How to teach your child to drive and live to tell the tale

The day is at hand to swap car seats with your ‘baby’. So who is more traumatised?

As the mandated accompanying driver, you do need to be proactive. Don’t presume the learner has seen a potential problem ahead. Photograph: iStock

As the mandated accompanying driver, you do need to be proactive. Don’t presume the learner has seen a potential problem ahead. Photograph: iStock

 

After four days cocooned in a maternity hospital, I found the December rain swirling around the car park bracing, to say the least. But, as any first-time parents know, the real shock to the system was the knowledge that now we were on our own with the newborn, as the reassuring staff behind the revolving door busied themselves with even newer arrivals.

With an illustrated instruction sheet to hand, I laboriously belted my baby son’s carry cot into the car before starting the drive home.

Apart from the odd mooching sound from the backseat passenger, it was a peaceful trip. But it was still a little scary and surreal to be out in the real world as a mother for the first time.

Fast forward 17½ years, and it’s time for another scary and surreal parenting milestone. That moment when you strap yourself carefully into the car passenger seat as your “baby” sits behind the wheel to drive you for the first time.

One day I will be in charge. Photograph: iStock
One day I will be in charge. Photograph: iStock

This little-talked-about rite of passage ranks right up there with the first step, the first day at school and the first disco – those stepping stones to independence that jangle the nerves of parent and child.

I don’t often identify with the “Irish mammy” stereotype but I have to say the comedy trio Foil, Arms and Hog’s recent video sketch, Learning to Drive With Your Parents, hit a chord. Despite the title, it is in fact just the handbrake-pulling “Mum” (reflecting the creators’ south Dublin roots) who is in the passenger seat, breathlessly exhorting her son Oisín to stop rushing, expect the unexpected, take care at the roundabout, mind the parked cars . . .

The personal experiences of the trio – Seán Finegan, Seán Flanagan and Conor McKenna – informed the sketch. And although their L-plate days are now a decade away, their memories are vivid.

“It is like a war; you never forget,” jokes Finegan, who plays “Mum”. The consensus is that there is usually one calm parent “and one who freaks out” when you are learning to drive. And for two out of the three of them, it was their mothers who were the excitable ones.

Sudden introduction

Finegan, who grew up in Rathfarnham and started acting as a teenager, had a sudden introduction to motoring. “I was asked to do an ad and I was asked could I drive and I said of course I can. I didn’t want to not get the ad. Then I ended up panicking and went to the parents and said I need basic training – quickly.

“They gave me the basics; I don’t know if they gave me their bad habits,” says Finegan.

PR executive Sharon Plunkett couldn’t wait to learn to drive. As soon as she turned 17, she demanded that her late father, Godfrey, teach her in his blue Renault Five, starting in the then Superquinn car park near their home in Bray, Co Wicklow. Plunkett reckons she might have picked up a few of his bad habits because she didn’t pass her test until her fourth attempt.

“He yelled at me and I yelled at him; there was lots of yelling,” she recalls. Her mother, a non-driver, was a very nervous passenger, “not helped by the fact that my dad wasn’t the best driver”. It was bit like driving around with Mr Bean, she adds. “But he tried – bless him.”

Both she and Finegan heartily approve of the requirement, since 2011, for learners to take at least 12 lessons with an approved driving instructor. It’s “the best rule ever”, he says. “It’s saving kids so much trauma.”

The kids? What about the parents? After all, at their age they are likely to have a much more heightened sense of their own mortality.

It is already stressful when you learning to drive, Finegan points out. But then to have somebody beside you giving all the visual clues that you are about to kill them, eg the white-knuckled grip on the car door handle, “you don’t need that as well”.

However, all joking aside, we do know that people are killed in, and by, cars. We also know that it is young, inexperienced drivers who are more likely to die or be seriously injured. So while a significant part of driver education is now in the hands of the professionals, parents still have an important role in giving their offspring a safe start to their motoring career.

Driver training

The Road Safety Authority (RSA) says it is still early days to measure the impact of the introduction of Essential Driver Training (EDT), which is a course of 12 one-hour lessons with an approved driving instructor designed to cover and improve certain critical driving skills.

Since its introduction in 2011, 287,508 driving tests were completed in which the applicants had completed their EDT, with a pass rate of 53.59 per cent.

Another 517,199 driving tests were completed since 2011 where the applicants were not required to have completed the EDT. The pass rate for those was 47.06 per cent.

“We believe this is a good indicator of the initiative’s success,” says RSA communications manager Brian Farrell, while also stressing that the EDT is not the be-all and end-all of driver education.

“We have a graduated licensing system. It is about giving people life-long skills to drive; it’s not just about passing the test any more.”

The process runs from the initial theory test that must be completed before applying for a learner permit, to engaging with an approved driving instructor for the EDT, through to the two-year, Novice-plate period after passing the test, when a lower threshold applies for drink-driving and penalty points before loss of licence.

The fact that you are more likely to be involved in a crash after your driving test is the rationale for the N-plates, Farrell explains.

“Scientific research has told us if you place restrictions on people’s driving for two years after passing the test, and specifically the lower drink-drive limit, they are more likely to keep up that behaviour beyond that two-year period.” In addition, N-plate holders can’t be the required accompanying driver for an L-plate sibling or friend.

Co Cork mother Olive Morgan’s oldest daughter passed her test more than two years ago, so she can go out now with her 20-year-old sister who is learning to drive. While their father has done most of the practice with the two of them, their mother thinks the 12 EDT lessons, along with the theory test, are “excellent”.

