Learning to drive is a rite of passage. Carolyn O'Grady reports on an initiative designed to help teenagers prepare for it, both under the bonnet and in the mind.
It's 8pm and 13 young people, aged between 15 and 16, are discussing road rage. They have just watched a video in which a gentle, polite cartoon figure metamorphoses into a monster as soon as he gets in a car.
"He feels safe. You take more risks if you feel safe," ventures one. "Especially, if you're drunk," says another.
The others chip in: "If you're drunk, you go out looking for a fight because you think you can take on the world"; "He doesn't care about other drivers. It's him, him, him"; "He should be cool, calm and collected".
The group, from Hamilton Community College in Leicester, are taking part in one of the 15 First Gear projects now running in the UK. At Hamilton the scheme is part of the evening youth activities programme.
Launched last November by Youth Clubs UK, and backed by the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Department for Education and Employment and the Departments of Transport and the Environment, among others, the scheme's main aim is to reduce the frightening death toll among young people on our roads.
Drivers aged between 17 and 21, though they hold only 10 per cent of licences, account for 25 per cent of all accidents involving casualties, and increasingly it is being recognised that this carnage must be addressed as much by education as by advertising and law enforcement. Moreover, education must be directed at changing attitudes to road use and not just at improving driving technique.
"We need to extend the learning process," says Graham Lloyd, leader of the Leicestershire youth work team and Youth Club UK's course director for First Gear. "As soon as a young person arrives at their 17th birthday they have driving lessons. They get through the test as soon as possible. We want to get kids thinking about it before they are 17 and, if possible, to extend it afterwards."
Projects under First Gear's banner can be introduced in a variety of settings, including schools and youth clubs. There are three components: Behind the Wheel (practical driving experience with a driving instructor); Under the Bonnet (car maintenance) and, crucially, In the Mind, which is about attitudes and responsibility.
"This is the bit that kids often don't want to do," says Graham Lloyd. "But we try and make it absorbing and fun, with games, brainstorming sessions, and role plays." The scheme's organisers have developed back-up materials, including a trainer's guide, which suggests ideas and resources, and a diary and information booklet for participants.
First Gear is a 30-hour programme, but, within certain parameters, it is up to the local group exactly how it is organised. At Hamilton the scheme is a partnership between the college, Leicestershire Community Education Department, Hamilton Youth Activities, the police and Motorvate, a project which runs a range of motor vehicle-related activities in the county.
Money raised goes towards resources, the cost of a driving instructor and the hire of two dual-control cars for practice. Participants spend about three hours in cars and three to four hours "under the bonnet"; the rest is devoted to discussions, role playing, watching videos, and other activities.
For some time the local community, youth workers and the police had been concerned about joyriding and other car-related problems on the local estates, says Caroline Baxter, youth tutor at the college. Youth workers, who went out and met young people on the street, had found that youngsters "talked about cars all the time", she adds. It was an interest that the youth activities programme could tap into.
The situation was given a tragic emphasis when several teenagers from a local estate were killed in a car crash recently.
Caroline Baxter had seen a video about First Gear, and contacted Graham Lloyd. She sought funding and then placed advertisements at the club. The first 13 young people who came back with their Pounds 5 (returnable) deposit were enrolled.
The teenagers - five girls and six boys - admit that it is the driving which they look forward to most of all and in some cases the mechanics, but they don't resent the amount of time given to discussion. "I like a good argument, " says one, and discussions are undoubtedly lively and productive. Dangerous driving and crime might be the major concerns of the project, but discussion can take in many issues.
A recent session on car advertisements provoked a heated discussion on sexism and machismo, with many of the girls taking exception to the boys' attitudes to types of car and to speed. A session on insurance included information on costs and penalties, but also involved a role play in which "the car owner", "police officer", "joyrider" and "victim's family" had their say.
At the end of the course the youngsters will receive a certificate with commendations and cautions. They might, for example, be told that they need to be more aware of attitude to speed. But Graham Lloyd is keen to keep the sessions fun. "We don't want to make it too much like school," he says.
First Gear Youth Clubs UK, 11 St Bride Street, London EC4 4AS. Tel: 0171 353 2366
Motorvate runs a range of activities in Leicestershire, some of them aimed at offenders; others are education and community based. Motorvate, 5 Sussex Street, Leicester LE5 3BF. Tel: 0116 255 3918
Ignition produces a pack containing more than 100 slides, photo-copiable masters, videos and course books. BSM, 81-87 Hartfield Road, London SW19 3TJ. Tel: 0181 540 8262
The Department of Transport publishes Road Safety Education in Schools: Good Practice Guidelines. Department of Transport, Information Division, Great Minster House, 76 Marsham Street, London SW1P 4DR. Tel: 0171 276 3000
Road Runners is a scheme which organises one-day events, including practical driving experience. Doug MacNicholl, 138 Overdale, Ashtead, Surrey KT21 1PX. Tel: 01372 815493
The Scottish Road Safety Campaign has produced the National Survey of Road User Education in Scottish Secondary Schools. Scottish Road Safety Campaign, Saughton House, Broomhouse Drive, Edinburgh EH11 3UX. Tel: 0131 444 2230
BMW Driver Awareness Pack. A file including teachers' guide and pupils' activities and overhead transparencies designed "to encourage students to reflect on the complexities and dangers of driving in the context of their own personality and behaviour". Free from E and Y, Phoenix House, Marshes End, Upton Road, Poole, Dorset BH17 7AG. Tel: 600 3333
Motor A pack of materials for cross-curricular use from the Association of British Insurers which aims to foster positive driving and to inform young people about the implications and expense involved in buying a car. ABI, 51 Gresham Street, London EC2V 7 HQ. Tel: 01202 661888.