Drive to get kids behind wheel at as young as 11

With studies showing that children who start learning to drive from as young as 11 are half as likely to have an accident when they pass their test, a petition to teach driving on the school curriculum has been launched in Britain, writes Lisa Salmon. Could the north benefit too?

LEARNING to drive starts from the age of 17, right? Wrong. Getting behind the wheel and learning to drive a car under proper supervision can start, on private land that doesn’t have public access, from as early as 11, when a child is tall enough to reach the vehicle controls.

And research shows that the earlier a young person starts learning to drive, the safer their driving becomes.

One in five new drivers has an accident within six months of passing their test and, every year, hundreds of people are killed in accidents involving young drivers throughout Ireland and Britain. But research shows that youngsters who start learning to drive under the age of 17, and in some cases from as young as 11, are half as likely to have an accident when they pass their test.

A number of driving schools in Britain are now teaching children under 17 how to drive, and a petition has been launched urging the British government to include driving on the school curriculum.

Kim Stanton, managing director of the pre-17 driving lessons provider, Young Driver, which has launched the petition, says: “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, and from a young age, when pupils are more receptive to safety messages.

“Research shows that road safety messages are better absorbed by children in their early teens rather than at driving age. By having this take place at school, it can be made inclusive for all.”

The petition is backed by motoring organisations including the Institute of Advanced Motorists, the RAC, the Driving Instructors Association, and motoring expert and TV presenter Quentin Willson, whose son, aged 16, and 11-year-old daughter, have both started driving lessons.

“I think it’s vital – it’s a road safety revolution in the making,” says Willson. “If we could get this on the curriculum, so the opportunity was open to all, it would have huge ramifications in terms of the safety of our young people. And, as both a father and road user, that’s certainly something I want to back – 100,000 signatures could help save 400 precious lives every year.”

Although young drivers can’t start learning to drive a car on public roads until they get their provisional licence when they’re 17, driving lessons can be held on road systems created using cones and road signs on private land, such as car parks that are closed to the public.

Driving schools like Young Driver use dual-controlled cars with insurance for lessons provided by qualified CRB-checked driving instructors, and drivers from the age of 11, and at least 1.42m tall, learn everything from changing gears and parking, to using roundabouts and even manoeuvring a slalom. Lessons mirror those taken on the road at 17, but give youngsters the chance to take their time without any pressure to pass a test.

“The accidents that young drivers have are usually down to a lack of experience and not having the right training,” Stanton explains.

“By starting at a younger age, you can more easily focus on attitude and behaviour and you have a better chance of tackling a young person’s sense of invulnerability.”

But while children can learn the basics of driving and how to control a car from the age of 11, the fact they aren’t legally allowed to drive on public roads until they’re 17 means they can’t experience how to deal with other traffic.

Stanton agrees that full driver education needs to involve driving on real roads and learning to deal with other road users, but she points out this can be learned after the age of 17, when the practical side of driving, such as changing gear and steering, has been mastered earlier on.

“When they get on the road at 17, they can spend driving lesson time focusing much more on interaction with other road users, rather than concentrating on when they need to use the clutch, for example,” she says.

“Even if you just have four hours of driving a year from the age of 11, that’s a lot of hours behind the wheel by the time you get to the age of 17, when you can then learn to socialise with the traffic out on the public roads.”

Stanton says Young Driver is already providing lessons in some schools, but stresses: “Our goal is to get this on the school curriculum. The government says there isn’t the money to do that, but the cost of 400 young deaths a year, let alone all the serious accidents that happen to these very young people who’ve just passed their test, is massive, and learning to drive earlier can help tackle that.”

Mark Lewis, director of standards for the Institute of Advanced Motorists, agrees that the driving education youngsters currently receive is inadequate.

“The high number of accidents and the sad loss of life as a result of unprepared young drivers urgently needs to be tackled,” he stresses.

“Learning such an important skill shouldn’t potentially be done and dusted in a few short months – there needs to be more done at an earlier stage.”