The Sunday Times Magazine: Learning To Drive

The brake’s on the floor, young lady

Young people have fallen out of love with the car. Formula One’s Mark Webber shows non-driver Katie Glass what she’s missing

Katie Glass Published: 10 June 2012


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Silverstone calls itself the home of British motorsport. That’s where I’m sitting in the driver’s seat of the Formula One superstar Mark Webber’s car. Around us, F1 cars with 18,000rpm engines are screeching round the track at up to 190mph. Ahead of us is Hangar Straight where, as a kid, Mark watched Nigel Mansell smash the lap record 11 times in one race, nailing Nelson Piquet to win the 1987 British Grand Prix. I’m hoping he’ll be able to make me see why some people find driving exciting.

It’s the track where Mark drove his first British circuit. Where, in 2010, he made motor-racing history by winning the British Grand Prix in 1hr 24min — 38.2sec faster than Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button or his Red Bull team-mate Sebastian Vettel. Mark looks excited. He turns to me and grins: “Okay, can you remember how the clutch works?” I look down at my feet, clueless. “No,” I shrug, “Can we learn how to do a doughnut?” And so our driving lesson begins.

I’ve never been bothered about learning to drive. I’d rather be driven, I’d rather get drunk, I’d rather spend my money on shoes, my free time out clubbing. I fulfil my wanderlust on Facebook and with EasyJet flights. And it turns out that I’m not the only one. In the early 1990s almost half of 17- to 20-year-olds had a driving licence. Now, according to the Department for Transport (DfT), just over a third do. The Driving Standards Agency reports that the number of 17- to 24-year-olds taking their driving test fell 19% between 2005-6 and 2010-11. That’s a loss of almost 240,000 drivers. For the first time since the 19th century, when the motorcar was born, it has finally fallen out of fashion. Could a whole generation be as lazy and uninterested in driving as me? Or is something else going on?



All you can hear at Silverstone is the swoosh of cars splicing air.


This is the sound of burning money. Before my lesson with Mark, Silverstone’s Porsche Experience Centre has offered to take me out in a Porsche Boxster, a glistening shag-me-mobile, in lipstick red with slippery leather seats, luminous dashboard lights, and the vital statistics: 0-62 in 5.8 seconds, 164mph top speed, 265hp. “This car is the best fun you can have with your trousers on,” oozes Andy, the instructor. But it costs a cocksure £37,589. If I could get my hands on 40 grand, I can think of better things to spend it on. The cost of learning to drive, of buying a car and getting insurance — these are the top three reasons 17- to 29-year-olds tell the DfT they can’t be bothered to drive.

Forget the Boxster. According to the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) last September, the first year on the road could cost a 17-year-old with a five-year-old Kia Picanto up to £12,276: the average cost of lessons is £1,128; driving test, £93; car, £3,000; tax and Mot, £155; average annual insurance for a young male driver, £7,900 — women currently pay a lot less, but a change to European Union law next year could mean both sexes pay the same. “The costs for young drivers are incredibly high,” says Neil Greig, IAM’s director of policy and research. “Young males, in particular, are being priced off the road.”

Running costs are exorbitant, too. According to the RAC’s just-released report, it costs an average of £3,438 to run a small used car for a year — including fuel, insurance, maintenance, road tax, RAC membership and finance; £2,959 without RAC membership and if you bought the car outright at the start. If you include depreciation, the costs are higher. Presumably if the Who were Going Mobile these days, they’d be doing it by bike. Record unemployment, crazy university fees, spiralling fuel prices and a property ladder way out of reach — all good reasons young people aren’t driving. But I’m not convinced this is a matter of moolah alone. There’s something else going on with young people and driving — and it’s about perception.

Once, being in a car signalled rebellion. The vehicle itself was a dangerous thing. Early cars required technical dexterity, mechanical skill and specialist clothing to drive. “Road conditions have got better,” says Mark. “Cars have improved. The doors and windows are sealed. The road noise is shut out. In the 1970s, if you got into a car and you were doing 60mph, you weren’t going to fall asleep in it. Now the technology is all much quieter, it takes the feeling out for the driver.”

When cars were dangerous, they were sexy. They were the Beach Boys’ Little Deuce Coupe, Danny from Grease’s systematic, hydromatic, ultramatic ride, and Grace Jones pulling up to the bumper, baby. Now cars are commuting, they are the school run, family days out and being sick in the back. They are designated drivers, company cars, middle of the road. They are Top Gear’s audience of couples in matching straight jeans.

It’s far cooler if you’re riding a bike now,” thinks James Redknapp, a 21-year-old student from Manchester. “If you get a sports car and blatantly flash it around you’re going to look like a dick,” says Sean Lemming, 20, a student from Bath. Rachel Tuwford, a 19-year-old living in London, finds the idea of a car as self-expression ridiculous: “That doesn’t matter among my friends.”

The song Little Red Corvette encapsulated the on-the-road spirit, but nobody will ever write a song about the Renault Clio Sport

A study by the American market-research company JD Power analysed hundreds of thousands of online conversations  (from car blogs to Twitter and Facebook) among teens and people in their early twenties. They discovered that this group had increasingly negative perceptions “regarding the necessity of and desire to have cars”.

I have tried to learn to drive before. There was the time my dad took me out in a quiet country lane, we took a wrong turn onto the motorway and I sat there screaming with my hands over my eyes. The time my dad paid for an intensive driving course, and I did two lessons before giving up. There was the theory test I failed. The boyfriend who took me out to a Tesco car park and almost dumped me there. That romantic weekend in Wales when I crashed a boy’s 3-series BMW into a hedge…

I turn up at Silverstone clutching my new provisional licence to discover I am not allowed to drive on the track. Nor will I be driving one of Mark’s Porsche collection (he’s got a GT2 RS and a GT3 RS 4.0). Instead, we’re relegated to the car park in a vehicle borrowed for the occasion. The songs Mustang Sally and Little Red Corvette encapsulated the on-the-road spirit, but nobody will ever write a song about the Renault Clio Sport, which is what I’m driving today. It has a five-star Euro NCAP safety score, and a standard fitment of ESC (electronic stability control) — that is, they are hoping it will be harder for me to crash.

I am armed with advice from the 1960s F1 champion John Surtees. “Motoring is an art,” he warned me. “Look upon it as something that has to be thought about. Come together with the machine, create a relationship with it.” “I know,” I tell Mark Webber proudly, “that the pedals go ABC. But I’m not sure which side that starts from.”

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