Young drivers get a tough time from most people. A danger on the roads, we say, and a danger to everybody around them. Speeding, loud music, eating at the wheel and the inevitable effects of peer pressure combine to make them the second most irritating road users, just behind cyclists.
Of course we forget that when we were 17 we fell foul of exactly the same things. When I got my first car (a Ford Sierra Sapphire 2.0 GL in fact) the first thing I did was head to the pub with a car full of friends.
Fortunately I was sensible enough to avoid drinking, but the speeding, loud music and questionable driving decisions were there for all to see. I had passed my test and, therefore, I knew everything there ever was to know about driving.
That feeling ended when my car was comprehensively written off. The accident was not my fault – in fact I was actually stationary at the time – but the sudden realisation that things could go very wrong very quickly made me grow up.
Another young driver, completely unrelated to me or my friends, had lost control of their car and collided with mine, impacting directly into my door. The car’s width was reduced by around 40 cm, with my head swinging sideways through my window and into the flying shrapnel created by the merging of their Fiesta and my Sierra. The door ended up pressed against the steering wheel, the centre console had been crushed between my seat and the passenger seat, and hot steam was exiting the Fiesta and being funnelled in my direction.
Fortunately I’m still here to tell the tale, although had the impact been a few centimetres either side then it’s less certain. While smashing my head through a window hurt, I can only imagine it’s far less damaging than smacking the B-pillar before the days of airbags.
The statistics say I was lucky. One in five of all major road accidents involved novice drivers between 17 and 24 years old, and 1,552 of them were killed or seriously injured in 2011.
Older and wiser, and with teenagers in the house, I’m a major advocate for increased training for young drivers. I absolutely support their desires to have the freedom to drive, I just want to make it easier, cheaper and safer for them to own and drive their own car.
It’s that desire to make things better for our teenagers that explains why I was so keen to spend a day with Ford recently as they announced the launch of the Driving Skills for Life initiative.
This year alone, Ford will invest around £1.2 million in a scheme to train young drivers across the UK, Germany, France, Spain and Italy.
Driving Skills for Life will provide a day of expert training to drivers alongside web based teaching that should all come together to address the major causes of accidents in this age group: hazard recognition, vehicle handling, speed and space management, and dealing with distractions.
Importantly, the training will be completely free, and that includes the day spent behind the wheel of a new Ford.
I spent some time with Ford trying out a couple of the real-world exercises, finding the distraction section to be a particular eye opener.
The task was simple. I had a passenger sitting to my left and an array of cones ahead marking out slaloms, garages, stopping points and so on. My passenger would calmly and quietly give me instructions on where to go and what to do. As none of it was particularly demanding, I would expect any driver to be able to carry out this part.
However, a call came through on the hands-free phone fitted and I was then engaged in conversation with another Ford rep. This guy was giving further instructions unrelated to the driving, such as turning on the stereo, retuning it and then turning it up loud. Then there was a discussion about where I last went on holiday and what I wore on Tuesday morning. All the while my passenger was continuing to give calm and quiet directions to me.
With all that going on, I could no longer cope. Simple tasks became impossible. With me years of experience, I started to block out the voice coming from the speakers and concentrated on the driving. If I’d have known where the button was, I’d have cut him off entirely.
Others weren’t so calm and collected. Kerbs took a hit, numerous cones were murdered and the gears on the Fiesta might never be the same again, all proving this one point that distraction can be overwhelming.
With countless other tests, demonstrations and experiences to put the young drivers through, there’s clearly a lot to learn. The question is whether it will make a difference.
Fortunately, there’s already an answer to that question. Ford’s Driving Skills for Life started out in America around ten years ago, with more than 100,000 drivers going through the hands-on training. In the geographic areas where this training has been available, road deaths for novice young drivers have dropped by 55%.
So that’s zero cost supplementary training to build awareness, skills and confidence that is proven to lead to a generation of safer, more responsible and better skilled young motorists.
Well done, Ford. Well done.
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