Thursday 28 June 2007

Facit experientia cautos

I note that there is a small, but ever more vociferous group of sadly influential individuals who are keen to see the age at which one can legally be in command of a vehicle rise from 17, as it currently stands in UK, to 21. This in response to statistics that suggest the majority of tragic accidents are caused by young and obviously inexperienced drivers.
My son was very upset with me recently because he wants to learn to drive a car and I seemed, as far as he was concerned, criminally disinterested in teaching him. Fortunately, it was easy for me do deal with simply by plonking him in the driver’s seat and watching dispassionately as he realised, with ever increasing frustration, that even with his advanced age of eight years, he was still not big enough to reach the pedals. Naturally, it was all my fault that his legs were too short. I helped him get over his disappointment by sitting him on my lap and operating the pedals, thereby allowing him to take the car for a spin in the field.

There are a series of milestones in every child’s life that are a part of growing up but cause great angst to a parent. Their first day at school; the first time they start to stray from the safety of home and garden; riding a bike on the public highway. About the worst, though, has to be when your whole reason for being passes his driving test. I have a few years left to ponder this before the inevitable fear manifests itself, but Dominic’s evident keenness to get behind the wheel (he can already ride a motorcycle, albeit a miniature version of the real thing) reminded me of how keen I was, and, worryingly, how I behaved after passing my own test.

I am as ashamed of requiring three attempts to pass my driving test as I suppose a student pilot would be at taking twenty or so hours to go solo rather than ten. My first attempt ended suddenly with my head bashing painfully off the steering wheel as the examiner, noticing the distraction the blonde in the red E-Type was causing his young, testosterone laden candidate, decided that his intervention was necessary to prevent me ploughing down the little old lady who had evidently grown old assuming that a pelican crossing with an illuminated little green man provided some sort of invulnerability. The second test ended, somewhat to my dismay considering that I was driving a 1957 Morris 1000 with a crash gearbox, in a failure due to incorrect use of the gearbox. Undaunted, I had another go but on the morning of the test was so nervous that I stammered through the number plate I had to read at a distance to prove that I could at least see enough to recognise a car at ten paces, and stalled the car so many times before I even got out of the test centre that I was ready to give up immediately and save everyone a lot of time and paperwork.

Despite what many people say about driving examiners (and lawyers), there are one or two decent ones about. Sadly, as they very rarely advertise their humanity with a neon sign welded to their foreheads, they are almost impossible to recognise until at some very unexpected moment, like the sun finally breaking through hellish storm clouds with the attendant promise of easier sailing ahead, their bureaucratic façade crumbles to reveal, well, basically a decent bloke. Maybe it was thoughts of an uphill entry onto the very busy A50 and, based on my performance thus far, his chances of survival that prompted the examiner to tell me to pull over. As I pulled in, kerbing the wheel in the process, I resigned myself to the ignominy of being driven back to the test centre by an unimpressed examiner. Instead of ordering me out of the driver’s seat so that we could swap places, however, he pulled out a packet of unfiltered Players and offered me one.

Glorious nicotine. We sat there together in the car without a word, he probably wondering how hard earned his paltry salary was and me just rejoicing in the waves of peace that flushed gently through me. OK, I obviously wasn’t going to pass but it wouldn’t be the end of the world, would it? The statuesque Sally Bent and the sylph like Melanie Whateverhernamewas would just have to wait for the romantic lay-by trysts that with youthful optimism I was sure were guaranteed, as soon as I had my own wheels.

Being a decent bloke as I had now decided he was, the examiner had to at least do me the courtesy of going through the motions, so we had a relaxed run around the town before ending up at the test centre again. I answered the obligatory questions on the highway code and then we both got out of the car, me looking for my instructor so that I could be driven home, he fumbling with his clipboard and flip charts. I went round the car to shake his hand, sportingly. I didn’t like the idea of failing again but I didn’t feel badly done by, certainly not as outraged as I was the last time for being censured for not stuffing my Dad’s gearbox up by changing into first while we were still rolling. He gave me a piece of paper and without looking at it, I thanked him. It was only when my instructor came over to take the car keys from me that I realised. She was too nice a person to rejoice at the prospect of providing me with yet more expensive lessons. I had passed. The examiner looked at me as he had no doubt thousands of other fledgling motorists and waving his clipboard in the general direction of my instructor gloomily pointed out that, ‘This young lady has taught you to pass a driving test, now you must learn how to drive. For God’s sake, son, take it easy until you really know what you are doing.’

‘When will that be, do you think?’ I replied.

He studied me sadly and reached into his anorak pocket for another Player’s. ‘Never’.

