the Road Safety GB website, knowledgeable folk highlighted several pros and cons, from younger teenagers typically learning more quickly, to a person’s attitude being more important than the amount of driving tuition they’ve had. In France, 14-year-olds can ride mopeds on the road, which many believe has led to fewer accidents. One gentleman posed the question “how will driving round a load of cones teach youngsters how to be considerate to other road users?”, whilst others pointed to concerns that more teenagers may TWOC (take without owner’s consent) their parents’ cars, if they become too eager to get behind the wheel before they’re legally able to start lessons on public roads. A few people even said it would be interesting to see if young drivers from rural areas are involved in fewer accidents because they often learn to drive on quad bikes and other vulnerably exposed farm machinery from a tender age.

Personally, I’m with Brian Mooney from the Association of British Drivers. Youngsters getting accustomed to a car’s controls, dimensions and capabilities, along with speed, dangers and to other road users is surely a positive thing. If you want to sign the petition, click here. Let us know what you think about it on Twitter or Facebook.

Oliver Hammond

Written by Oliver Hammond

Oliver is an established freelance motoring writer, published journalist and automotive copywriter based in Manchester. He regularly reviews cars and covers events and launches as editor of petroleumvitae.com and his articles appear in various magazines each month. No relation to Richard from Top Gear, he’s got a weakness for luxo-barges, proper 4x4s and oddball cars.