Teenagers get crash course in road safety


Early Drive gives young people a chance to learn about road safety in a dynamic environment, writes Caroline Madden

IT'S A grey, drizzly day at Mondello Park, but despite the wet track and the fact that there are three people crammed into the car watching his every move, Aaron Behan's lap is cool, calm and collected. It's an impressive performance for his first time ever behind the wheel.

Together with 14 of his transition year classmates from Collinstown Park Community College in Clondalkin, Behan is taking part in Mondello's Early Drive programme. Okay, so they may be driving dual-control Micras instead of racing cars, and they aren't allowed take the racing line on corners or get up much speed, but none of that really matters - they got off school to go and drive at Mondello Motor Racing School. For a 15 year old, life doesn't get much sweeter.

"This is the highlight of the year for them," says their teacher Walter Doolin. He teaches a road safety module and uses the Mondello trip each year as a very effective carrot to ensure good behaviour - only the best-behaved students make the cut.

In the past, most people's first experience of driving involved stalling and bunny-hopping their way around an industrial park or deserted car park being shouted at by a frazzled relative. Early Drive couldn't be more different.

For starters, you'd be hard pressed to find a safer training ground for rookie drivers than Mondello. No oncoming traffic; no major junctions; no traffic lights; no pedestrians; no hills. Just a wide expanse of tarmac. Each student gets a driving lesson with an experienced (and infinitely patient) Irish School of Motoring instructor. As well as imparting the basics, the instructor also teaches them to negotiate bends safely and the importance of controlled driving.

There is also a classroom segment to the course, during which the students watch and discuss a number of road safety videos. One issue addressed particularly well is the effect of drink and drugs on a person's driving ability, and the difficulty that accident and emergency staff can have in treating and operating on people who have been injured in a car accident while under the influence of drink or drugs. The classroom session ends with a moving video presentation from a mother who tragically lost two sons in separate road accidents.

Throughout the course, the students are well-behaved and attentive, absorbing everything, and the Mondello staff take a refreshingly uncondescending approach. Rather than talking down to them, they pepper their advice with relevant anecdotes about racing drivers, which ensures the rapt attention of the young car enthusiasts.

The only time any signs of pressure surface is in Mondello's Motorsport Museum. Trying to control a group of car-mad teenagers in a museum full of valuable racing cars is a bit like herding cats - not easy.

The students are warned several times not to touch the cars (while an anxious-looking instructor is heard muttering "these cars are worth millions"under his breath), but they're far more interested in snapping as many cars as possible on their mobiles than misbehaving.

Next it's on to the brake reaction simulator, which measures the time taken by each student to move their foot from accelerator to brake in an emergency. This brings out their competitive streaks, while teaching them about reaction times.

One of the tutors then gives a brake test demonstration, which shows the distance required to stop a car travelling at 50km/h when the brakes are suddenly applied to simulate an emergency stop.

After a heated debate, the students mark a point with a traffic cone to indicate where they predict the car will stop, and are suitably surprised when the car eventually came to a standstill a good 10 metres beyond that point.

The beauty of the programme is that, when someone from Mondello speaks, students listen. If their teacher tried to convey the same message they'd tune it out as just another lecture. "They learn without even realising it," Doolin says. The programme costs €70 per student, but some schools, such as Collinstown, subsidise this.Doolin worries that budget cuts will jeopardise this in the future.

For the 15 Collinstown students lucky enough to complete the Early Drive programme last week, did the trip to Mondello live up to its billing?

Doolin answers by saying that, when they arrived back at school and were getting off the bus, they thanked him. From the shock in his voice, it's clear that such gratitude is highly unusual for teenagers - even the well-behaved ones.