On the way home with my instructor driving, for even though I had the pass certificate in my pocket, the law sensibly precluded me from driving excitedly away from the test centre (dying with the ink still wet on a pass certificate causing newsworthy carnage on my way to Valhalla no doubt being bad for Department of Transport pass statistics), she pointed out that the examiner’s remarks were not so much directed at me as a general indictment of human attitudes to risk, especially young male humans for whom risk is, let’s face it, as vital to overall well being as food, beer and the ever present chance of a first bonk. So naturally I wasn’t paying attention. I was looking forward to my first solo. Then I would be in charge and could drive without the constant nannying; ‘The outside of the curve, please’; ‘Take the long way round, less chance of you skidding’; all delivered in the monotones of the long-suffering, undoubtedly very bored professional.

Long way round? I had never seen Moss, Clark or Hill take the long way round, not unless they wanted to see someone sneak up the inside and spray their goggles with dirt and second hand Castrol racing oil before disappearing into the distance. No. These guys left rubber on the inside kerb and kicked the dust off the outside of the exit. All that tarmac was there to be used and if I managed to get round a corner at 45 the last time, what the hell was wrong with trying it at 50 this time? I am sorry. As far as I was concerned, the A5 was the Mulsanne Straight and the only way an 1100cc Vauxhall Viva was to sneak unexpectedly by the P6 Rover in front was by slipstreaming two inches from its back bumper and then popping out on a downhill stretch and beating it to the next blind corner. There must have been hundreds of middle aged duffers who, gratefully accepting slippers and journals from the mouths of faithful mutts, sank back into their wingbacks wondering what it must be like to drive with the consummate skill demonstrated by the young man in the Viva who had just forced them and their shiny jalopies through the roadside hedge and into the Leicestershire countryside.

My fun lasted exactly seven days. Having taken three attempts I was one of the last of my contemporaries to acquire their first wheels, mine were on loan from my mother, so it was a big group that I joined at the Globe Inn near Snarestone. I didn’t get the bonk I was by now pretty desperate for, but I’d enjoyed the beer and I was about to get all the excitement I could still walk away from. Having rather spectacularly failed to persuade the luscious Sally to explore the local highways, byways and secluded lay-bys with me, I decided that it would be rather cool to roar off into the setting sun in a cloud of swirling dust and tortured rubber. I am sure that Colin McRae could have done it. Or Vattenen. Any Finn at all really. But I wasn’t McRae. Or my brother come to think of it; if our surname was Schumacher, then I would be Ralph and he would be Michael, and my brother’s name really is Michael. And he lives in Germany. As far as I know, I have no Viking blood in me whatsoever so there was no way that I was going to get mother’s car through the quarry bends at over 60. Especially not with a couple or so of pints of Pedigree Best Bitter sloshing around inside me more or less where the seatbelt should have been.

The back tyres let go and the arse end smacked a telegraph pole spinning me across the road and into barriers that impeded an involuntary flight into the famous quarry, but well patinating the other side of the car in the process.

Have any of you seen that famous 1970 film, Le Mans? The bit where Steve McQueen in a Porsche skids out of control and rattles between the Armco before finally coming to rest and then sitting there, head bleeding, reliving every agonizing second of his sudden departure from the race while what’s left of his car steams gently away? The ticking of hot metal cooling? The smell? Well, it was exactly like that.

I vomited up the steering wheel and carefully extracted the handbrake lever and seat cushion from the ever so tight grip of my sphincter. Astonishingly, the car still ran and, even better, there had been no witnesses so the council could sort out the unexpected damage to their barriers by themselves and at leisure in the morning. 

I was too young to believe, or even understand, this delayed reaction stuff. I had survived, further proof to a juvenile mind of amazing motoring skill so what we now know as ‘Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome’ came as a bit of a shock to me. I was fine, my only concern the compilation of a plausible excuse. It was an accident, by definition an unexpected event the blame for which attached to forces beyond one’s control. A couple of hours later, however, I suffered severe injury as a direct result of the same accident. Oddly enough, about five minutes after my father arrived home and saw what I had done to the car.

My Mother did her best to protect me but my father was as fit and fast as a terrier and had the advantage of having survived a twenty year career in the Army so knew all the dirty tricks I had never even dreamt of. I didn’t stand a chance. Mind you, it did encourage me to learn the delicate art of body repair; firstly my own, although I will concede that Matron at the local cottage hospital and Mother Nature had hands in that; but then I had to fix the car I had so recently trashed. Amazing what sins can be hidden with the judicial use of a ball pein hammer, about a ton of body filler and all the Holt’s paint spray cans my paper round money would run to.

