Page last updated at 05:05 GMT, Saturday, 20 February 2010

Fears as children aged 11 take driving lessons

By Keith Doyle
BBC Breakfast

A youngster takes driving lessons
A Swedish study found lowering the practice age to 16 cut accidents

Thousands of children - some as young as 11 - are enrolling for driving lessons at a growing number of specialist centres, but the trend has police and safety groups concerned.

Jack Bassford, 15, has already mastered the basics of driving a car.

He is one of thousands of youngsters being taught to drive off the public roads long before they are legally able to hold a driving licence.

The theory is if they can gain an understanding of driving and the dangers early, it will make them better drivers when they are eventually old enough to get a licence.

'Crash risk'

"If I keep coming and practising, then in two years' time when I'm old enough to drive, I'll be used to getting in the car and driving," the teenager said.

He was speaking during a lesson at the National Exhibition Centre (NEC) in Birmingham with a company called Young Driver - one of dozens of firms now offering the courses.

Jack Bassford
Jack Bassford says lessons will better equip him for later in life

Another youngster on the course, Charlotte Reid, said: "I'm 12 and too small to see over [the wheel] but I use a cushion. It's great and it will make me a better driver."

The company, which has centres all over the UK, charges £55 an hour with a qualified instructor in a dual controlled car. Up to 2,000 children have signed up since October.

Kim Stanton, from Young Driver, said: "We are teaching youngsters the vital skills they are going to need in later life to drive.

"We believe these skills will stay with them, and learning at this age, when they are very keen to absorb and retain a lot of what we teach them, will definitely make them safer drivers."

Swedish study

But Insp Alan Jones, from the Police Federation of England and Wales, said he had reservations.

"Driving on one of these courses at 11 years old, it's another six years until you can get a driving licence. How does it replicate the real world, the spontaneous incidents?" he said.

 Inspector Alan Jones
At 11 children may be too young to handle pressures, says Insp Alan Jones

"Are kids mature enough at 11, 12, 13 years old to understand what's happening on the roads, to be able to manage all the demands and pressures? I'm not persuaded it's a good idea."

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents has warned the courses could make youngsters over confident and more likely to crash.

Kevin Clinton, from the group, said while early education was a very good thing, the same did not apply to driving a car.

"It will probably mean youngsters will take fewer lessons when they come to learn to drive and if they take fewer lessons they will get less experience," he said.

"That means when they pass their test they may be at greater risk of crashing because they won't have had as much experience when they are supervised."

In Britain, one in five newly qualified drivers has an accident within six months of passing their test.

But in Sweden, allowing drivers to practise on roads from the age of 16 cut accidents amongst newly qualified drivers by 40%, according to a study.

The Swedish National Road Administration research followed the lowering of the practice age from 17-and-a-half years to 16, although the licensing age was kept at 18.

Brian Mooney, from the Association of British Drivers, said he thought it was a very good idea.

"Anything that gets young people accustomed to the car and a bit of responsibility and co-ordinating movements, is a good thing particularly if it also teaches them to be considerate of other people," he said.

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