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Driver Education: Does it/should it work?

Think back to when you started to learn to drive. Where was it? How did you do it? Manual or automatic? Who taught you? For me, it was the mid late 1980’s, in my home town of Perth and was done (then) through a driving school and with the emphasis on a holistic approach. It wasn’t simply sit in, strap in, ignition on and go, I was taught about getting settled before I started. Seat position, rear vision mirror, side mirrors, handbrake on (if it was a manual), that kind of thing. I was taught about indication, using headlights, observing the road ahead of me and not just the car in front. I was also taught to drive a manual, therefore becoming involved in the driving experience, not merely a steerer. All this, in an age where the VL Commodore and XF Falcon were kings of the road, technology was having a CD radio cassette and speed cameras were a driver ed 4glint in the revenue raiser’s eye. Importantly, it wasn’t my parents that taught me, it was people that were trained to teach people how to utilise a car to the best of the driver’s ability and was intended to put safe drivers, not idiots, out on the roads.

Even then, there was no real encouragement to do follow up education, how to improve the weak spots of driving, take advantage of new information, learn about advances in car tech (Anti skid brake systems, airbags etc), it was pretty much a procession of: get learners, get lessons, get licence, go drive mum and dad’s car until you could buy your own (if mum and dad hadn’t already done so). Time moves on and slowly, slowly,  people wake up to the fact that people being taught to drive aren’t being taught that well anymore, or what they were taught was a long time ago and bad habits have crept in. Along the way governments became somewhat disinterested in proper driving education and found out that bad drivers make a great source of easy money. Drivers became less interested in being a good driver and more interested in simply getting from A to B. The emphasis became more of learning to pilot an automatic transmissioned car, not getting involved in what the car does. Technology upped the ante with extra airbags, stability and traction control, better ABS, climate controlled aircon and more with a focus on auto, auto, auto; auto headlights, auto wipers, keyless entry, but, seemingly, no progress on how to drive a car fitted with all of these.

Of recent years, state governments have offered different avenues for a person to obtain their driver’s license; in NSW they must complete a certain amount of hours with the assistance of a driver of at least five years experience (generally the long suffering parents) and, seemingly, with minimal real input from those that train people to drive properly. But how many bad habits are being passed down? No indication at corners or driver ed 1roundabouts or pulling into/out of a stop roadside? No headlights on when it’s dark or raining? iPod earphones in, ignoring a perfectly usable radio? It goes further than that when it comes to truly bad driving habits. Thankfully, against the tide, there are those that believe Australia needs better driver education post gaining a license. One of those is Phil Brock. If you think that surname is familiar, you’d be right. Apart from being the brother of the late Peter Brock, he’s been a racecar driver and firmly believes that governments need to provide further driver training, plus, back off on the spin telling us about how less people have died on our roads or have not, allegedly, been injured: Deaths: in 2000 it was 1,761, in 2009 it was 1,543.
Seriously injured: in 2000 it was 26,694, in 2009 it was 34,116. Seriously injured with high threat to life: in 2000 it was 6,911, in 2009 it was 8,798. Pretty simple maths, the death toll declined by 218, but the overall serious injury rose by 9,309.
So, we have a total of 42,914 people seriously injured on our roads in one year, and rising, yet the Government tells us it’s heading in the right direction?

But, as Phil notes: “Apparently research PROVES that driver education is pointless, that it has no benefit to lessening the road toll at all.
Also, car accidents are not caused by bad driving, unless there is a outside influence such as alcohol, drugs etc.” Yet, there’s this: “
Recently we had a phone call from a mother thanking us for saving her daughter’s life. Her daughter was in an incident whlie driving on a highway and stated that our Defensive Driving Course saved her and her friends life by using the techniques she learnt in the course. As a small business passionate about its work, this is the kind of thing we love to hear about.” That was a course provided by a third party of which he has no involvement yet that information was passed to him due to his concern about driver standards and the lack of government committment to help people improve their ability on the road.

In NSW, there was a person, involved in the former Roads and Traffic Authority at a high level, that metaphorically laid his life on the line to say that driver education didn’t work, that all it would do would be to have drivers go out and try and find the limits of what they’ve been taught. Thankfully, that person no longer has any sway and this way of thinking is no longer the overriding command. Ian Luff, former racer himself, father of V8 Supercar driver Warren and a well known promoter of driver education and safety, is another one of those that believes training saves lives. His courses are run with a touch of humour here and there, sprinkled liberally with catchphrases but with a deadly serious driver ed 2underlying message. It’s also the name of his hugely successful business, Drive to Survive. Ian points out the usage of ABS and how the right application of the brake pedal with an ABS fitted car, in conjunction with stability control, road observation and a change of driver attitude can go a whole lot further to saving a life or more than no training. Something as simple as having the side window fully raised or fully retracted, instead of half way, where a sideways impact can violently move the head to the side, directly placing the neck right on top of the hardened glass edge. Being observant whilst driving; here, Ian shows some not so pretty pictures of cars windscreen deep into a truck’s rear, at just the right height for the front seat passengers to literally lose their head, thanks to a driver simply not paying attention or playing with an electronic device. Ian also explains that, although understanding the financial aspect of buying an older, cheaper car for your children, the engineering aspect comes into play with chassis design, crumple zones and such. This is clearly identified by a video which shows two cars, one modern and the other of an eighties vintage, being pushed at high speed into a concrete block as part of a crash study. The result for the older car is not pretty. Yet, as Ian explains, if a driver was taught properly, the chance of a crash (there is NO such thing as an accident) can be minimised. Note that word minimised. There are instances where a crash has happened and has been unavoidable.

When it comes to training and education, there’s pretty simple examples of where this works when it comes to road vehicles: every single racing car driver worldwide. (driver ed 3   as one example) How’s that, you ask? Simple: imagine yourself in a racecar, without any education or training as to the capability of that vehicle. Think of how easy it might be to stall it on start up, how the brake setup will stop you harder and more efficiently than your road car, how much more grippier the tyres are, how much extra speed you can carry into a turn, how easy it is to completely stuff it up and crash because you’ve had no training. As business development manager at Drive to Survive, Stewart Nicholls says: “ If education doesn’t work then let’s close all the schools and universities now.” It’s a fair point; in just about every single position of employment world wide there is training. Further to that, there’s ongoing training. A pilot isn’t simply taught to fly a Cessna then unleashed upon the public by flying, untrained, a 747. A surgeon simply doesn’t pick up a sharp knife and hack away to pull out your inflamed appendix. There’s the initial training and then there’s more, yet when it comes to something most of us take for granted, but costs the country billions of dollars in hospital costs, medical bills and rehabilitation after a crash, to say that it’s a bad thing driver education and training is akin to saying it’s ok to climb Mt Everest with no clothes on. Vehicle dealerships of certain brands include driver training as part of the sale package, knowing it’ll be better, not worse, to do so. The naysayers point out research, government feedback that “point towards further driver education being ineffective”. The problem with that statement are the innumerable drivers that are better drivers because of further driver education and training. Quite simply, if you believe you’re a good driver and need no further training, go and do a course. You’ll be horrified at how bad you are, how little you’ve improved since you got your license sometime last century and grateful to find out that the rose coloured glasses finally got that much needed clean.