So all in all, I was lucky. And looking back on it, now that I am a father, so was my Dad. I had an accident, a scary one, and walked away from it. I had cost my Dad a lot of money. Bashed up and sagging with the weight of amateurishly applied body filler, the car was worthless but, even though I had behaved like a lunatic, I hadn’t killed anyone, I hadn’t killed myself and, most importantly, I had learned a lesson I would never forget.

Only a few years later, I passed my General Flying Test. I went solo in less than ten hours but doing so did not qualify me yet. Oh no. I had to complete a further 26 hours training before I was allowed to go for the test itself which qualified me for the most basic licence of all, the Private Pilot’s Licence. I could not fly at night, I could not fly into clouds, basically, I had at all times to be able to see where I was going. I could not fly fare paying passengers, anything with more than one engine or anything heavier than a Mini. I could not fly any other type of aircraft than the ones I had learnt in. If I fancied a change, I would have to pay for more lessons to qualify on type. To usefully progress, I would need many more hours of training to qualify for my instrument rating, night rating, multi-engine rating, commercial licence, the list goes on and on just as the costs rise. Everyone accepts that flying an aircraft is a major responsibility and only the competent should be allowed to do so. And yet UK law allows, should I have been so inclined and the necessary cash been available, to buy a car capable of three times the speed of the aircraft I was licenced to fly immediately after passing what is, let’s face it, quite a simple driving test. A few hours of instruction, a quick exam and the sky, or at least the horizon, is the limit. An aircraft doing 120mph in a wide open sky has to be far less dangerous than a Bugatti Veyron doing 300 mph on a crowded motorway. Less dangerous even, than a Ford Mondeo sticking to the speed limit. And yet the training requirements are so vastly different. I am not sure what most people think but I would say that a cursory comparison between the percentage of light aircraft that plough in and the percentage of vehicles that crash suggests that the Civil Aviation Authority are doing something right, and that the Department of Transport haven’t quite got the hang of things. All those hours and professional training to get the most basic of pilot’s licences yet a driver’s licence requires only a few hours pootling about, doesn’t even have to be a professional instructor, your Granny could teach you if she was inclined, followed by a quick run around the block with a DoT examiner and you are legal. No wonder parents are nervous when the law says it is OK for their adolescent and inexperienced off-spring to be in charge of a motor vehicle after only the most rudimentary preparation.

Nearly three decades on, and with my father long gone so no-one to turn to for advice, Dominic is on my heels. To be honest, it is probably a bed that I made for myself. At age two, he was driving around the garden in an electrically propelled jeep and, a couple of years later was clearly longing for more. By then we were back in Angola and, evidently taking complete leave of my senses, I took him to the new motorcycle dealership, the first one ever in Luanda. Naturally it had to be a Yamaha dealership and, of course, right in the middle of the showroom, sweetly lit by overhead 12 volt lighting and not nearly obscured enough by a large pot plant, was a PW50. Dominic leapt astride it and sat there. All went silent. Even the noisome salesman understood enough to keep his gob shut. For Dominic, the walls of the showroom were now transparent. The neighbouring blocks of flats had disappeared and all he could see was the long straight down to the first bend at Magny-Cours. He didn’t just want it, he needed it or he would expire in the next five minutes. I just happened to have enough beer tokens on hand, and enough of them inside me, to conclude the transaction.

As a father, of course I was very nervous. Anything that propels us faster than our legs can carry us is inherently dangerous and even our legs let us down occasionally (mine usually outside pubs, but so far such tumbles haven’t been fatal and I was invariably too anaesthetized to feel pain anyway). Dominic was determined to learn to ride a ‘bike and there was very little I could do to stop him. In a moment of lunacy, I had given him the means so now, instead of suddenly returning to the real world at the end of a half hour of Discovery Channel and wondering where in the house he might be, every five seconds I was darting to acute consciousness and wondering how many miles he had covered this time.

I was seventeen when I had my first and most serious accident. My son was four when he had his first and, let’s hope, most serious. Going full tilt on his PW50 (despite my advice; I am old and stupid in comparison to a young blood and should, therefore, be ignored), he failed to notice the lunatic hurtling in from his left and painfully smacked into the side of his car at, ooh, I don’t know, 20 miles an hour? Running a kid over here is seriously bad for one’s health so the driver of the then severely dented car was grateful to make it out of the neighbourhood with nothing more than a bit of phlegm on his windows and a few half empty beer cans bouncing off the bodywork as a highly partisan crowd of hitherto bored neighbours launched gleefully into the melee. Dominic was scared witless, not I suspect at the damage he’d caused but at how close to death he had been and an uncertainty about my reaction. So what should I have done? Beaten him half to death for his recklessness? The owner of the car damaged in the accident had no doubt learned not to risk driving irresponsibly in a residential area. The neighbours had ensured that I would not liable for any compensation. The damage to Dominic’s motorcycle was easily repairable and the cuts and abrasions he had suffered would be a salutary reminder, for a week or so at least while his body healed, of the folly of driving too fast for the conditions. I was sure that he had a new awareness of the dangers that can so unexpectedly thrust a stick in one’s spokes.

