Grief And The Need To Fix Our Driver Training

On the October long weekend last year, one of my dearest friends lost her 19-year-old son to a freak motorbike accident. He was on his first ride in months, taking advantage of the good weather – he was planning to sell the bike and focus on the cars he loved doing up. Hours later, the police knocked on her door with that terrible and life-shattering news.

There are no words to describe the impact of such a loss – on his parents, his younger brother and wider family, friends and colleagues… We all knew him as a gentle, serious, sensible and focused young man.

His mother, Anne-marie Taplin, has always been a brave woman with a fierce determination but never more so than now, in the aftermath of this tragedy. She has turned that grief into many beautiful words, from the eulogy at his memorial that she somehow managed to read all the way through, to this beautiful piece about loss recently published on Mamamia. It’s well worth a read, though I recommend having some tissues on hand. 

Now, she’s using her grief to add her voice to much-needed change to the inadequate regulation around motorbike licences in South Australia. 

She was featured in a recent article in The Advertiser, which sadly misquoted her and took out the most salient of her points, as she explains in this Facebook post

And in adding my voice to that campaign, I want to share my experience of the driver training program here in South Australia…

I’ve long dreamt of owning a cute little Vespa I can take out for easy rides on summer days. Throughout my life, I’ve forced friends to take me ‘scooter hootering’, and once even convinced a complete stranger to take me around the city after admiring his bike outside the club we’d been in.

In 2018, I decide it’s time I stop relying on others and sign up for the two-day rider training course. I am extremely nervous. The pamphlet warns that the trainers will shout at you, which doesn’t help.

The course follows a simple formula: watch a video explaining safety and a riding technique, then get on the bikes and give it a go. Return to workshop for next video, rinse and repeat.

Doing it isn’t simple, though. To start with, everything about the class is intimidating. My classmates are blokes who talk about their extensive motorbike experience when the trainers aren’t listening. Many have been riding illegally for some time. They all own motorbikes or have done so in the past. They’ve got this, apparently.

I haven’t got this. I’m a woman in her late 40s, nervous, uncoordinated, who doesn’t even know how to start the bike. I do my best to wrestle a completely new and potentially dangerous skill while blokes on motorbikes loop around me, race through the tasks or – much to their annoyance – get backed up behind me. And all the time, the instructors yell at me any time I do something wrong, which is quite a lot. I get that it’s noisy and they need to shout, and the trainers are actually nice people, but it feels relentlessly aggressive. There is barely time to get the hang of whatever skill we’re concentrating on before we are off the bikes and back inside and then out again to try the next thing.

It’s terrifying, exhausting and disheartening. I draw on every ounce of positive self talk to get through day one. “You can do it.” “Don’t give up.” “You’re doing great, just keep practicing.” “Don’t worry about what the others are doing, go at your own pace, you’ll be okay.” ”Think how good it will feel when you have your licence. Focus on that.” Mantras I repeat constantly throughout the day.

I’m not a crier, but a couple of times I nearly burst into tears from frustration and a sense of hopelessness. I feel ashamed at my lack of skill compared to everyone else. More than once, I seriously think about giving up. I compose myself and get back into a ‘can do’ mindset but it is HARD. Especially when everyone around me knows what they are doing already.

It takes all of my courage to go back for the second day. The instructors tell me it will be easier. And it is, a little. But I am still terrified. I never feel that I am getting the hang of anything. I want to go over all the things we learnt yesterday, one by one, and get them right, but there’s no time for that. I get told to go faster, and told off if I stop when I need a moment to regain my focus and determination. 

To pass the course, you have to complete a couple of laps and come to a stop on a white line. I stop a couple of inches over, and put the wrong foot down, which loses me too many points to get my licence.

The fee allows you to go back two more times – not the whole course from the beginning, just the second day. I don’t feel like I have grasped the basics enough to go straight into day two again, and I am told starting from the beginning isn’t an option.

I don’t go back. I don’t have the inner strength to put myself through that again. I hire a 50cc bike for a couple of weeks to give myself the chance to practice, thinking that if I can just get confidence in the basics I can go back and pass. But every time I go out on the bike, all that fear comes back, the instructors in my head yelling at me about all the things I’m doing wrong. I can’t remember how to do anything properly. I was so focused on hanging in there in the course that I haven’t retained the information.

I also don’t go back because I’m angry. Why is this the only way for me to get my bike licence? Why must I have to subject myself to two days of shouty men telling me off while blokes on fast bikes show me how out of my depth I am? What kind of learning environment is that? And meanwhile, I feel bad for being upset about it. The pamphlet said they would shout, I have no right to complain.

But how much better would it be if there was another option? One where I could learn at my own pace, with classmates who shared my lack of experience. With gentle support from instructors who praise you when you get it right, and kindly explain what you do wrong. Who take the time to go over it until you’ve got it in your head. What I would give for a friendly voice saying, “C’mon Sky, you’ve got this. Let’s go over here and practice that technique a couple more times before we go inside.”

I would happily wait many months for a class like that. 

Or what about a mentor who can supply a scooter and ride with me in quiet backstreets once a week until I get my skills and confidence to a certain level? A log book system that ensures I am ready for going solo on the roads? That’s how we learn to drive a car, yet with a bike, which is much more dangerous to a rider who comes off it, you’re on your own from day one.

I’m left with the feeling the training is really designed for men – men who are eager and already confident, who are assumed to take to the road like fish to water, to be able to ride in everyday traffic in any weather conditions, with only the barest of training. Not for overly cautious women who just want to go for a little ride on sunny days. Maybe that’s okay. I’m not the target audience. But it’s men who are dying on our roads. Young men, particularly. It’s men who are known to take bigger risks, to be overconfident and minimise their vulnerability. 

And it’s scary to think that, if I had passed – if I had stopped the scooter quickly enough, if I had used the other foot – I could then legally ride a 650cc motorbike with zero experience (having achieved my licence on a scooter). And if I wasn’t so careful, if I was younger and more daring, if I underestimated the risks or lost concentration for a split second, I could so easily become another tragic road statistic.

Surely we can do better than that?

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