Saturday 24 August 2019

We already have enough on our L-plate, thanks very much

(Stock photo)
(Stock photo)
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

Some of the strangest people I have met in my life have been driving instructors. To which you would probably respond that this may be related in some way to the fact that they were sitting beside me at the time, trying to instruct me.

But there's more to it than that, I'm sure. They were strange already, and they couldn't help showing it in some way. There was one who for some inexplicable reason kept referring to petrol as "gaws" (not "gas", but "gaws").

There was another who spoke movingly to me about his fierce hatred of the testers with their easy civil service lives.

In general they remind me greatly of the characters in David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, members of an arcane sub-culture hardened by the maddening realities of their trade.

And perhaps it is only when the issue of learner drivers becomes a matter of public debate, as it has with Shane Ross's latest pronouncements, that we get a glimpse into the world of unreason which they are forced to inhabit.

Ross is supporting legislation which will mean that car owners who allow unaccompanied learner drivers to use their vehicles could face prosecution. And any learner drivers unaccompanied by a qualified driver may have the vehicle seized by the Garda.

But it is already the case that learner drivers are supposed to be accompanied by a qualified driver - it's just that this policy is considered to be unenforceable. Because... well I suppose there are technical reasons. But there's a larger reason too which comes under the general heading: "Because life is not like that."

It is certainly not like that in "rural Ireland", where life is just different anyway to the way that Shane Ross lives.

A young man raised on a farm (we'll call him Joe) who is a competent driver, a good solid fellow who doesn't drink, may be offered a job in the town 20 miles away. His poor old mother and father, who own the only car the family possesses, are ailing.

Given that it takes about four months to get a booking for a driving test - and given that even when he takes the test he may fail it on some perverse technicality - there will be times when Joe is unable to call on them, or on a friend or neighbour, to "supervise" his journey. Which means that either he can't get in to work, or he takes the risk of driving in his competent fashion to the town every day regardless. Naturally he will do the latter.

Because life is like that, gardai have wisely been reluctant to make a federal case, as it were, out of these realities - whereas now they would be urged to take action not only against Joe, this perfectly good driver who has never done anybody any harm, but possibly against one of Joe's ailing parents for turning him loose on the roads unaccompanied by either of them.

Indeed the basic proposition of the learner needing to be accompanied in this way, has a kind of surrealism to it. I mean, how is this supposed to work exactly?

As the professional driving instructors would no doubt be the first to point out, a qualified driver is just that, a person officially qualified to drive, but not qualified in any way to be a driving instructor, as such.

The qualified driver sitting in the passenger seat has no control over the car in any mechanical sense, just the option of saying wise things like "slow down", or "step on the gaws", or "I wonder what Shane Ross is doing while he's wasting my time with this bullshit?"

It has simply been accepted as a kind of an official truth, that the presence of the "better" driver in the passenger seat may somehow help the "bad" driver with the L-plate to avoid accidents. And yet inherent in the concept of the "accident" is the fact that it can happen… well… accidentally. That life being the way it is, sometimes there's not much the person in the passenger seat can say or do to stop it happening.

In which case it seems to be of no concern to advocates of these new measures, that in future they might be forcing the "better" driver into dangerous situations, for reasons that are entirely unclear.

Since a learner permit officially gives you no more than a limited right to learn how to drive, on certain roads, the "better" driver may, with good reason, respond: "If the government doesn't trust these learners to drive a car properly, then why should I?"

Then again it is perfectly possible that the "better" driver in the passenger seat, may not in fact be a better driver, than the "bad" one behind the wheel.

For example, there are many qualified drivers out there who never qualified at all, who were just given full licences in the 1979 "amnesty" by the Minister Sylvester Barrett, a grand gesture of acknowledgment that the system had completely collapsed. Any reasonably competent learner would probably know more about the current state of the Rules of the Road than these people. All they need now is to get enough time on the road in order to practice their driving, in relatively safe but real situations - something they will be less able to do, if every time they go out for a drive they are required to drag the poor ould fella along with them, just so he can whip out his Sylvester Barrett licence, if required.

Indeed not only will Joe be reluctant to be annoying his poor mother and father or his friends and neighbours to supervise his next journey into the town, he may well be a far better driver than the lot of them.

Even if they actually did pass a test 20 years ago, they may be ahead of him in the bureaucratic pecking order, but when it comes to taking the second exit at the next roundabout, who exactly will be learning from whom?

In truth - truth of course being something which is not covered by the legislation - there are all sorts of learner drivers, just as there are all sorts of qualified drivers, there are anomalies and contradictions. And one of the most intractable of these, is that the most skilled drivers are not necessarily the safest ones.

There are many young men who are brilliant drivers, and who will pass the test first time, no bother. They love cars, it's just that some of them love other things too, like speed, and drink. Meanwhile, sober young Joe with his L-plates driving unaccompanied up the boreen is officially the greater menace.

But here's the thing that is really strange, that is stranger even than the strangest of driving instructors - Shane Ross is bursting with zeal about these measures which could horribly complicate the lives of many exemplary citizens, yet when they really need him to do something to solve a public transport dispute, the Minister for Transport says there's nothing he can do, or should be doing.

Maybe he should have someone sitting beside him, telling him he's doing it all wrong.

Sunday Independent

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