My father once caught me smoking. Instead of giving me the hiding I undoubtedly deserved, he sat me down on the sofa and suspecting, with some justification, that I had been at his spirits as well, poured me a very large glass of malt whisky. He then selected one of his larger cigars and made me smoke it and finish the scotch to the last drop. Neat, no water, no ice. I was fourteen at the time. I did feel ill afterwards but soon recovered. Sadly for my father, considering that his was a game and humane attempt to dissuade me from the evils of tobacco and alcohol by a man brought up as he had been with Victorian attitudes to discipline and, therefore, far more likely to resort to the rod, all he succeeded in doing was to provide me with a taste for fine malt and Cuban cigars, a taste I still have to this day. Nicotine and alcohol, although vices, are pleasurable pursuits the dangers of which are, especially for someone so young, completely incomprehensible. Are they not obviously enjoyed by so many? Not, however, by my father, who although had the odd drink and smoked a pipe, did neither to excess. Having suffered directly at the irrational and malevolent hands of an alcoholic and then watched him expire painfully as a result of emphysema and finally, the coup de grace, cancer. Sad then that his innovative attempt at child psychology should fail so miserably in this instance.

An accident, a near death experience, however, reminds us of how vulnerable and fragile we are. A youngster is, by nature, an optimist. Death is such an abstract notion and the possibility of it so far away that it rarely intrudes on the consciousness. And this is good. It is nature’s way of ensuring the survival of the species, of ensuring that there would be sufficient brave enough to poke a woolly mammoth in the ribs with flint tipped sticks to guarantee the survival of the larger group. The ability to appreciate the consequences of one’s actions is undeveloped when young. Necessarily so for if it were, the human race would have died out long ago having achieved nothing. We would have been a bunch of wimps beaten to extinction by a more aggressive species. The human race survives because of, not in spite of, the recklessness of youth as it has always been tempered by the guidance, the reining in of over exuberance, by the experienced. That is why the idea of raising the age before which one can drive is silly. I advocate lowering it. I am in favour of raising the age before one can legally drink alcohol to 21 as it is widely accepted by an experienced medical profession that early exposure to alcohol vastly increases the likelihood of developing some form of alcohol dependency later on in life, the consequences of which are profound. I am a heavy smoker but am 100% in favour of any and all legislation that limits smoking. It is never too early, however, to gain useful experience, the kind that will develop maturity, the appreciation of the consequences of one’s behaviour. Driving is not a vice it is almost a necessity, a part of modern living. I do not need to smoke or drink to earn my living but without a car I would be stuffed. Raising the age barrier will only serve to delay the inevitable. What parent has any real influence on a 17 year old, let alone a 19 or 21 year old? If these youngsters have not learnt the lessons their parents can provide before being wracked by hormonal changes, then there is an ever decreasing probability that they can seriously influence their child’s behaviour thereafter.

I am generalising of course as there will always be exceptions. Legislation is a very blunt tool, a sort of ‘one size fits all’ but in this case, I feel rather than achieve its noble aim of reducing the accident rate amongst young drivers, it will have little effect and cause a great deal of frustration and dissent. Seventeen? Twenty-one? Whatever age they start, when they first take to the roads, they will still be inexperienced. The proposed legislation rests on the assumption that all seventeen year olds are irresponsible and must, therefore, be excluded from the highways. Nonsense. Some are irresponsible of course. The majority, however, are good, honest citizens who just want to get on in life and enjoy all it’s benefits. The only thing they lack, through no fault of their own, is the sense of responsibility that only guidance and experience can develop.

