With his father looking on anxiously from the back seat, 15-year-old Ronan Keene edges a £40,000 Range Rover over the brow of the mud-slaked hill before lifting off the brakes and tumbling down the other side.
It will be at least two years before Ronan can legally get behind the wheel of a car on British roads. But his driving of the mud-spattered SUV through an off-road obstacle course in west London is part of an increasing effort to tackle two problems facing the UK car industry: how to get more young people to buy cars, and how to make them safer drivers.
Drivers under the age of 24 account for just 5 per cent of all the miles driven in the UK, but are involved in 20 per cent of all serious accidents, according to data from the government, which is considering raising the age for a full licence to 19 as part of a plan to make roads safer.
That is a further blow to carmakers that are already under pressure from falling car sales to young people, as rising urbanisation, financial constraints and the high cost of insurance, which is leading many to question whether they really need, or can afford, their own vehicle.
“This gave me really great confidence that I can actually drive a car,” Ronan Keene told the FT. “Because I did practise today in one, it does make me want to buy a Range Rover. It’s the best car.”
He might be having fun now, but in two years’ time, he is a potential driver. And for Jaguar Land Rover and its carmaking rivals, a potential customer.
British manufacturer JLR is not alone in running events in the UK to both encourage excitement about getting behind the wheel and teach driving skills. Ford and Mercedes-Benz also run schools and courses for under 16-year-olds.
While overall car sales in the UK have risen steadily over the past couple of years, data suggest that young Britons are becoming less interested in driving.
The proportion of people in the UK under 20 years old with driving licences hit almost 50 per cent in 1993, according to government figures, but steadily slumped to 31 per cent by 2011. During the same period, the proportion of 21 to 29-year-olds holding a licence fell from 75 per cent to 63 per cent.
Cost is a major factor. The average price of motor insurance in the UK was almost 80 per cent higher in 2012 than in 2007, while today’s young people are grappling with the weak jobs market and the impact of university tuition fee repayments.
“More people are putting off learning to drive, one because of high insurance costs and two because they are finding that they do not need to drive until a little later,” said Edmund King, president of the AA.
“Fundamentally, young people do want to own cars, but for financial and other practical reasons, are putting it off longer. The love affair with the car is not over, it’s just being delayed slightly.”
A report from the Transport Research Laboratory last month suggested raising the test age to 18 from 17, with a 12-month probationary period including a night-time curfew and a ban on carrying young passengers.
The report, which is seen as influencing government proposals expected to be published before the end of the year, says its suggestions could save 4,471 deaths a year and £224 million in costs.
Such initiatives are already creeping into the car industry as a possible answer to boosting sales and safety. Some carmakers offer discounts to young people on cars fitted with a “black-box”, which can tell insurers how well they drive.
“Telematics is already teaching insurers a lot about the risks of insuring young drivers,” said Miguel Ortiz, partner and head of the London insurance practice at the Boston Consulting Group. “We’re seeing insurers offer young drivers policies with curfews that reduce premiums, and increase safety.”
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