Drive alive - Young Hamiltonians at crossroads

Catherine Leet getting her first driving lessons.
Catherine Leet getting her first driving lessons.

Catherine Leet puts her foot down on the accelerator, increasing the Toyota Corolla’s speed to about 30 kmh before suddenly slamming on the brakes and coming to a rapid stop.

Her hands grip the steering wheel tighter, her long hair flies forward, eyes instinctively closing, and she rocks back in the driver’s seat as the car comes to a halt, a big smile on her face.

“I never did that before,” she says with a grin.

Hopefully, she never has to do it again but at least – if she does – she knows what’s going to happen.

Leet was one of about 30 young drivers who on Wednesday greatly increased their chances of seeing out their second decade on earth alive by taking part in an advanced driving skills course.

The advanced braking session – held between road cones in an empty car park – is one of several lessons the young drivers took part in as they gave up their school holiday time to learn to be better –  and safer – drivers.

Driving in Hamilton - Hazards and Blindspots

Leet, 16, has had her restricted driver’s licence since April and says – aside from her father telling her to attend – she wants to increase her skill levels behind the wheel.

“I want to be more confident while driving,” she says.

“I’m glad I came.”

So is her mum Debbie.

“I hope she becomes more confident to go out by herself and be aware of the risks,” she says.

On a drive around Hamilton with driving instructor Russell Sallis in the passenger’s seat, her lack of confidence is clear.

She tentatively approaches intersections and roundabouts and seems – to a driver with three decades of bad habits to draw on anyway – to take an age to pull out into traffic.

Some of it is understandable.

“It’s her first time driving in Hamilton,” Debbie Leet says, and her daughter chose to forgo bringing her own car to the course, instead having to come to grips with her mum’s newer  – and bigger – stationwagon.

“It was so hard to sit in the back and not say anything,” Debbie says.

That aside though, Catherine abides by the rules of the road, pays attention when Sallis points out potential hazards and answers his questions with a confidence not obvious in her driving.

“When you drive, concentrate on driving. It’s attitude that is going to keep you safe,” Sallis says as part of a fairly constant conversation he keeps up with the young driver.

“Look ahead and identify hazards. Seeing hazards early is the key. Think about three things: What is the hazard, what’s the worst thing that could happen, and what can I do about it. If a car opens its door, slow down, keep an eye on them, be ready to use the horn.”

“Remember your blindspots, use your mirrors. Keep your eyes moving. Look at the body language of the car on the left. If signalling would help out another driver, you should do it.

“It’s not like at school where you can research something and come back with the answer. Everything you are learning is now – you have to make decisions now – you don’t get a second chance.”

As if on cue, a car pulls up too close to her rear bumper  “I don’t like people coming up right behind me,” she says  and around the corner, another car is parked on yellow lines.

“There’s some clowns around,” Sallis mutters.

Back in the car park, Sallis offers more encouragement: “That was a nice, steady drive, Catherine.”

“It’s a bit scary driving in Hamilton,” she says.

“I live in Cambridge and usually drive there.”

Leet attends Hillcrest High School and will eventually get to the stage of driving herself to school, so it’s good for her to get experience driving in different environments.

Waipa District Council road safety co-ordinator Megan Jolly says it is important for young drivers to experience different driving conditions.

“If they can get 120 hours of supervised driving, in different conditions – in the wet, on rural roads, at higher speeds – it helps immensely,” she says.

It is the third course Jolly has helped run for younger drivers, and along with Waipa, Matamata-Piako District Council and Hamilton City Council are also involved.

The course is open to drivers aged between 15 and 24 who are on their restricted or full driver licence and Jolly says there has been plenty of positive feedback from earlier participants.

“We wanted to put together a course that was not just practical stuff but also education and looking at other things such as drink-driving, speeding,” she says.

“We are not just teaching them skills.

“They learn to read roads and look out for hazards.”

The course also covers first aid, braking, cornering, hazard identification, lane positioning, reversing, parking and simple vehicle maintenance such as checking the oil and changing a tyre.

Just four out of a group of 12 students said they were confident about changing a tyre.

Lessons learnt

Students gets plenty of one-on-one tuition and get to practise their skills under supervision.

The day starts with a sobering video session with cognitive psychologist Dr Jack Treffner, who conducted the world’s first study into the influence of mobile phones on driving while working as chief scientist for the Holden Performance Driving Centre.

He told the students the Waikato “has the worst fatality statistics in New Zealand” particularly for 18 to 25-year-olds.

“More than half of all accidents are due to 18 to 25-year-olds,” he says.

And although alcohol and drugs play a part in 48 per cent of fatalities “52 per cent have no drink or drugs involved”.

Inattention and distraction, he says, are the leading causes of crashes.

“Distracted driving is an epidemic.”

He says there are three types of distraction:

Visual: when you look at something on the side of the road.

Manual: such as turning the controls of the radio.

Cognitive: “It’s the thinking aspect that is really challenging, especially with cellphones”.

“Distraction is a profound problem we are only starting to appreciate now,” he says.

“Police often say ‘they looked but they didn’t see’.”

He also takes a shot at politicians who made it legal to use hands-free mobile phones while driving.

“Don’t think you are safe because you are using hands-free. There is a four to eight times increase in the chance of an accident if you are using a hands-free cellphone.

“Using hands-free is like driving drunk. It is only legal for political reasons.”

“You drive slower, respond slower and reaction times double. Rear-enders are the most common. Then there’s failing to see ahead, lane wandering and a false belief driving is not affected. And crossing the mid-line – what a pathetic way to die or to kill someone else.

“And the biggest problem of all is that 50 per cent of you lot are texting, even though it’s illegal, even though 90 per cent agree it’s bad. This is the most deadly thing.”

Not to discourage the young drivers though, he finishes with a joke bumper sticker: Honk if you love Jesus, txt while you are driving if you want to meet him.

“Now go out and have a great day, you’re going to learn a lot,” he says – including how hard it is to do simple tasks when you are under the influence of alcohol.

Fatal Vision

Hamilton Boys’ High School 16-year-old Trae Old pulls a pair of Fatal Vision goggles over his head and proceeds to spill drinks, stumble off straight lines and miss simple targets, such as tossing a piece of paper into a bin.

The goggles are designed to alter vision and perception to replicate the experience of being at the adult drink-driving level. They clearly affected Old’s co-ordination.

“I was all over the place,” he says.

Old signed up for the course after having his restricted licence for only two weeks and says he simply wants to be a better driver.

“I’ve learned how to parallel park and not to text while driving,” he says.

“I just decided to come and I want to succeed on the course” – as do all the students, with Leet encouraging others to sign up.

Like many young people, Leet’s first driving experiences were less than ideal, even with supportive parents.

Debbie Leet says both parents had a go at teaching their daughter to drive.

“Dad tried to teach her but they argued, I tried and was a nervous wreck,” she says.

Catherine agrees the family lessons proved unhelpful.

“With Dad, it ended up in tears. Me and him clashed but we’re really good now. Mum just laughed. She laughs when she’s nervous.”

So ahead of sitting her restricted driving test, she signed up for about four driving lessons with Wayne Holden from Holden Driver Training.

“I went to Wayne and learned everything so quickly,” she says.

Now, if she can just master that parallel parking in a stationwagon.

Waikato Times