The thought of a 14-year-old getting behind the wheel of a car will fill most parents with dread. But a new project is aimed at giving schoolchildren the experience of driving in a bid to make them better motorists when they grow up, reports RUTH SCAMMELL.
EVERYONE remembers the first time they got behind the wheel of a car.
Sweaty palms, heart racing with excitement as you switched the engine on and realised for the first time that you were in control of a car.
And when you passed your driving test, that exhilarating feeling of freedom as the road was all yours with the windows down and the music blaring out.
But sadly, many young drivers are involved in accidents shortly after passing their test. One in five 17-year-olds crash in their first year of driving. And one in three people aged under 25 are seriously injured or die.
So in a bid to cut down on these figures, children can now start learning the basics of driving from the age of just 14.
The Driving Project caters for pupils aged 14 and over in years 10 and 11 at school and gives them the opportunity to start learning the key skills early on.
The project, taught by driving instructors Matthew Best and Lee Bonnici, was first launched at Springfield School in 2010.
Since then it has been carried out at Purbrook Park School, Bay House School in Gosport and Mayfield in North End, Portsmouth.
It gives teenagers between the ages of 14 and 17 the opportunity to learn essential driving skills, legally on private ground, and without the need for a provisional driving licence.
Mostly the lessons take place on school playgrounds.
Now, the scheme has become so popular that schools across the area have signed up and demand has led to a longer off-road driving programme taking place outside school hours in Gosport at the old Haslar Hospital site.
Matthew, owner of The Driving Project, says: ‘I’m a big believer that if you start getting people to drive at an early age by the time they get to 17 they will be even better drivers.’
As part of the project, students have a mixture of practical lessons and theory test lessons.
Matthew adds: ‘It’s not just getting in the car, it’s also learning theory. More than 40 per cent fail their theory test on their first attempt.
‘Being a driving instructor I am taking people out on their lessons and they don’t know what a road sign means.
‘Getting the theory side out of the way is going to help when they do it on the road.
‘They know some information but they aren’t going to know everything.
‘My plan is that once they turn 17 everybody will be able to take the theory test.
‘The maturity levels are very good. You would think at 14 they wouldn’t take it seriously but they do. They want to learn.
‘I think it’s going to have a huge impact.’
The project is paid for by the schools themselves out of their own budget.
However, for the extra tuition which is taking place at Haslar Hospital outside of school hours, the parents pay for it privately.
Matthew is hoping that the government will consider making driving theory a part of the curriculum in a bid to cut down on the number of accidents.
‘We’re looking at pressure groups as well to try and get the government to have an active role in it as well,’ he says.
‘The more we do the more we should get support.’
He adds: ‘People could get in a car and do the driving lessons. They could pass the test and they might not be ready.
‘The more that they do at a younger age the more beneficial it is. I think it’s just down to road experience.
‘At the moment there’s no legislation to say how many lessons people need to be ready for a driving test.
‘I think the government should at least get the theory side into schools.
‘I know they have got a set curriculum and there’s only a certain amount of work at school but at least have it as an option.’
And Matthew says by taking part in The Driving Project, they will be much better prepared as they celebrate their 17th birthday.
‘They are going to be competent to do the theory test,’ he adds.
‘They are going to be fully aware of what it’s about. They will know where to take it and how to study for it. That’s important.
‘And it builds confidence. We are hoping that we give them full support about what to do and that should see their confidence grow.’
Pupils at Crookhorn College in Waterlooville have just joined the project which lasts between six and nine weeks.
Andrew Denholm, 14, says: ‘I want to drive when I’m older and do a job based around driving. It’s great.
‘It’s better to start learning younger so that you just know you have got more awareness when you go out on the road.
‘It’s really fun and really interesting.’
Harley-Jo Barttelot, 15, adds: ‘It’s a skill you need later on in life. It’s going to be nerve wracking but once you get the confidence you will be able to develop and it won’t come as such a shock when you turn 17.
‘It’s going to be good. When you come to your driving lesson you are going to have a bit of a head start.’
Shannon Wake, 14, adds: ‘I just wanted to start at a young age. It’s quite weird but it is a good experience.
‘I’m looking forward to driving. I think it will prepare us well so we know what we have to do.’
James Willis, assistant headteacher at Crookhorn College, says: ‘This project is a new initiative for us. This is the first year that we have run it.
‘With driving, it’s one of those things that people look forward to when they are older. People want to be independent and make their own decisions about what they do. But they can’t learn to drive until they are older.
‘It’s about establishing the good road manners and good road sense. It’s giving them as much practical road sense as possible.
‘The students are really excited about it. This way they will have had some limited experience.
‘When I learnt to drive the first thing I learnt was how the clutch works and where the biting point was.
‘This is the first time that we are able to get a student behind the wheel of a car.
‘We want to prepare them for life beyond Crookhorn as much as possible. This is a great opportunity. It’s unusual and exciting.
‘The first time you drive a car is one of those memorable times in life.
‘This is something the students will remember and it’s a really important thing for them to be able to do.’
What does The Driving Project do?
The driving instructors work closely with the school to put together a specific driver training programme.
Students are taught the basics of driving including safety on the roads, changing gear and reversing the vehicle.
• Students are given the opportunity to control a car safely in a quiet environment which helps build confidence. This should benefit the student when they begin driving on the roads.
• Students are taught the basics of driving and should therefore require less driving tuition when they turn 17, saving them time and money on driving lessons.
• Further training can be offered such as a BTEC in Safe Driving – a unique qualification whilst you learn to drive.
What do you learn?
• Starting and stopping the vehicle safely.
• Practice the emergency stop.
• Learn reversing manoeuvres around obstacles.
• Reach 3rd or 4th gear depending on competency.
• Master effective anticipation and planning.
• Improve driver theory knowledge.
To find out more please visit thedrivingproject.com.