The qualified instructors give appropriate and timely instructions, while family members are inclined to give too many or not enough, says Morgan. And her learner daughter, having completed the EDT, continues to take occasional lessons.

“The instructors stay calm and hence the pupil when there is an issue with other road users, for example, tailgating, merging or changing lanes and beeping if slow at a junction.”

Once a youngster has been given the all-clear to drive solo, a parent’s influence will be minimal.

So what can you do up to the point when the L plates come down? This is what the experts say:

Model good driver behaviour
Don’t wait for the L-plates to go up to start. Don’t forget that child has been observing your inclination towards road rage since he or she was a toddler. And the message of zero tolerance for alcohol for anybody behind the wheel is severely weakened if you are having “just the one” yourself.

Cough up for the car insurance
The cost will make your eyes water but adding your teenager as a named driver to your own policy is really the only viable way to start off. However, this is an insurmountable financial obstacle for many, and a sharp drop in the number of 17-20 year olds holding a learner’s permit, from 90,413 in 2006 to 57,821 in 2016, is being linked to the high cost of getting insurance.

The number of young people in the same age group holding a full licence declined from a peak of 52,000 in 2008 to 35,173 in 2016.

Never is the advice to “shop around” more pertinent – there was an astonishing €2,300 difference between the highest and lowest quotes for adding our son to my policy.

Also, don’t make the mistake of thinking that insurance isn’t needed for teaching them some basic vehicle handling in a local car park. The paperwork needs to be done before their foot touches the clutch.

Brush up on the rules of the road
The chances are there are all sorts of things in the book now that weren’t there when you were learning and of which you may be blissfully unaware.

Engage with the EDT instructor
The involvement of a responsible parent – or “sponsor” as the industry terms it – in the whole learning process produces better, safer drivers, says the RSA. Despite a common misconception that a learner just needs to show up and complete 12 EDT lessons and then sit their practical test, appropriate practice in between each of the lessons is also essential.

However, don’t go out on the road with your learner until the instructor says it’s safe. You don’t have dual controls, remember.

Don’t just sit there
If you are the “calm” one, as referred to above, that’s good but as the mandated accompanying driver, you do need to be proactive. Don’t presume the learner has seen a potential problem ahead. Of course you’ll get a sarcastic reply when it has already been noted but when it hasn’t, you’ll both be glad you spoke up before it was too late.

Keep calm
On the other hand, if you are the parent inclined to freak out, beware of making a slightly hairy manoeuvre a whole lot worse by panicking.

Silence the distractions
Don’t let the learner drive with the radio on and insist any mobile phone in the car is on silent.

Avoid over-doing it
Don’t let a learner think they will qualify quicker if they do their EDT training in two-hour chunks and insist they take only one-hour lessons. One experienced instructor reckons a learner driver’s concentration doesn’t last for more than 40 minutes’ driving max. And in the early days, he recommends sponsors don’t take them out for longer than 15-20 minutes’ practice at a time.

THAT FIRST CAR

Young drivers have to pay so much for insurance that there’s likely to be little money left for buying the actual car. It is worrying that the least experienced drivers may be in the least reliable cars, with the fewest safety features.

“Parents need to be thinking about what they are allowing their kids to get access to,” agrees Farrell.

There is also the “whole minefield” of buying used cars, and he warns against relying on a current NCT certificate as proof of roadworthiness.

“The NCT is just a snapshot. It cannot and does not take a car apart to see if there are any major issues. Get it checked by a mechanic.”

The RSA is aware, he adds, that “there are unscrupulous vendors out there, putting cars through the NCT and then as soon as they get it, they swap out the good parts and put in crap”.

The Society of the Irish Motor Industry (SIMI) points out that buying from a registered dealer means you will be protected by consumer protection laws if anything goes wrong.

However, it also strongly advises that a mechanic, an auto engineer or a person with some mechanical background inspect the car, as they will give independent expert advice.

On beepbeep.ie, SIMI’s used car website, members displays cars, all of which have had their history checked, the society says.

RESIST ‘FRONTING’

An AA survey of more than 3,000 motorists found that more than 13 per cent of parents have named themselves as the main driver of a car predominantly driven by their children to reduce insurance premiums.

However, the AA warns that misinforming insurers of who the car’s main driver is could result in a refusal to pay out in the event of an accident.

Young drivers are also being hit, says AA spokesman Barry Aldworth, by the refusal of many insurers to cover what should be the ideal first car, a less-than- pristine older model. He attributes this to “a spike in fraudulent claims relating to cars that are over 10 or 15 years”.

Aldworth adds: “If you can afford a slightly better car, which has additional safety features, you are probably going to be better off for it and, in the context of insurance, it will be slightly cheaper.”

RESIGN YOURSELF

When there’s a newly qualified driver in the family, life will never be quite the same. On the upside, you may have a “designated driver” on speed dial for nights out; on the downside, your car might keep disappearing.

And when you are both in the same car, who drives? Because let’s face it, neither of you is going to be totally comfortable in the passenger seat – the parent thinks the youngster is too speedy, who in turn thinks the parent “could have got that light” time and time again.

Once you have got over the “transitional stage of ‘I don’t need your help to drive any more but I need your car’, there’s no looking back”, says Seán Finegan. “You can’t be with a parent at all after that, they are so slow.

Young adults like him have had to acknowledge, “I love my parents; I just don’t want to drive with them”.

For more information, see rsa.ie, theaa.ie and simi.ie. Watch Learning to Drive with the Parents on foilarmsandhog.ie. Seán Finegan, Seán Flanagan and Conor McKenna will appear in Vicar Street, Dublin on May 26th, and will be bringing a new show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August.

swayman@irishtimes.com

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