Driving a car is a complex skill, requiring manual dexterity, spatial awareness and an ability to read rapidly-developing situations and plan responses in real time. It's enormously difficult if you look at it from that point of view, and yet most people manage it to a fairly successful degree.
Most people learn to drive on the road. They are told how to start and stop the car, and then are expected to drive around some quiet roads to get the hang of it before venturing into more challenging situations. In this way, the muscle co-ordination required to control the car and the ability to read and respond to the events around you have to be developed simultaneously. It is very noticeable that people who learn to drive at a young age seem to be the most instinctive and natural drivers: those who pass their test later in life often remain nervous and reluctant.
I was very lucky. My Dad worked about half a mile away from where I went to school, and if I missed the school bus I would walk down to his workplace and get on with my homework until he was ready to leave. When I got to 16 or so, I used to ask him is I could get the car out ready to go home. He parked his car in a garage on a piece of private land, and if he was in a good mood I would take the keys and reverse the car out and perhaps shunt it to and fro for a few minutes. After a while, as my confidence grew, and as I learned his movements better, I was able to spend 10 to 15 minutes driving up and down this piece of land, changing up to second gear and getting used to the oddness of reversing in confined spaces. At this time, Dad would occasionally take me to Elvington airfield near York, where for a small fee you could drive about unlicensed, and there I learned about going faster than 5 mph and dealing with junctions and corners. Of course, when it came to 'proper' learning to drive, I had no fear at all. I could control the car quite well, and was able to concentrate on learning the roadcraft side of things. I passed my test first time, and have driven ever since. Driving doesn't hold any fear or apprehension for me, and I am sure that this level of confidence is because I learned to drive in easy stages.
So what? Well, it appears that this was a very unsafe way to go about things. The BBC reports (under the scary headline "Fears as children aged 11 take driving lessons") that:
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.
A company called 'Young Driver', amongst others, is offering courses to children and young people who want to master the basics of driving before they ever get anywhere near a road. I would have thought this was an admirable aim. But the 'authorities' don't seem to agree.
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.
It doesn't, you plonker. That's the whole point. Learning to deal with the real world, the spontaneous incidents, will come later when they get lessons on the road - but they will be better equipped to understand and deal with them because they have the basic control of the vehicle mastered already.
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.
But they won't need extra experience, because they were already half-way there.
"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."
Good God, these people are thick! Learning a foreign language as a child is a good thing; learning Maths as a child is a good thing - because learning young makes things natural and easy, and you are fluent and comfortable with the subject when you become an adult. But somehow this doesn't apply to driving a car? If time spent under the supervision of an instructor is desirable, than why not make it compulsory, as they do with pilots' licenses, where a trainee has to demonstrate a certain number of logged hours before they are allowed to fly solo? Deliberately hampering the acquisition of the skill to prolong the instructor contact time seems a strange way to achieve this.
Make no mistake - only about 10% of safe driving is about actual skill. I would say that another 40% is about observation and concentration, and a whole 50% is about attitude. A youngster who comes to driving lessons with a good degree of basic control over the car has got all of his or her mind free to concentrate on learning how to drive well. The instructor has the time to pass on all the good stuff about safe and efficient driving because he or she has to spend less time explaining how to use the clutch.
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.