120 Hours At The Wheel

Co. ABC TV 1970

Driving For Beginners

120 Hours at the wheel

“Drive my car”. When the Beatles sang this song I had been driving for years despite the fact that like most families at the time we didn’t own a car. Driving was something I learned to do without any formal training. My test was to drive up a gentle rise and park the car on a flat section of the road. After answering about ten road questions and paying a small fee I walked out with my licence to kill.

In recent years I got involved with a state based program that matches learner drivers with mentors. The car is supplied by a local car dealer and the fuel is paid for from group resources. Learner drivers cannot take the wheel until they have passed a rigorous road rules test. Then they must learn to drive in the company of a licensed driver.

Most learners get their initial logged driver training from professionals. After that they will drive the family car under the supervision of a family member, or friend. The program I was involved with was to help kids coming from homes like mine where there is no car, or like Ellen who is a twin and her mum could not supervise both children in time for them to qualify as drivers at the same time.

These learner drivers had to commit to work with their mentors until they had accumulated one hundred and twenty hours of supervised driving. I got a buzz when my trainees got their licence but as time went on I found each new trainee more difficult than the last. They would cancel appointments without notice. They eventually tested my observational skills as I was dependent on their ability to follow instructions because I had no control over the vehicle, unlike the professional instructor has. In the end I decided I was no longer capable to continue.

Before I resigned from the program I injured my leg, however the real reason is my driver nearly had an accident on a roundabout whilst I was in the car supervising.. The driver did not see a car they had to give way to on this roundabout with its two lanes of traffic.

I gave the instructions to drive forward when the road was clear but by the time the learner moved conditions had changed. I estimated it would have been more dangerous to instruct a stop than to continue, so we continued upsetting the another driver no end. The learner had no understanding of what had happened but I was spooked. So I retired unhurt.

When our own children were learning to drive, traffic on the roads was lighter. More importantly my reflexes were better and my instructions were repeated over and over. By the time we got to our second driver what was said has passed into family folklore. Blinking, blinking, blinking, turning, turning, turning, and most importantly, stopping, stopping, STOP! These instructions I repeated at every intersection, ad nausea.

Now it is Charlie’s turn to learn to drive. His father has told him he is a good driver forty hours into his training. As an attentive young fellow it is unlikely his father will have to repeat the family mantra blinking, blinking etc.

Fortunately today motor cars are more reliable, and fortunately for us all much safer. When Charlie is told to brake the disc brakes in the car he drives will not overheat and fail as they frequently did when they were simple drum brakes.

Cars are safer than they have ever been yet people still die on our roads. No matter how busy the roads are it shouldn’t be a condition of driving for some people to die on our roads.

Let me backtrack a little. Previously most cars were manual. It required coordination and skill to change gears manually before the introduction of the synchronisation of the gears. When that was sorted most cars had bench seats in the front. This meant designers were forced to put the gear stick on the steering wheel column. This arrangement required a certain dexterity for the driver to select any gear because to do so required lots of unnecessary linkages from the gearbox to the steering wheel. It required all moving parts to move as required.

While the driver was doing this the foot had to find the clutch without seeing where the foot was. At night the driver will have had to use the left foot to dip the headlights, very often, at the same time. Often these foot pedals were at different levels and crashes occurred. People were hurt and maimed, and some were killed.

By 1970 Victoria recorded 1061 deaths on the road in the year. The government and the press joined forces to introduce better road safety. The first move was to legislate the introduction of compulsory seat belts. This was the first place in the world to pass such a law.

Racing car drivers were very familiar with the improved safety the lap sash belts gave them at the wheel. One motoring writer and race driver assisted in promoting their use. In 1973 Peter Wherret started a TV program on cars called Torque. This program and Peter did much to improve road cars. A most popular car in 1976 was the HJ Holden Premier. He claimed the power of the car was impossible to stop given the car had calliper brakes only on the rear wheels. These “Kingswood” cars were removed from production in 1980 partly because of his program.

In the forty years since 1980 the death toll in Victoria has dropped significantly. In part it is due to legislation. The introduction of drink driving rules. Much better safety features in cars including: better tyres, better brakes, better seats, better vision, better everything including side protection and air curtains. The government has made better roads and road signage. Most importantly it has much better pre- driver training.

When I started to drive I had less than two hours of experience on the roadways before I drove solo. (I had hours of experience at slow speeds driving tractors and farm trucks but, on reflection I had no experience of traffic or handling a vehicle at speed before I drove on the roads.)

By the time Charlie has his licence he will have driven on city and country roads, on wet days and dry ones. He will have driven at night, in the morning traffic, and any other conditions that pop up. He knows drugs and alcohol are forbidden, and if he should be so silly as to drive and text the fines are horrendous.

In these days of autonomous vehicles we need smarter drivers unlike at any time before. Stay safe on the roads Charlie. Be a good driver and never think you are the best because even the best drivers can unexpectedly be injured by the worst. Too many people are killed each year on our roads – even today.

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