Young drivers account for almost a quarter of all road accidents so why does one company put children behind the wheel of a car from the age of 11? Neil Hudson went to find out
It sounds counterintuitive. Given we already know young drivers are the most dangerous - a heavily documented fact and one reflected in the sky-high premiums insurance companies charge for that age bracket - why would anyone in their right mind want to give children who are even younger the chance to be in charge of a car.
The idea of even letting anyone between the ages of 10 and 16 get near the steering wheel of your average run-about might sound shocking at first but one woman believes it’s the only way to cut road accidents - and deaths - among the young.
Kim Stanton, 57, a former off-road driving instructor and race driver, is managing director of Young Driver Training, which has just debuted in Leeds and will return to the city in October and November, offering children aged 11-16 driving lessons.
Kim, whose own son is approaching 17, explained the thinking behind the company: “When I was 17 I had a very bad car accident in which the car I was driving rolled over and ended up down an embankment. I hadn’t been drinking but I was tired and the windscreen was frosty and I lost control. The other thing I have now as a parent is my own son will shortly be taking lessons and you suddenly have all those fears running through your head.
“The thing about our current test is that it contains no motorway tuition, no lessons on how to drive on country road, or to overtake safely, or what to do if you approach a horse and there is no night time tuition. If you’re lucky on your test and you have no upsets, after 40 minutes you are basically given the right to drive on the roads and it’s like, ‘Right, off you go then’.”
According to the latest statistics, one in five newly qualified drivers will have some sort of accident in the first six months after passing their test.
A report for the RAC Foundation by TRL, the Transport Research Laboratory, mapped the regional proportions of casualties hurt or killed in an accident involving a 17-19 year-old driver. The average in Great Britain is nearly one in eight (11.9 per cent), despite 17-19 year-olds making up only 1.5 per cent of licensed drivers.
Kim said she believes the driving test is outdated. She added: “I think there ought to be a mixed amount of tuition, with hours of driving at night, on the motorway, rural roads and also some element of monitoring after you pass your test also. If you are learning to fly an aircraft, you have to log a certain number of hours. We should do the same with driving.”
Kim said their own statistics revealed a 50 per cent reduction in the accident rate for the first six months for newly qualified drivers who had taken part in the Young Driver Training course.
The company was founded in 2009, the same year a report was published in Sweden which seemed to indicate that children who were given driving tuition at a much younger age were safer drivers once on the road.
Kim believes passionately that giving youngsters early experience of driving is the best way to improve our roads. Indeed, she even wants to see it on the national curriculum.
“I don’t think 11 is too young to begin to learn. In fact, if children meet our height requirement of 1.42m, we will teach them from 10. It’s like learning a new language, when you are young you pick things up so much more quickly. It’s before the age where you are self-conscious and influenced by peer pressure and preoccupied with all kinds of other things.”
The company now has 41 centres up and down the UK, mostly using supermarket car parks and showgrounds. Kim is careful about their locations - she assiduously avoids using racetracks so as not to give the wrong impression.
Kim says all the available evidence indicates early tuition results in fewer accidents and road deaths and generally safer drivers. Indeed, Admiral, who sponsor Young Driver Training, even give discounts to young drivers who have undertaken the course.
Insurance company Admiral has supported the Young Driver programme since 2009. A spokesperson said: “As an insurer we are only too aware of the high accident rate amongst young motorists on the roads today. The Young Driver programme is an excellent way to introduce under 17s to good driving practice in a safe environment. It teaches them to respect cars and gives them necessary driving skills before they start regular driving lessons on public roads. Being under the legal driving age isn’t a barrier to gaining experience and being properly educated about responsible driving.”
Admiral offer young drivers who have attended the course a five per cent discount but a spokesman said they were “very interested” in the initiative and would be compiling more data in the years to come.
But not everyone agrees it’s the right approach.
Philip Goose, senior community engagement officer at Brake, the road safety charity, said: “Young drivers are exceptionally at risk on our roads – less that one in 12 licence holders is under 25, yet one in five fatal and serious injury crashes involve a driver of this age. Brake agree steps need to be taken to change this but don’t agree this is the solution. We call for a graduated drive licensing system (GDL), allowing new drivers to develop skills and experience gradually.
“Brake calls for a system that includes a 12-month learner period, an initial test, and then a two-year novice period when you can drive independently but with restrictions – such as a late-night driving curfew. It’s used in other countries and it’s predicted would prevent 400 deaths and serious injuries a year here.
“We also believe that there should be more alternatives to learning to drive as a teenager, which many see as a necessity. Public transport needs to be better and more affordable, and sustainable options need to be safer and more attractive.”
David Davies, executive director of PACTS, the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety (an All-Party Parliamentary Group), said they were “very concerned” about the scheme, adding: “Pre-test driver education can be helpful but research has shown that some schemes imbue a false sense of confidence and lead to higher crash rates post-test.”
Daniel Hook from Otley, who will turn 17 in December, was kind enough to trial the Young Driver Training session for the Yorkshire Post.
The Prince Henry Grammar School sixth-former said: “I was surprised to be one of the older ones there on the day but I thought it was brilliant and if I’d known about it sooner, I would have liked to have done it earlier.
“I think it helps to prepare you for lessons and your test. There was a lot of safety instruction, I enjoyed the day, I think it’s a really good thing. It’s useful because it makes you more comfortable with the car.”