What is the first lesson a new driver should be taught? And what is the most important thing they should learn?
Should tuition start with the rules of the road? The vehicle controls? Traffic signs and signalling? And of all the skills and knowledge that must be mastered — the complete syllabus of theory and practice that a driving course should cover and an examiner should test before a driving licence is issued — what single aspect is paramount above all others?
The best answers I have heard come from surprising sources. One is Alexander Pope, the 18th century satirical poet and second-most frequently quoted writer after Shakespeare, who gave us the concept of: “A little learning is a dangerous thing”… because it gives the student the impression they know it all, or at least a lot, or anyway enough.
Another is Winston Churchill, the 20th Century statesman and Nobel laureate, who, in another context, gave us words which could perfectly sum up the passing of a driving test: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. It is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
For the first, middle, last and most important driving lesson is that even a naturally talented learner, mentored by a superb tutor through a comprehensive course and tested by the most rigorous examiner, will still be a “beginner” after first getting a licence.
And even after years of focused practice and extensive experience, they should still be a “learner”.
Most motorists are not especially talented. They are, by definition, average. Most tutors are not superb (many are not even qualified). Most driving courses are not comprehensive (in Kenya, we do not even have a syllabus). And here, the test is, by any effective standard, non-existent.
Practice and experience might do much to compensate for those shortfalls…if the student heeds the words of Pope and Churchill, realises how much there is to know, and commits to a lifelong learning process.
The new driver who “knows it all” is indeed a most dangerous thing. And that is the real cause for concern in Kenya’s dysfunctional teaching and testing systems. It is not just that new drivers are not taught correctly nor very much; it is that they are not given a glimpse of how much more there is to know.
As those who have earned their licences through such a sub-standard system now constitute the majority of our more-than-a-million motorists, let me offer a tiny window of perspective on that.
The Driving Standards Agency of the UK produces a number of books for driving test candidates. One is the Official Theory Test — yes, just the theory, just the basics, just the beginning of the beginning. It is 400 pages long, and any learner must be able to answer any of its 1,000 sample questions correctly.
A second publication is called Driving, The Essential Skills. This one, too, is written with extreme brevity and tackles only the most basic stuff, yet it runs to more than 300 pages to even begin to cover the necessary ground and every candidate must know its content cover to cover…or fail.
Do our road safety tsars recognise that how little our drivers know how little they know is a dangerous thing? And what are they doing about it?