24 April 2024

Turning daunting driving lesson into a day on the track

| John Thistleton
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Pheasant Wood Circuit, a safe place for young people who can begin learning from the age of 12.

Pheasant Wood Circuit, a safe place for young people who can begin learning from the age of 12. Photo: Pheasant Wood Circuit.

It’s unsettling at any time to be pulled over by the police for a roadside breath analysis, but imagine what it would be like for a 12-year-old behind the wheel of a car. On their first day of a driving lesson. With a parent in the back seat.

At least this would capture and hold a 12-year-old’s full attention, which is why this scenario happens at Pheasant Wood Circuit near Marulan. But why 12-year-olds?

“… that’s when most kids can actually reach the pedals and see over the dash,” says Pheasant Wood track manager Scott Hill, who proposed the learner driver program four years ago.

Offering professional instructors and former highway patrol officers as well as serving police, the program caters for children from age 12 to teenagers up to 17, and their parents.

Pheasant Wood Circuit is giving the course widespread exposure ahead of the next learner driver training on 24 April to provide invaluable insights and guidance to parents and children, and to foster safer and more responsible driving within our community.

The driving circuit opened in 2009 as the Marulan Driver Training Centre. It was extensively upgraded after the owner Steve Shelly acquired it in 2016. He is also completing major work at One Raceway, south of Goulburn.

Scott proposed the learner driver program in 2020. Despite the misgivings of people about putting youngsters behind the wheel without first spending a lot of time talking to them, it has worked.

“They are actually in the car most of the day,” Scott said. “The focus is on getting them to drive; this isn’t a course where we sit them down and talk at them.”

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Most of the participants have never driven a car before and by the end of the day they are driving by themselves.

“It works,” Scott said. “All the parents that come here and see it think it is absolutely unbelievable, that there should be more of it,” he said. Parents and their children are coming from the North Coast, Sydney, Canberra, Yass, Goulburn and Wagga.

The track is divided into three sections for the learner drivers. In their own cars, or one of the course’s manual or automatic Mazda 2s, learners perform several exercises which they repeat until everyone is showing competency.

A slalom exercise teaches learners the relationship between steering and the front wheels. They then complete a minikhana/parking exercise where they park the car and use their blinkers. Then they do an emergency breaking exercise, hitting the brake as fast and hard as they can while travelling at 40 km/h, 60 km/h, then 80 km/h. They do that a few times before coming back to do it again at 30 km/h.

This is aimed at teaching them the relationship between breaking, distances and speed. At double the speed, it takes five or six car lengths to stop, not just two car lengths. “Most modern cars at 40 km/h will stop in their own length,” Scott said. “That’s why we have 40 km/h speed zones.”

Goulburn police attend the start of the course and chat with learners and parents, who have an opportunity to check out a highway patrol car. “That way they get to understand the police are good, decent human beings just like the rest of us,” Scott said.

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In the afternoon when the students are free driving around the track, the police come back out to the circuit and set up random breath testing. Each learner gets random breath tested for the first time. “If they get pulled over as a licensed driver, it’s no big deal, they have done it before,” Scott said.

A parent is encouraged to come along and sit in the back seat and observe how the instructor relates to their son or daughter behind the wheel.

A more advanced driver training course is offered at Pheasant Wood Circuit. Designed for P-platers, the drivers are taken out of their comfort zone. “In that one we really put them through their paces,” Scott said. “They get to experience a car out of control for the first time on the track,” he said.

Learner driver program, Pheasant Wood Circuit, 8 Prairie Oak Rd, Marulan, 24 April. For more details go to their website.

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