Driving School

By Guy Bird for FQ (Fathers' Quarterly), Oct 2009

Scared to death of your kids learning to drive? Mercedes-Benz's Driving Academy may just have a solution. Guy Bird takes his 16-year old goddaughter along to find out

“Oh F*%k!” Maddie blurts out as the car shudders to an unexpected halt. She’s stalled the engine of the new shiny Mercedes C-class and there’s a nervous pause all-round from the serious-looking instructor up front, to her mum in the back. Luckily, laughter from her mum breaks the awkward silence and after we’ve all had a giggle – half at the error and half at Maddie swearing in front of her mum – shaken but undeterred she recomposes herself for the next driving exercise.

This isn’t the stuffy vibe of driving lessons I remember. Maddie is my self-assured 16-year old goddaughter and we’re at Mercedes-Benz World in Brooklands, Surrey, to get a taster of its new Driving Academy experience – launched with some fanfare by F1 champion Lewis Hamilton earlier this year – to see if it really can engage hard-to-please teenagers’ attention and make them better-equipped for public roads. Recent evidence from Sweden is compelling. Among drivers put through a similar initiative – where they started to learn 18 months earlier at 16 – accident rates in the first year of driving were reduced by 40%. Road traffic accidents represent the number one cause of death for UK teenagers – and with nearly one in three car drivers dying or seriously injured under the age of 25 – such reductions in the UK could make a very real human difference.

Among drivers put through a similar initiative – starting to learn 18 months earlier at 16 – accident rates in the first year of driving were reduced by 40% 

Mercedes – with a tradition of driver training stretching back to 1908 when it offered tuition for ‘gentleman drivers’ and chauffeurs – has decided to pick up the safety baton in the UK. Working with internationally acknowledged driver education expert Dr Mika Hatakka it has developed its own curriculum-based programme that takes into account recommendations from a series of EU road safety research projects that have looked at the benefits of learning to drive younger and earlier, as well as best practice tuition techniques. The current official UK driving test only focuses on two basic areas – basic vehicle control and mastering traffic situations. The Mercedes programme goes further by offering two modules on the psychology of driving, covering stuff like journey planning, dealing with social peer pressure and fitness to drive.

Much of the training is undertaken on Brooklands’ private handling circuits so instructors can simulate emergency situations like black ice and aquaplaning in a way they couldn’t on public roads. It’s a place teenagers can test their limits in a safe environment, but public roads are also utilised, as are classroom seminars and peer group discussions. Students and their parents can even monitor their progress on the web, and through video playback of their driving. There is a pre-road module for 12-16 year olds, a provisional licence module for 17-plus year olds and a post-test module (for those who have already passed their test). There’s even a module to help parents learn how to teach their own kids.

All modules are about actively thinking about driving as much as learning to drive, but the tone of the training avoids preaching or scare tactics, as Robert East, the Driving Academy operations manager puts it: “We don’t want to turn youngsters into risk assessment freaks.” Back on the handling circuit, ‘Nev the Rev’ is our instructor for the day and in charge of ensuring Maddie has an informative but informal day’s tuition. He’s typical in some ways of driving instructors of a certain age: smartly dressed, sporting a moustache and avuncular in manner but also prone to reeling out curious driving-related pearls of wisdom at moments when real focus is required – “Don’t stop breathing, breathing is good”. But can he bond with Maddie enough to gain and keep her driving attention? One early verbal gambit doesn’t pay off…

The training avoids preaching or scare tactics, as Mercedes Academy’s Robert East puts it: “We don’t want to turn youngsters into risk assessment freaks”

Nev: “Learning to drive is like learning to juggle.” Maddie: “I hate juggling…”

…But after awhile she’s concentrating well and visibly enjoying herself, even warming to his explanation of the concept of ‘brake feel’, and off-road pedal tactics. Cue more classic Nev: “Take the moon boots off Maddie and put the ballet shoes on.” Stepping into ever-swisher Mercs, first swapping the A-class automatic for a C-class manual then into a huge M-class 4x4 for a spot of off-roading, the tuition is paying off with Maddie instinctively indicating even on the off-road course, despite the absence of proper roads or other cars. After managing to navigate an incredibly demanding steep and muddy course through Nev’s calm and respectful instruction, we’re all giddy at the progress this 16-year old pre-learner has made so quickly.

There’s just time left for Nev to rattle our sports seats as passengers in a quick high-speed demonstration lap of one of the Brooklands circuits in a go-faster C63 AMG saloon, and then our day is done. Clearly we got to experience more than a regular driving session at Mercedes-World to give an idea of the breath of what the facility can offer – it’s also got a great museum chock full of classic Mercs and a decent café by the way – but Mercedes’ Academy initiative is still hugely relevant. All its drivers are Approved Driving Instructors and prices start from £40 for a 30-minute Kids’ driving experience up to £340 for six hours of pre-road tuition for those about to start driving lessons. Mercedes is teaming up with its parent company’s insurance arm (Daimler Insurance UK) to offer no-claims benefits to young drivers who have been through its course too. Aside from the safety benefit, any measure that can reduce the nearly 100% greater chance of a motor insurance claim under the age of 25 than over it, has to be worth a look.

And from Mercedes’ perspective, they’re getting a lot of bums on the seats of their cars from a very early age hopefully allied to a great driving experience that can only help garner sales in the future. As my goddaughter enthuses – without so much as a hint of a prompt – after off-roading in the M-class: “This is the car I want when I’m older!” I think the marketing is working already. 

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