L-platers in a hurry must do the time, not the crime

This article first appeared in The Age (16/01/12) on page 11.

IT TOOK me more than two-and-a-half years to accumulate 120 hours of driving practice. And after all that, I still failed my first VicRoads driving test.

At the time I was understandably shattered. Becoming a member of the P-plate club meant so much to me: it would spell the end of superfluous three-hour drives to the other side of Melbourne, not to mention tedious and overpriced driving lessons.

In hindsight, I consider that failure to be an important milestone in my maturity as a driver. While I initially lamented the harshness of my instructor, I later recognised that that was the exact quality I expected of somebody in her position. After all, she was my gatekeeper to the roads, the only thing standing between me – an overconfident teenager – and a potential fatal accident.

A couple of months – and another dozen hours of logbook entries later – I returned to the VicRoads centre to try my luck again. This time I drove with greater care and confidence, two qualities no doubt fostered by the extra experience I had since accumulated.

It seemed that every hour I gained as an L-plater – even those above the 120-hour threshold – contributed to my ability as a safe driver. It makes sense, too; the 120-hour law is based on academic research to give young drivers a taste of all road conditions for a sustained amount of time.

As valuable as the 120 hours were for me, the reality is that accumulating such a figure is an immense challenge. Not only does the assignment come at a time when adolescents are burdened by the demands of VCE, but it requires a huge commitment from parents and guardians.

Moreover, Melbourne’s variable climate makes it difficult to predict when the next hail storm or foggy day may arrive. It is little wonder that our roads are always clogged up whenever it’s raining: half the road users are L-platers desperate to tick this mission off their list.

Adding to this is the social pressure for teens to attain their driving licence immediately after turning 18. So long as a car is a convenient mode of transport and a symbol of independence, this trend is unlikely to change. Indeed, the achievement of a probationary licence is celebrated just as much as the birthday itself. One begins to understand this cultural phenomenon when monitoring a teen’s Facebook wall on the afternoon of the driving success.

Dozens of friends and long-lost acquaintances alike share the success of the victor, “liking” the celebratory status update. It may sound petty to the older generation, but to a young person desperate for recognition, a moment of popularity means the world.

As such, young people will do anything to accumulate the momentous 120 hours as quickly as possible. Regardless of how many hours VicRoads sets, there will always be cheats.

As The Saturday Age reported (14/1), there is a plethora of ways for young people to get around the system.

It’s easy to fabricate a record here or forge a parent’s signature there. It’s not so easy for VicRoads officers to monitor this behaviour. They are not police and cannot be expected to painstakingly scan every log book for fraudulent activity. Like most young people, I have heard stories about people who have cheated on their log book, some having completed only half their required hours. Yet most – either by fluke or innate skill – were awarded their licence on their first attempt.

My friend Lachlan kindly pointed out that my picture appeared slightly higher than Brangelina on The Age website. So it’s official… my life ambition is complete.

But who are these people really cheating? By not gaining sufficient experience in real-world driving conditions, they are putting themselves – and fellow drivers – at grave risk.

While there is a fair share of tough instructors out there, evidently too many reckless drivers are sneaking through the cracks. The onus of responsibility should certainly be on the drivers and their parents, but VicRoads must also go on the front foot. More hurdles should be placed before young drivers, delaying them the privilege of solo driving.

For the sake of every other driver on the road, I hope every driving instructor in Victoria is as dogged and ruthless as the one I faced on my first P-plate attempt. But that’s just the start.

Changes clearly need to be made. First of all, the compulsory hazards test is technologically outdated and highly subjective. It fails to emulate real-life driving scenarios and looks like something out of Windows 95. I have yet to meet a teenager who has understood the benefit of this test.

In its place should be a mandatory defensive driving course, marked under the same strict standards as the probationary licence test. Given the expense of these courses, they should be subsidised by the government where necessary for low-income earners. It’s a price the Victorian government must pay because, as we all know, consequences of dangerous driving don’t just affect the young and the restless but everybody.

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To read my first thoughts as a P-plater – written in November 2011 – click here.

That’s one for the pool room.