LEARNING to drive is a tricky business. That first moment when you gently release the clutch pedal and realise that you’re moving under your own steam for the first time ever can be one of the most exciting – and daunting – feelings of your youth.
Not that such a feeling is tricky in itself. Out on the road is where things get difficult. Any driver you care to name could reel off dozens of recent incidents on the road where someone nearly caused an accident, they nearly hit an errant pedestrian, they slipped on a patch of ice or they saw a lunatic with a full-size iPad mounted onto their windscreen as a sat-nav.
Hazards can be big or small on the road. They move at different speeds, come from different directions and sometimes lie hidden behind something else. The signs that point to hazards are as varied as the hazards themselves, but these clues are often as obscure as Norwegian poetry and it’s fair to say that many young drivers simply don’t know where to look or what to look for.
It could be reflections in a living room window that denote an otherwise-out-of-sight oncoming car, or the moving feet of potentially jay-walking pedestrians that were visible by looking between a parked van’s wheels, identifying potential hazards is a much deeper process than the standard ‘hazard perception’ element of the driving test can show.
The part of the brain used for hazard perception doesn’t develop fully until around the age of 25, so young drivers may not be giving the little things their full attention. Driving school RED has designed an intriguing new set of e-learning tools to try to ‘train’ that part of a young driver’s brain to more readily recognise potential dangers. Called the RED Road Brain Trainer (RRBT), the company says that as part of the wider Get Road REDdy scheme it should better prepare a young driver for the real world of driving.
Ian McIntosh, CEO of RED Driving School, believes there are gaps in the driving education system that need to be filled. “Scientific research has shown that the part of the brain that assesses risk and anticipates danger is still developing when a young person is learning to drive,” he says.
“This can result in risks not being readily identified and a lack of focus from the driver. Get Road REDdy aims to develop the risk assessment abilities of young people through providing RED’s learners with direct access to interactive e-learning tools.
“The campaign aims to highlight the need for young people to ‘road train their brain’ as well as their hands and feet during the learning to drive period so that they really are road ready.”
RED sees the introduction of RRBT as a complementary tool to be added to the existing standard learning procedures and tests. “What RED’s Road Brain Trainer does is compliment practical training by, in effect, accelerating the acquisition of experience,” Ian adds.
“It trains the brain to think more like an experienced driver by developing the cognitive skills needed to survive and drive safely on our crowded roads.”
It is common for a learner to want to spend less on lessons and take their test sooner, but there are reasons to avoid doing this; not least the £62 re-test fee. Ian highlights the potential shortfall in real-world safety even if they do pass.
“While many learners may feel confident behind the wheel fairly quickly, it is through experience that they develop the skills to be a safer, better driver,” he says.
“This includes the cognitive skills that are needed to effectively assess risk and danger. That is why training the brain should occur alongside practical driving tuition. A learner may be able to manoeuvre a car sufficiently well but are they really prepared for the hazards that they will face on the road?”
RED’s research, gained during the development of the software when it was extensively tested at Cranfield University, suggests that after taking the online modules learners were 14% more likely to pass at the first or second attempt than pupils who stuck to the standard system. Identifying with the real-world hazards young drivers now face was key.
“The modules were designed with young people in mind and cover areas including how to deal with in car distractions such as music, technology such as mobile phones and other passengers,” explains Ian.
The research behind the system is strong enough for RED to have incorporated the e-learning modules into its regular programme, allowing learners to identify new areas that need to be improved to help make them genuinely safer drivers.
“It is designed more to make drivers safer and more competent than simply being able to pass a test on the day,” says Ian. “It is fundamentally about training drivers to be better and safer post-qualification but it also helps them to pass their test.
“RRBT is backed by proven research and as such confirms that it really does improve driving skills,” he continues. “Many situations in which newly qualified drivers find themselves in may never have been encountered during their practical lessons.
“Having gained experience through RRBT, it might just save their lives when such a situation occurs for real. RRBT can never replace real experience but it is crucial to help drivers in their first year of driving in order to reduce the accidents that occur.”
It will be interesting to see in the coming years whether graduates of the Get Road REDdy scheme prove statistically less likely to have an accident early in their driving lives. Those behind RRBT certainly believe they will.