Clarkson on: mollycoddling
News from the land of the free and the home of the brave. Parents can now buy off-the-shelf computer technology which allows them to monitor how their children are driving, and, if necessary, remotely shut down the car.
But before we all burst out laughing, I should explain that this snippet came to my attention on a day when 400 schools in Britain were closed. When asked why by a television news reporter, one headmistress said, “It’s a health and safety issue. It’s very icy and we don’t want children falling over”.
Later that day, three boys were suspended from their school because they’d been throwing snowballs. And, as we know from recent health and safety advice on how to play conkers, you can’t just go around lobbing snow at one another unless you’re wearing goggles, and some kind of helmet.
On the same lines, we now have a water fountain in the Top Gear office, but we are not allowed to fit a new bottle when the old one becomes empty because water bottles are… wait for it… heavy!
So we must call for a porter who has been trained on how bottles may be lifted safely.
And then there’s the bothersome business of actually filming the programme. If there is the slightest chance, at all, of anyone being injured then we cannot go ahead. It’s that simple. We even have to assess the risk of an airliner crashing into our heads, and what precautions should be taken if the earth were to open up suddenly.
Of course, we’re old and intelligent enough to ignore the stupid, interfering, safety police but it’s a different story for children, who must now stay at home whenever it’s too hot or too cold, or if there’s a mobile phone mast within 200 miles.
My son, who’s a strapping nine-year-old, likes to play rugby for the local town on a Sunday morning. Obviously, I’m not allowed to video the games in case the tape falls into the hand of a paedophile, but then there’d be no point because it’s not rugby as you’d recognise it.
The scrum, for instance, is just six boys leaning on one another. And any player doing something remotely dangerous has to do 20 press-ups.
Then they’re clipped into their anti-submarine seats, in a four-wheel-drive tank and ferried home to spend the rest of the day trying to get round the parental controls on their dad’s computer.
As a result of all this mollycoddling, our kids are growing up with no concept of danger. So, when my boy climbs into one of our off-road go-karts, he drives like the devil, refusing to slow for corners on the basis that someone in a hi-vis jacket will have smoothed out the surface before he gets there.
Inevitably, one day, he rolled it and this hurt. It wasn’t the pain, however, that caused the tears. It was the amazement that an adult had allowed him into a situation where pain might be possible.
“New drivers should have a big crash asap. The aftershock will act as a giant psychological traction control system”
We saw the same sort of thing the other night while he was watching a programme about Ellen MacArthur’s truly astonishing record-breaking trip around the world. “I want to break a world record”, said the boy. “But I don’t want to sail round the world. I want to see how many Smarties I can eat with chopsticks in under a minute”.
What kind of an ambition is that?
Of course, I don’t want him to be hurt and when he starts to drive, I don’t want him to have an accident. So will I fit his car with computer software that allows me to kill the engine from the comfort of my own sofa?
Tricky one, isn’t it? You buy your kid a car to give him some freedom, some sense that he’s approaching adulthood, and because you can’t be bothered to take him to parties any more.
And then you explain that it’s fitted with an RS-1000 Teen Driving device.
This feeds real time information about his driving via email, a website or your mobile phone using kits that cost up to £260. It will even sound a warning at home if the car’s driven recklessly.
And then later, a card can be removed from the onboard black box which lets parents see just how fast ‘junior’ was going during his journey.
Now obviously, he’s going to be damn glad you bought him a car. He’s going to love you for that. But how long do you think that gratefulness will last if his engine dies every time he puts his foot down? And how deep into your chest will he plunge a carving knife if, when he gets home, you remove the card and explain that his gearchanging was a little sloppy.
There’s another, more worrying issue too. Because the technology already exists to monitor every car on the road, I’m amazed His Toniness hasn’t got involved. He’s already decided we all need ID cards so he can monitor our pupil dilation and I bet he would just love to be able to keep tabs on us in our cars too.
The only thing stopping him is a fear of the public backlash. But if lots of parents demonstrate they like the idea, he’ll introduce it like a shot. And then get his Health and Safety Nazis to send us fines every time we do 31mph.
So, let me give you a very good reason why you should not fit your kid’s car with a spy in the cab.
You see, when I passed my driving test, only 37 hours elapsed before I careered off the road, and into a herd of sheep. Had my mum been alerted to the speed I was going prior to the accident, she would have hit the kill switch immediately, and the sheep would have been saved. As indeed would my ego, and the entire underside of the car.
But that accident had a profound effect on my driving. Because when the examiner told me the previous day that I had passed my test, what I actually heard was, “Congratulations Jeremy. You are, without any shadow of doubt, the single best driver I’ve ever seen”.
I felt invincible, and the crash blatently proved I was not. As a result of this, and I’m touching a lot of wood here, I have not had a single accident on the public roads since.
This, then, is the dilemma. Had my mother killed the car’s engine, I’d have hated her on a cellular level for trying to prevent something that I knew, with total certainty, was not going to happen. And then I would never have been shaken into realising that I needed to take more care. So I might very well have had another, much more serious crash later.
I really do believe that all new drivers should have a big one as soon as possible after passing their test. Because the aftershock of such an event will act as a giant psychological traction control system until full maturity is reached. In men, this is around 45 years later.
There’s another reason too. With no danger in life, there are no thrills. And with no risk, there’ll be no more Ellen MacArthurs, no more world championships for our rugby team and no real point in being alive anymore.
This article was fist published in May 2005.