Put the brakes on whizz-kid sixth-formers

28th November 1997 at 00:00
Teenagers can be 'greener-than thou' when it suits them, yet are happy to join the road-hogging, gas-guzzling, ozone-killing ranks on the day they turn 17. Dennis Richards proposes a strict new driving age limit of 22.

It's the phone call that every headteacher dreads: A road accident. Members of the Sixth Form. The search for the right phrases. Phrases so familiar we know them off by heart. Strange how it always seems to be talented, lovely, friendly youngsters, full of life and on the brink of promising careers. A tragedy, every-one agrees.

But where are the demands for the thorough inquiry, the hand-wringing torment and anger which accompany other avoidable deaths among school-age youngsters? Why this conspiracy of silence? Why no assignment of blame?

Perhaps there is the fear that we will be condemned as latter-day Malcolm Muggeridges, wishing to deny to the young pleasures we ourselves enjoyed in our own youth. Or perhaps we fear to shatter another of our fond illusions - that the young generation is far more concerned about the environment than we middle-aged teachers ever were.

Thus we fall over ourselves to praise our children for their earnest support for campaigns to save the rainforest, their demands that we use recycled paper in our classrooms, their insistence on our purchasing only environmentally-friendly products. Have we knowingly - or perhaps unknowingly - avoided the truth: that this crop of late teens is as hypocritical as you can get in relation to cars and driving.

For what does their touching concern for the environment mean when their convenience, and, even more important, their self-image are involved? Middle-aged teachers, racked with guilt as a result of sermons from their own and others' offspring about the environment and its impending destruction, wobble their way to school by bike. Meanwhile, the school car park is bulging with cars belonging sixth-formers.

All this has a desperately serious side. Among the middle classes there is a growing phenomenon of giving a car as an 18th-birthday present. For years now, the only possible time for any self-respecting teenager to have that first driving lesson was on his or her 17th birthday. And by dint of learning on "off the road" circuits it has even been known for the truly trendy to take and pass the test on the day they turn 17.

When the car is duly purchased, what kind of vehicle will it be? Not a solid but oh-so-boring Volvo, but some hot new number, or, more likely, a 10-year-old has-been which dad would not be seen dead in. (It won't be dad who is seen dead in it, of course.) The cost of vehicle and insurance will be a determining factor, but not safety - unlike the standards demanded of school vehicles.

How ironic it all is. The most precious commodity in any family, the jewel, the adored son or daughter, is driving around at 18 with minimal experience in a vehicle, which, in the event of an accident, is probably 10 times less safe than Dad's top-of-the-range model sitting in the drive. And this is the very same dad who would crucify any school which dared put his progeny at that kind of risk.

Not that I blame the parents. I can well imagine the tan-trums, the sulks, the emotional blackmail, the "everybody else" strategy, the awful guilt about being mean, all of which leads harassed mums and dads to cave in.

So why do we not tell it like it is? This needless slaughter cries out for radical action. Why are our young environmental paragons of virtue not campaigning themselves for a policy which would save their lives and do far more to improve the environment than recycling paper?

The minimum age for driving is due to go up to 18, but that will not make enough difference. Why not campaign for raising the minimum age for a driving licence to 22?

We, the middle-aged responsible, won't do it. We are too frightened of the possibility of a derisory response. Politicians would see it as a vote-loser and the young as a turn-off. They want nothing to limit their so-called freedom, however horrendous the price.

All of us are in the same boat. My eldest daughter learned to drive when she was 22, my middle daughter when she was 19. My youngest daughter had her first driving lesson when she was 17.

For the moment none of them has a car and they refuse to drive mine. It's a Volvo.

Dennis Richards is headteacher of St Aidan's Church of England High School, Harrogate.

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