Jessie Anderson reports on a bold effort to reduce road accidents by promoting expertise and encouraging responsible attitudes behind the wheel. Looking ahead to the introduction next year of a theory section in the driving test, the Driving Standards Agency has been anxious for some time to have car driving and maintenance included in the school syllabus for older pupils.
Responding to this perceived need a Carlisle driving school, the Urban Driver Training Group, wrote to all the secondary schools in their area offering instruction free. The 10-week course began this term at St Aidan's County High with 90 Year 11 pupils (15 to 16-year-olds). Other senior classes will be involved later.
Driving instructors John Mitchell and Doug Graham have produced hundreds of slides of specific traffic situations with shots taken in the locality of the school. There are videos, too, which ram home the message of responsible driving.
"As well as preparing them for the theory part of their driving test which many of them will take next year, we want to cut down on accidents, on joy riding and on car crime generally," says science teacher Ken Bonsor who is largely responsible for administering the course and who is himself a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists.
"We accept that youngsters will want to show off in their dream car," says John Mitchell, "but we are trying to get them to realise that they don't need to drive at 90 miles an hour in a built-up area to show off. We want to make them as responsible as we can get them at this age."
The course, he emphasises, is more about attitude than about technical expertise. And it's on attitude and general driver behaviour that the new theory test will concentrate. "If we can get into the schools we can try to change attitudes," he says. "We want to get at them before their mates who can drive get at them."
Perhaps it was masculine courtesy which made the boys in the group stand back as half a dozen youngsters waited for some hands- on experience in the instructors' cars.
"Young girls are just as keen as the boys to get into the driving seat, " observed Mitchell as three of them piled into his car, having already checked the oil and the tyres. Unfortunately the school does not have sufficient ground space for them to become mobile. This would normally be on offer as the training group has a special licence.
The youngsters are enthusiastic about the course so far and a great deal of the "responsible driving" message seems to have got home. "We know not to drive when we're drunk," said one 15-year-old earnestly. The laughter with which her friends greeted this remark produced a hasty rephrasing. Nevertheless, warnings against drink and drugs have obviously had an impact reinforced by videos of accidents.
"Every young male driver thinks he's immortal and invincible," observes Ken Bonsor. "I know I did. We have to make them realise that of all the everyday human activities driving has the most lethal potential. Hopefully this sort of course will reduce some of the carnage."
Fifteen-year-old Nina Findley, after a lesson illustrated with slides, said: "It makes you more aware of what kind of damage a car can do.
Reuben Lee, 16, said: "It teaches you to be aware of other cars. I never knew there were blind spots," he added after a discussion on how much a commercial vehicle driver can see.
Two 16-year-old boys agreed that the course would make them more careful drivers when, hopefully, they pass their test next year. "It makes you more aware of the dangers," they said.
The course covers legal requirements, car control, equipment and components, road user behaviour, coping with road and weather conditions, traffic signs, rules and regulations and motorway driving. First aid instruction is also included. The course is certificated and will be included in pupils' achievement records.
An alternative scheme is offered by the British School of Motoring with its Ignition Project one-day course. This trains school staffs to deliver the theoretical instruction with the facility for practical input from local driving instructors for an arranged fee.
If schools are seeking information on the Ignition Project they should approach the BSM. If they want a course run by driving instructors they should get in touch with a local driving school.