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Opinion: how to stop new drivers from crashing... by letting them have a (safe) crash

Being involved in a staged crash could be key to preventing real life ones

Published: 31 Jul 2023

This column has long advocated for sensible, practical measures to improve driving standards on British roads. And if we truly wish to become a safer, better motoring nation, I think we all know what needs to be done. We need somewhere for our 17-year-old drivers to go and have a good crash.

Because, as every boardroom motivational poster proclaims, there is no success without failure. As humans, we learn and grow from our mistakes. To improve, to flourish, we should be permitted to get things wrong for ourselves.

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Just not, as things stand, when you’re learning to drive. On the journey from first getting behind the wheel to becoming a fully fledged motorist, getting it properly, smashily wrong simply isn’t encouraged. In fact, it’s quite strongly, actively discouraged.

Sure, you’re told it’s a bad idea to stamp on the brakes halfway round a hairpin bend. But experiencing firsthand exactly why it’s a bad idea, exactly how disconcerting it feels when 1,500kg of metal decides to depart the tarmac and chart its own course through the undergrowth, is very much not on the curriculum.

This is a pity. Because there’s no better thing to put you off having a crash, than having a crash. A proper shunt is highly educational. At the age of 17, I decided, in the spirit of scientific adventure, obviously, to have a fairly substantial crash on a deserted country lane. This experience taught me an important life lesson: surprisingly difficult to exit a car when it’s on its roof. And also: crashing, not a good idea. These learnings stayed with me. In the two decades since, I’ve had no more than a handful of mostly smaller crashes, very few of them ending upside down.

And no, of course we don’t want our nation’s new drivers testing the limits of grip, and crumple zones, on public lanes. But that’s the point: in order to be a safe driver, you need to know how close you’re getting to not being a safe driver. To learn where the line is between ‘everything’s absolutely fine’ and ‘why has it suddenly gone all quiet and also why am I travelling backwards towards that hedge’.

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Which is why it’s time to create a safe, non-judgmental space for new drivers to go and have a good healthy crash. Nothing high speed. I don’t want our nation’s 17-year-olds messing up their carefully curated hair and teeth. Just a nice, big, mostly empty arena where they can take a car for a gentle-yet-reassuring thump into some Armco or maybe a logging truck, to gain a firsthand appreciation of why crashes are bad.

I’m not saying a bunch of nervous new drivers, piloting bangers around a concrete arena, crashing into each other at low speed, wouldn’t be an entertaining spectacle. I’m not saying I wouldn’t sell tickets. But this is about raising driving standards among our young drivers. As Sun Tzu almost definitely once said, to learn not to crash, we must first learn to crash.

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