There’s something extremely bland about turning 37. With the much-celebrated big 4-0 still well beyond the horizon, 37 is a beige age, possessing only the dubious honour of being ‘the beginning of your late 30's.’
I passed this faintly ignominious non-milestone earlier this year and, in typical 30-something male fashion I barely realised it was happening until someone reminded me, and only stopped to reflect on the actual implications (and concluded that there are none) a few days later.
It eventually dawned on me that my 37th birthday, as must be the case for many, was actually the anniversary of something a little bit special. It’s been an astonishing 20 years since I learned to drive. The memories of my first lesson are somewhat hazy, but I can recall being far too excited about a Nissan Sunny, and equally as bizarrely excited about my slow and ungainly progress around a drab industrial estate.
I have much more vivid memories of my driving test: an angst-ridden comedy of errors punctuated by a cameo appearance by a suicidal magpie (I might tell you about it some other time).
I joined IAM RoadSmart as marketing manager earlier this year, and the significance of my 20-year driving career has come into sharper focus. I’ve always loved cars and driving, and have been aware of the IAM and of the general concept of advanced driving for many years, but had never really considered their impact on road safety. I like to think I’m a decent driver: a belief which, these days, I tend to justify by reference to a supposed accumulation of experience.
‘You only start learning to drive once you’ve passed your test’ is the usual platitude you hear, but no one ever follows this with an explanation of what form this learning should take, and who or what should be the teacher. It is clear that experience alone won’t keep you safe out on the roads, especially if allowed to breed bad habits or complacency, but I do feel quite lucky to have done my learning (to date) during an interesting time in the history of driving.
The world of motoring has changed a great deal over the last 20 years, arguably much more rapidly than it did during the preceding 40 years since the IAM’s inception, particularly in terms of vehicle technology and the type of distractions faced by drivers.
The only appreciable improvements in the standard spec of a mainstream family car of 1997 over its 1957 equivalent amounted to little more than seat belts and a cassette player. Active safety systems such as ABS and traction control were still the preserve of premium and performance cars in the late 1990’s, sat-nav was almost unheard of and catalytic converters had only recently arrived on the scene, but these marked the first steps towards the world of electronic driver aids, sophisticated infotainment and ever-tightening emissions standards that we know today.
Here’s a sobering thought: the year I bought my first car was the same year I got my first mobile phone. The car was an old Austin Metro; the phone a then-new Nokia 3210. Both were blue. Both were semi-useful novelties at the time. Both quickly became indispensable to me. Over the ensuing years, the worlds of motors and of mobiles have become increasingly intertwined, for better and for worse. Mobile phones give us so much convenience on our travels but as a source of in-car distraction their effects can be devastating. Young people learning to drive today have never known a world without this technology being part of daily life. Does that make them better equipped to deal with such distractions than the older generation? Does it make their experience, though limited, somehow more relevant to modern times?
Shortly before I joined, in its 60th year the IAM underwent a major rebrand, but this was a representation of something deeper. IAM RoadSmart’s core mission, of improving road safety by making better drivers and riders, remains the same in a changing landscape but there are multiple avenues toward success. Supporting the community of Advanced Drivers and Riders is still the main one, but another will be to find ways to make their knowledge and skills relevant and appealing to a new generation of drivers and riders. Another is to ensure that we remain at the leading edge of thinking and research, setting the agenda for discussions on the future of driving, as in our recent Driver Ahead? conference on autonomous vehicles. In parallel with these activities, IAM RoadSmart continues to offer driver training as an essential part of risk management strategies for business fleets, benefitting the safety of some of the highest-mileage, highest-risk drivers on our roads.
My role in marketing will involve supporting all of these efforts, but perhaps I won’t really know what I’m talking about until I’ve done my Advanced Test. Must book myself in …
By Gary Bates, IAM RoadSmart marketing manager