New drivers should wear bobble hats

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The Independent Culture
A WEEK after he passed his driving test, my 18-year-old son drove through a red light, hit a taxi and did pounds 7,000-worth of damage to our new car. The fact that at the moment of impact he was simultaneously lighting a cigarette, talking to his girlfriend on his mobile and trying to find a particularly good track on his new Puff Daddy CD may have affected his concentration. The cab driver seemed to think so. I'm all for driving tests being modernised and made longer, harder and more technical, but if you think this will make young men safer drivers, you're wrong.

You may not believe this (the cab driver didn't), but when he's driving his granny's ancient Honda, a smoke-free zone without radio or tape deck, Tom, my son, is a perfectly competent driver - especially if his granny is sitting in the passenger seat beside him. It's only when he's with his friends, being dead cool and image-conscious, that his concentration wanders.

To be honest, in one sense he is a far better driver than Granny, who has never had an accident in her life. His reactions are swifter, his judgement is clearer and his eyesight is sharper. But Granny doesn't care what she looks like when she's driving whereas Tom wants to look like Steve McQueen in Bullitt or George Clooney in From Dusk to Dawn.

Stiffen up the driving test by all means, but don't expect young lads to be safer drivers until you rid cars by law of such would-be image-enhancers as mobile phones, cigarettes and Puff Daddy CDs. Better still, using Granny as a shining example of accident-free motoring, why not make it obligatory for young men who've just passed their driving tests to wear galoshes, Fair Isle mittens and matching angora bobble hats for their first year behind the wheel. That, together with a couple of old gardening cushions to sit on and a yapping West Highland terrier called Scrap looking balefully out of the back window, should stop them wanting to draw attention to themselves and turn them into more attentive drivers.

This little diatribe about safety coming from someone who drove illegally for 15 years is, I admit, a bit rich. I did pass my test, but I shouldn't have.

It was that tiresome regulation about being able to read a car registration plate at 25 yards. I've always had rotten eyesight. I failed O-level maths because I couldn't see the fractions. Knowing that I'd never be able to see a number plate at that distance, but desperate to drive, I took the precaution of arriving at the test centre early and memorising the numbers of all the cars parked in the street outside. When, emerging from the office, the examiner pointed to a car and said "Read me that plate, please", I said, "You mean the red Mini or the blue Fiesta?" and then fired off the relevant number. Too bad I failed on my three-point turn.

On my second attempt at a licence they failed me for failing to reverse round a corner. Not once did any examiner remark on my inability to see detail at a distance, which proves something about the vagaries of peripheral vision and what you need to be a good driver. I never had a single accident, or a point on my licence, in the 15 years I called myself a motorist.

The new, improved test, particularly the written paper, sounds ominously like A-levels. Pity the poor parents. As if we hadn't already got our work cut out getting them to revise their Middlemarch and German vocab, now we have to badger them to brush up their big ends and cylinder heads.

If you really are one of those people whose knees turn to water when you see a test centre, your best bet is still Pondicherry, India, where a driving test lasts 10 minutes and the examiner doesn't even get into the car. He stands by the roadside while you drive slowly past, turn left, reverse and drive back to where he's scribbling in his notebook. If there are no cars in the way, it's a cinch.

In Iran, the final part of a learner driver's test takes place in a stadium to which the public can buy tickets, because it is such good family entertainment. I worked on a newspaper in Tehran for a year and can honestly say that I've never seen such awful driving in my life. They installed traffic lights at the busy junction outside my office but gave them up in favour of an armed policeman. He waved his arms to start with, but if drivers took no notice he fired first in the air and then at their wing mirrors. Once I saw the traffic policeman waving furiously to no avail. Then the firing started, followed by the usual tinkle of wing-mirror glass. Finally, having used up all his ammunition, he headed home, leaving the gridlock behind.

I know it gets pretty clogged up on the Hangar Lane gyratory but our motorists, even with the bad old driving test, still observe lane discipline. And keep their wing mirrors.