P-platers copping a raw deal

Is it just me, or does the current media focus on P-plate drivers seem a little unfair?  It’s tough enough being a young, newly licensed driver without adding the pressure of almost constant media scrutiny and attack.  The majority of these drivers are responsible young adults, but driving in Sydney’s hectic traffic is not for the faint-hearted so is it any wonder that drivers with low levels of experience feature more highly in accident statistics?

And there lies part of what I believe is the crux of the matter – experience. 

The other thing that I believe contributes in no small way is the pathetic driver training given to these people.  The licensing system in NSW is pathetic – it simply teaches people how to pass a test.  It does absolutely nothing to teach people how to drive.  The government has attempted to make it look like it is doing something by introducing a longer period between application for a Learner’s Permit and sitting for a driver’s license, and requiring learner drivers to have a certain minimum number of hours behind the wheel and maintain a log book as evidence.  This system is so open to abuse, it’s laughable.  There is too much anecdotal evidence around to say that the stories of parents “fudging” their child’s log book hours are all untrue. 

Another thing that I find amazing is that, in NSW at least, non-english speaking applicants for a driver’s license are able to undertake the exams in their own language, a point I have commented on before.  This is simply appalling!  How are these non-english speaking people supposed to understand road signs, or verbal instructions from police or other officials?

Having watched members of my own family go through the NSW driver’s licensing system and then seen the result on the road, I made sure they received additional driver training of the same type that I did as a newly licensed driver in my teens.  I have always been a great supporter of the “schools” that employ professional drivers to teach responsible attitude, road awareness and crash avoidance skills, and the skills to regain control of a skidding or spinning motor vehicle.  It’s simply not possible to understand the dynamics of a car that is spinning or skidding on a wet or loose surface until you have actually experienced it.  A lot of accidents occur because drivers suddenly find themselves having to make an emergency stop for some reason, and they have never experienced what a skidding car feels like.  The result?  They become just another passenger in the car, frozen into inaction by their lack of knowledge and uselessly holding the steering wheel and waiting for the “ride” to stop.  That stop is invariably a hard one when they hit an immoveable object.

So, how do we improve the situation?  I don’t hold myself out to be a guru here, far from it.  However, I will suggest some steps that I think go a long way to alleviate the problems.

1. Get them early.  Start teaching our children proper attitudes from an early age.  This is a parental responsibility, so all you people with kids better realise that if you have bad habits, your kids are learning it right from the first time they travel in the car with you.  These lessons will stick with them for life.

2. More driver education programs in schools.  It seems to work well in the USA (one of the few good things to come from their education system it appears), so why shouldn’t it be done here?  Part of this education should involve lectures from Police Highway Patrol officers, including pictures of crash scenes with statistics like estimated speed of the vehicles, road conditions, etc, so that students can understand the link between these things, and how easily cars bend at relatively slow speeds.  As gruesome as it may sound, outings to hospital accident wards might also be valuable in providing a wake up call to them that they aren’t “bullet-proof”.

3. The log book system has a lot of merit as evidence of driving in conditions that aren’t ideal, such as in rain, fog, and/or at night, on roads with loose surfaces, etc.  However, it is clearly open to abuse in it’s present form.  Perhaps there could be some sort of electronic “log book” developed that at least provides evidence of time behind the wheel, although I expect this would require the co-operation of the car makers in providing a common interface for the “log-book” to be plugged in to the car.  The device would also require security features to prevent it’s data being falsified, things like bio-identification (a finger print pad or the like).

4. Compulsory attendance at a professional car control course where they learn, in a safe, controlled environment, what an out of control car feels like and what to do and NOT to do to bring the car back under control.  I’m not suggesting an advanced course where they learn high speed manoeuvres, simply a basic course focussed on road awareness and crash avoidance, with a back up of skid control techniques.  In fact, might I go so far as to suggest they do such a course twice before attaining a full license?  Once when on their L-plates prior to obtaining their red P-plates, then again as part of the application for a full license at the end of their green P-plate period.

5. This idea could be used across the board for all drivers, P-plate or full license.  Develop a system of positive reinforcement.  Why not award additional license points to drivers with good driving histories?  I’m sure a suitable formula could be worked out, perhaps half a point for every year without an infringement notice or other driving related penalty?  This would give drivers more reason to aspire to better driving skills and road behaviour.  Taking this one step further, award additional points to drivers that take regular refresher courses at driver training courses and/or that voluntarily re-sit the driving license exams as proof they are keeping up with road rules.

C’mon people, let’s help our kids with positive support, not hinder them with ever more repressive rules and regulations.

Addenda:
This article appeared on the Sydney Morning Herald web site on 4/11/2006:
http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/another-pplater-death-on-roads/2006/11/04/1162340087261.html

The government’s proposals won’t help.  The system needs drastic change, not band-aid solutions.