Clarkson on: teaching kids to drive
Ooh, I’m feeling pleased this morning. Pleased and a bit smug. So smug, in fact, that I’m going to begin this column with the traditional snort of a victor; a simple ‘ha’.
You see, when I went to junior school, I learned all about rivers and how to spell ‘paraphernalia’. It seems things have changed. In her first six years of schooling, my daughter has learned that trees are a girl’s best friend and that the Brazilian rain forest is being murdered by McDonald’s. At one stage, a year ago, it would have been easier to get her to eat a dog turd than a Big Mac.
She also knows that baby seals are slaughtered for fun and, while she doesn’t know her six times table or the capital of France, she can give you chapter and verse on every single ingredient in a packet of cigarettes and exactly how each one will rip the very fabric from her tender nine-year-old lungs.
At this age, a child has a quest for knowledge that will never be matched in adult life. They will absorb information like a sponge, but so far as I can see, these days, the only information they’re actually given is eco claptrap.
And it’s not just school, either. When I turned on the television 35 years ago, I had
Valerie Singleton showing me how to make a robot from cereal packets, or the national anthem. Today, children have subliminal environmental cries for help in every single pop video and cartoon.
As a result, my daughter knows for a fact that global warming is caused by man. Which, when you think about it, is pretty clever, since some of the best brains in the scientific world aren’t so sure. She also knows that there are no fish in the sea, that all coral reefs have been killed by jet skis and that if she eats food made from GM crops, she’ll grow another eye.
Then there’s Africa. Oh, my God. Given half a chance, she would have the entire population from western Sudan in her bedroom, and her views on the evil Swiss drug companies that won’t give away medicine to the needy of Zimbabwe are astonishingly uncompromising. In essence, she wants heads, on spikes, in the garden.
Needless to say, it’s been thoroughly drummed into her tiny head that the car is a particular menace. The class all sits around making up songs about their awfulness, and there are plays at the end of every term in which motorists are pilloried for killing not just thousands of children, but the whole planet too.
So you’d imagine that when I suggested we cycle into town yesterday, she’d have jumped at the chance. “Oh yes, Daddy, and we can go to the organic farm shop while we’re there and buy some fair trade parsnip crisps”.
Not a bit of it. “You must be joking,” was what she actually said. “I hate bicycles. I want to go in the car because cars are like, so cool.”
“I distinctly remember the high-pitched, keening sound my mother made when I emerged onto my first roundabout.”
So ‘ha’ to the environmentalists. You can drip feed our young until you are blue in the face, but all of your work can be undone in one afternoon. How? Well, all I did with my daughter was take her to the local airfield in the family Focus and toss her the keys. Ten minutes later, she was in third gear and 10 minutes after that, she really couldn’t give a toss about what was coming out of the exhaust pipe. She was hooked.
Her face, the first time she timed the clutch pedal and throttle just right, and the car began to move was an absolute picture. It’s a power trip, to be in control of a car – especially when you’re nine. But, unfortunately, it’s the exact opposite when you’re a parent in the passenger seat. It is sheer hell.
The first time I ever drove a car on the public road, my mother was alongside and I distinctly remember the high-pitched, keening sound she made when I emerged for the first time onto a roundabout. The problem being that I didn’t pull out when there was a gap in the traffic. Being 17, I pulled out when I figured I had been waiting long enough.
Quite how the lorry missed us, I have no idea. Maybe it was deflected from its previous course by the ultrasonic noise waves being made by my mother.
I made a similar sound shortly after my daughter had snatched fourth. We were doing probably about 40. This doesn’t sound all that fast, but trust me, it is when you suddenly remember that you haven’t explained how the brakes work and therefore how we might miss the enormous mound of earth which is bearing down on us at, well, it felt like mach 4.
Quietly, so as not to cause alarm, I told her to take her foot off the accelerator and gently move it to the pedal in the middle. “Why?”she said in that inquisitive, annoying way kids have when there’s a solid wall of soil heading toward the windscreen.
Eventually, the row ended and she looked down between her legs to see if this previously undiscovered middle pedal was for real. To celebrate its location, she slammed her left foot onto it, as though it was the clutch and, as she pointed out afterwards, “The car stopped, didn’t it”.
Later, after I’d had a little walk, and a small cigarette, we turned round and thought we’d have a go at cornering, which turned out to be even scarier than braking. At least in the emergency stop, we didn’t end up – and I swear this is true – on two wheels.
The problem is that I learned to drive by watching my dad. My daughter, on the other hand, learned to drive by racing her brother on the PlayStation. And out there in the silicon jungle, there’s no need to slow down for bends, or bumps, or bumps in the middle of bends.
What’s more, she knew that if she were to brake, I’d wail like a banshee again, so she figured it was best to keep clear of the middle pedal altogether. It was quite simply the most nerve-wracking hour of my life. At one point, I even considered using the eco-tool to get her out of the driving seat again.
I still think children should learn about the rudiments of driving as early as possible, but I now think that their parents should be banned from teaching them.
I also have a message for the makers of Gran Turismo. Replicating the exact handling characteristics of a particular car is very clever, but I’d also like to see some realism when those handling characteristics are exceeded. In other words, every crash should be followed by a time-consuming insurance wrangle and the loss of all the player’s pocket money.