In the old days, and certainly when I first learnt to ride a motorcycle, a sixteen year old could ride a 50cc moped. To all intents and purposes, a motorcycle but limited in its performance by its tiny capacity and the power it could produce. At seventeen, however, there was no limit and having passed a simple test, the young blade could then ride a motorcycle of the biggest capacity he could afford and capable, in some cases, of ridiculous speeds. Not surprisingly, the death rate amongst young riders was horrific. Recognising this, some sensible legislation, modified over the years, was introduced. Essentially, power output of the ‘bike is limited according to entitlement and experience. I am over simplifying the regulations but basically, it takes two years of riding and various tests before the full entitlement to ride whatever you want can be achieved. The age limit wasn’t raised, a sixteen year old can still get astride a ‘bike, even if of meagre performance, it will just take longer to get that unrestricted licence. Now, instead of the majority of motorcycle related deaths being in the 17 to 21 year old bracket, it is riders in their thirties. Why? Well simple, really. The new laws that have done so much to force teenagers to learn as safely as possible, have completely ignored that it is experience not age that counts by providing a fast track to the full licence for the over 21’s. The typical motorcycle casualty these days is the individual who, having secured a stable career, has met his obligations to his family, is in control of his expenditure (and is finally enjoying some disposable income), and now wishes to let his hair down a bit and revel in the last of his youth. Nothing sexier than the latest Honda Fireblade or Ducati, is there? They are not going to buy the 50cc Yamaha FS1E that I learnt to ride on and get some experience under their belt. They can afford the very best, the fastest and most powerful exotics in the showroom and passing the test is easy. Sadly, enjoying the last of their youth is exactly what all too many do. Right up until they plough into the Armco at 150mph. Or even 30mph. Losing control can be fatal at any speed. Age has bugger all to do with experience.

Instead of raising the age at which a person can get behind the wheel, they should lower it to sixteen. At sixteen, as with motorcycles, an individual should be allowed to obtain a provisional licence. For cars, this would entitle them to attend a basic vehicle handling course delivered by a registered institute after which, accompanied by a full licence holder, they may drive vehicles of limited weight and power output on public highways. This would allow parents to let their children, once they are sixteen and have passed the basic handling course, to chauffer them to the shops and on any other trips they need to make. At seventeen, their offspring may apply for a test, which, if they pass, would allow them to drive the same vehicles of limited weight and power output unaccompanied for two years at which point they would be allowed to take their final test. The successful completion of this would then entitle them to drive whatever they, or their benefactors could afford. The only exemption that an older student driver could enjoy is the requirement to drive for one year accompanied by a full licence holder. They would still, however, have to attend the basic handling course, followed by the usual series of driving lessons before taking the intermediate test allowing them to drive restricted vehicles for two years. If I know young people at all, the chance of getting behind the wheel at sixteen, even if it means being accompanied by a nagging co-driver, would be irresistible and there would be a high percentage that would take advantage of the opportunity, much to their own ultimate benefit and that of other road users. 

I could go on and suggest that persistent offenders, those convicted of several speeding offences, driving without due care and attention or reckless driving should face the threat of having to re-enter the system. There is no question that an individual convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs should be banned without hesitation but it is sometimes hard for a magistrate to hand down a sentence for a lesser offence which would effectively preclude that person from using the means necessary for him to earn his crust. Under the system I propose, however, it would be a damn sight easier for the same magistrate to limit a person’s access to powerful cars if the accused has clearly demonstrated his lack of maturity behind the wheel. Condemning an irresponsible Porsche owner, whatever his age, to driving an Aygo for two years is going to hurt. His pride for a start and definitely his lifestyle but it would not prejudice his ability to live or, more importantly, support his family. Having to sell his Porsche and stand in the queue at a Toyota dealership would leave a lasting impression.

And there are other advantages. Such legislation would create a demand for smaller, lighter, less powerful and, therefore, less polluting vehicles. As far as I can see, both sides of the political spectrum, Labour with their congestion charges and anti 4x4 legislation, and the Conservatives with their new green veneer, would welcome any initiative that encourages more efficient vehicles onto the roads, at least for the two years that all new drivers would need them. Similarly, manufacturers love a captive market and would respond with the development of increasingly innovative vehicles that, while within the constraints of legislation, would attract the novice driver. Insurance underwriters would love it. Instead of having to cover the risks posed by inexperienced drivers causing mayhem with powerful cars, they could sleep easier at night knowing that a significant portion of the risk they must cover has been mitigated and the lower premiums have not affected their bottom line. Overworked and under funded accident and emergency departments of hospitals would enjoy some relief, with the resultant reduced demand on strained finances. Parents might be able to relax, at least a little.

I can see it now. Loads of small, safe, efficient cars running around with stereos more powerful than their engines, the driver’s of which are all the time gaining the experience that will allow them to enjoy themselves in the future without endangering their own health or that of other citizens.

So there it is, a simple choice. Raise the age limit for a licence and see hordes of crazed 21 year olds going mad or start them off early and gently. I say, don’t raise the limit, lower it and let our kids gain the experience they need as early as possible. Rather than legislate to delay the inevitable, face it as early as possible. But responsibly.