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GoAuto Oddspot: Kids these days…

TOO EASY: Modern cars are a cinch to drive, which means many youngsters have lost that all important connection with the car – and the road.

Has the modern car made life too easy for Learner drivers? And isn’t that a good thing?

23 Apr 2022

THE EASTER long weekend was a terrific opportunity for Learner drivers the country over to clock up valuable hours on unfamiliar roads in cars loaded with family members and their shackles – elements that are almost never present during after-school lessons!


It’s also a great time to get in some night driving and presents the opportunity to deal with road factors that you’re not accustomed to, such as large trucks, stray wildlife, restless siblings, and a couple of hundred other L platers.


But as heartening as it was to see so many yellow “L” plates displayed on comfortable, new SUVs during my weekend travels – with attentive young drivers propped dutifully behind their ‘wheels – it made me think back to how I come-of-age as a driver and how different things were “back in my day”… I couldn’t help but wonder how well modern kids would cope with the kind of, um, in-car technology that was around back then…


Although I’m not as old as this article might make me sound, the vehicles I had access to as a kid were kind of long in the tooth (to put it mildly). Piloting them not only required a level of mechanical sympathy that has become lost in modern times, but an awareness of road conditions, or more to the point, a car’s relative ability to cope with them.


I mean, modern cars have driver aids such as stability- and traction control and anti-lock brakes (to name but a few). They also have wipers and demister systems that are set-and-forget simple, brilliant headlights, smooth-shifting automatic transmissions, feather-light power steering, and supportive seats that position you well within reach of the controls while safety restraining you when you are a little, um, ham-fisted at the ‘wheel.


And it’s not that I’m jealous of today’s learner drivers. I’m not. In fact, I wouldn’t swap my L-plate days for the world. They taught me a lot about car control, about the nitty gritty of steering and dynamics, and about just how much contact patch a 175-aspect radial tyre can provide in a torrential downpour, to name but one very pertinent example.


They also helped me learn about the minutiae of the art of driving, such as feathering the throttle, pumping the brakes, double clutching and an inguinal hernia (not kidding).


Can you, for a minute, imagine an ultra-connected Centennial (Generation Z-er)

behind the ‘wheel of a three-on-the-three Holden with a partially-collapsed vinyl bench seat, frayed lap belt, four-wheel drum brakes and a pokey ol’ V8 engine? What about attempting a hill start with an umbrella handbrake or parallel parking without a camera, reversing sensors, passenger-side mirror and power steering (hence the hernia)?


No? Of course not. You’d probably be dobbed into the Department of Health and Human Services.


And do you really think any kid whose understanding of machinery comes from spending hours twiddling a PlayStation (or other console’s) controller has any comprehension of what brake lock-up means? Or how to delicately match the revs to grab first gear when “remember, no synchro on first!” was a common phrase? Of course not… And I’m pretty sure they’d roll their eyes if you asked them to “roll down a window” to stop the windscreen from fogging up – or remember to turn the wipers off at the bottom of their cycle so passing police won’t notice the self-parking function was on the fritz.


I mean, our family car was pretty special in that way. Not only did it have a lot of (let’s just call them) “characteristics” you had to work around, it also had others I’m rather sure were beyond a laughing matter (like rust holes you could stick your fist through).


The “old girl” wasn’t fond of the cold (no choke) or the heat (bung thermostat), it rained inside (perished windscreen rubber) and didn’t have a heater. It also didn’t have a radio, the fuel gauge was an approximation, and the headlights were as effective as a handful of fireflies in a jam jar (although I still love a floor-mounted dipper switch).


Oh, and my folks had become accustomed to the whine of the differential at a certain speed and without checking the speed would yell “Sixty, Matthew!” from the passenger seat whenever the diff’s pitch changed key. They were also really encouraging of my driving skills – dad once wore a Stackhat for an hour just to prove a point.


So, it’s with a wry smile and fond(ish) memories I see youngsters out there driving Mumsie’s new X5 or Daddikins’ prized Grand Cherokee SRT8 because they’ll never know just how much “fun” learning to drive can be – or how far the family car has come.


As to whether that’s a good thing, I guess it has to be. I mean, I wouldn’t wish a hernia on anyone.

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