Driving is inherently dangerous, so why not teach your kids to drive as safely as possible, meaning should they learn to drive on private property?

DRIVING IS WHAT’S known as a complex skill. It involves coordinating throttle, brake and steering as well as handling ancillary controls such as indicators, aircon, lights and wipers. And that’s just operating the car – there’s also ever-changing traffic conditions to deal with, not to mention navigating to unfamiliar destinations and dealing with passengers. It’s a high workload made up of many disparate skills, and if you get it wrong people can die.
By the time their child is ready to learn to drive most parents will have been driving more or less continuously for 20 years or more, and that means they will have largely forgotten just how difficult learning to drive really is. But there’s quite a bit you can do to ease the process and produce a safer driver. It’s important you do this because early habits are set in stone for the rest of a driver’s life, and wouldn’t you say giving your child safe driving skills is pretty high up on the list of priorities as a parent?
To learn effectively a good technique is to break the skill of driving down into easily managed sub-skills. Good teaching practice tells us that humans are better off learning individual skills to proficiency, then combining the individual skills. The world of driving could often learn a lot from the world of aviation where standards for everything are orders of magnitude higher because of the greater risks, and there we find exactly this principle.
Trainee pilots are taught first to control the aircraft in pitch only, then roll, then yaw. Only then do they attempt a complete, coordinated turn which requires control in all three axis. Landings are not attempted until the student is able to properly control the aircraft well above ground, and so it goes, the student learning skill by skill until they can bring it all together and they have mastered all the skills required to fly solo. Only then are additional skills taught such as advanced emergencies, navigation, severe crosswinds, sloping runways and the like.
But we don’t do that with driving, do we? We throw the learner into a car and expect them to master clutch, brake, accelerator, turning and traffic pretty much all in one go. Even worse, most of the time the instructor is a parent who may not have the basic skills or knowledge, or even worse, lacks the knowledge of how to teach.
So how do we break down the art of on-road driving into smaller, manageable skills? Simple, start teaching your learner away from public roads, on private property, where they can’t do any damage to themselves, others or the vehicle and as such will be a lot less nervous when they head out on public roads for the first time. Here’s a way to break down the skills:
  • Moving off, then stopping, just very slowly at first;
  • Turning the car, just in a big paddock, nowhere specific;
  • Gears (we have a whole article on teaching people to drive manuals, read it here.);
  • Maneuvering – between cones or something that won’t hurt. Include stopping in specific places;
  • Reversing;
  • Hills, up and down, including hill starts;
  • Faster driving (now into second gear and beyond.);
  • Emergency stops; and
  • Skid control…
…and so on. The idea is to build layer on layer, so by the time the learner tries a public road then they are at the stage known as “unconscious competence” which means they can drive a car without conscious thought… and that means they have plenty of brainpower left over to deal with traffic and road hazards. And confidence too.
You can take this concept of early learning even further. A humble driving simulator/game like Forza or Gran Turismo set up with a steering wheel and pedals can help a novice learn. But how so, many will ask. These are mere games, and bear no resemblance to road-driving reality.
It is true these games have limited value, but they can easily teach the basics of accelerator, brake, steering wheel control. If you’ve ever seen a novice get in a car and ask “which pedal does what” then you will appreciate that such rudimentary skills can be first learned on a simulator. Correct steering wheel technique can also be taught on these games. Taken further, the games can also teach smoothness, coordination of brake/throttle/steering, and gears. Nissan’s GT Academy has proven that skills learned on such games can be translated into real life.
There is one big trap to avoid when breaking down skills into smaller skills and that is the student learning the skill incorrectly. Going back to the aviation example, initially turning the aircraft is taught without looking in the direction of turn; the instructor does that. But very quickly the concept of looking and turning is introduced, because otherwise the student will learn to turn without looking being an inherent part of the process. The same applies to car driving. Let’s say you’ve got a car in a giant paddock. You could argue there’s no need to look before the car moves off, and indeed initial attempts might just focus on moving the car, but you very quickly need to get your learner doing a lookout check. Same deal for turning and indicating, once the basics are learned then quickly introduce indicators.
An interesting question is how difficult the learning car should be to drive. Again, aviation shows us what to do. Basic trainer aircraft are simple, docile and easy to control. So too should be the first car anyone tries to learn to drive. But the mistake made with car training is that the learner car is used all the way up until the test… and then the poor novice driver is ill-equipped to handle something larger and more difficult. The better way to do it is to use the basic car for basic skills, then switch to more complex and harder-to-drive vehicles as skills are acquired.
In aviation, no pilot is permitted to fly a complex aircraft without first having proven their ability, yet in road driving we allow people to pass their test in a Yaris then drive a modified Landcruiser 79 ute with a three-tonne trailer. The equivalent would be more or less learning how to fly a small single engined aircraft then getting in a twin-engined smaller commuter. Something else the driving world could learn from aviation is that time spent behind the controls is no indicator of competence; three years driving that Yaris would not prepare a driver for the 79 and trailer as well as a few days of training.
There is, ultimately, no substitute for professional lessons on the road. But you can do a lot to give your learner basic car skills well before they turn a wheel on the highway.

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The title image is some of the Maffra & District Car Club‘s vehicles set aside specifically for young drivers to learn the art and skill of driving on the club’s private property.

UPDATE: Just a few days after this post..



7News | Hard Lesson

A learner driver’s first lesson has ended in disaster, ploughing into a house in Melbourne’s southeast.www.7News.com.au

Posted by 7 News Melbourne on Sunday, 28 February 2016


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    1. Hahahahah Ha Ha Hahahahaha!! Meteor – I thought they were extinct!!! Hahahah! I loved the meteor in the 80’s – they were a fantastic car back in the day. Great looker too! Many happy memories of the ‘ol Meteor . . the Laser with a boot – nothing more but a better car and better looking and more balanced to drive with a smoother ride. The Corona, god luv it, not so much.

    2. BTW trackdaze, as much as I like your comment I have to correct you . . . that lovely Meteor is GOLD, not brown in colour (and stature). Cheers, Brian 🙂

  1. Great article Robert….my paddock lessons didn’t really translate into useful road driving skills, though they were fun…..and proof that sigmas aren’t the best choice for doing donuts lol….I remember my first road drive resulted in me exiting a turn on the wrong side of the road because I was fumbling with the indicator….so I do agree in making certain actions sub-conscious to prevent that kind of scenario occurring…

    An aside on this would be that the condition of your average paddock car could also be an opportunity to teach said learner a thing or two about car maintenance and repairs….

  2. My two kids started driving doing motorkhanas with the local car club (ages 11 & 9 at that stage) in a somewhat decrepit Morris 1100. It taught them car control and how to handle a spin, but probably not much else. when they were ready for their licences they went through a driving school. They both claim the early experiences (they’r now in their 40s) helped them.

  3. Best, most useful article I have read in ages. THANK YOU Robert! I have 2 boys: a 14 yr old and a 13Yr old who only have mild interest in cars and motors (constant source of pain to me as an enthusiast 🙂 . . . I love them both hopelessly of course and will shortly start to teach them car control in some deserted area (don’t have any “private property” as such). Finding that ‘area’ won’t be easy but I will make it happen as this is SO important. Please do further articles along these lines Robert – the value of such is beyond money! I had the benefit of minibikes and dad’s car to drive in the bush during my early – late teens so I’d like to do ‘something’ for my kids like that. I know from experience that it does help immeasurably, just like the article says.

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