Kids today don’t know how lucky they are.
My first experience of driving was aged around 16, manhandling an ageing Volvo 340 belonging to a friend’s mum around an empty airfield. It ended with screams, a near miss with a large concrete block and a frank discussion about my car control.
My son Ben, on the other hand, got his first taste aged just 10, behind the wheel of a brand-new Vauxhall Corsa with power steering and ABS, and a calm professional instructor taking him through the basics on a purpose-made course.
The difference is that 30 years ago if you wanted to learn to drive before you were 17 you needed a willing sucker with a car and some private land. Now, the Young Driver programme offers a safe and structured means for young petrolheads to get behind the wheel long before they are old enough to hit the public roads.
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The Young Driver scheme was launched in 2009 and since then it has provided a million lessons for drivers as young as 10, all given by fully qualified driving instructors.
The thinking is simple: the earlier people learn the skills required for driving, the safer they are when they hit the public roads.
Young Driver’s head of marketing, Sue Waterfield, told me: “There is a genuine scientific basis for the saying ‘practice makes perfect’ and we provide youngsters with more time to get to grips with learning to drive, without the pressure of a test. Accident statistics for our past pupils prove to us that this is most definitely a positive, yet fun, way to improve the safety of our young people behind the wheel.”
A Swedish study from the 1990s found that allowing youngsters to learn from an earlier age, without reducing the age at which they can pass their test, lessened the accident rate in newly qualified drivers by 40%.
A fifth of newly qualified drivers in the UK are involved in an accident in their first six months of driving but Young Driver’s own data suggests that the accident rate among its students is less than 4%.
Living relatively rurally, driving is going to be an essential skill for my kids, so the opportunity to introduce my eldest to driving shortly after he turned 10 seemed too good to pass up.
Young Driver uses more than 70 locations on private land around the country, ranging from former airfields and race tracks to car parks. Some are better suited to newer drivers learning the basics while others incorporate everything from two-way traffic to crossroads.
We turned up to the Braehead location, occupying two levels of a shopping centre car park, to find a real spread of ages and experiences, from 10-year-olds on their first lesson to 16-year-olds sharpening their skills before being allowed on public roads.
As the lesson approached Ben confessed to a flutter of nerves but his instructor, Brian, immediately put him at ease, familiarising him with the car and helping him get comfortable. With the seat pulled fully forward and a variety of foam wedges to help him sit higher he was raring to go.
Remembering my own first “proper” driving lesson, I recall a lot of sitting at the roadside discussing theory, so it was surprising just how quickly they get the young students moving. After a brief lowdown on the basic controls, they were off, motoring around the car park with around eight other cars.
With kids so often keen to “do” rather than be shown, it’s a good tactic that keeps them focused and it’s only enhanced by the challenging driving they’re faced with.
This isn’t just rolling forwards slowly through some cones. Even in the first lesson, Ben covered reverse parking, roundabouts and a slalom to test his steering control. Later lessons deal with complex junctions and help develop road craft, hazard awareness and other vital skills as well as continuing to develop the basic mechanics of driving.
By the end of the lesson Ben was manoeuvering around the relatively tight confines of the car park with a confidence I certainly didn’t feel on my first lesson. And after an hour he emerged from the car buzzing with excitement and with a grin from ear to ear.
The final part of the lesson was a chat with instructor Brian, where the three of us discussed Ben’s strengths and the areas he needs to work on. As throughout the lesson, it was all done in a positive and encouraging way and left Ben eager to do it all again and hone his skills.
It is a process that has worked for Josh Burford, 14, who in 2019 won the annual Young Driver Challenge. He told National World: “I’ve taken lessons from the age of 10 and Young Driver has helped me with confidence, road knowledge and, obviously, driving skills. Each time I complete a new skill it is added to my ‘Drive Diary’ which builds up over my lessons with notes and tips to help from the instructor which you can look back on.”
And while the lessons are a great early introduction for young drivers like Ben and Josh, they also help drivers who are preparing for their test.
Alfie Rowlett, 17, passed his driving test first time and puts his success in part down to the head start Young Driver gave him.
He said: "I found the Young Driver lessons really useful ahead of starting to learn on the road. It meant I had a good idea how the car controls worked and how to safely do a lot of the basics. That meant it was quicker for me to get into learning about the more complicated aspects of driving when I turned 17. It also meant I felt confident enough to start practicing with my parents almost straight away, and that extra time and experience all really helps you.”
As for Ben, a single lesson hasn’t turned him into the next Lewis Hamilton or Sebastien Loeb, but it has given him a hunger to get back behind the wheel.
“It was awesome fun getting to drive a proper car. I was nervous before I started but then I really enjoyed it when I was doing it.
“I learned so many things about driving from Brian and I can’t wait to do it again.”