Rats can be taught to drive, so why are so many humans still terrible at it?

Operating a vehicle's controls, and car control, are two very different levels of skill.

With the right design of controls, it's possible to teach seemingly simple animals to drive to a predetermined destination.

Rats for instance, can be taught to drive. When put inside what are essentially mobile cages the size of a child's toy - a bespoke creation that has copper bars which sense touch to make it move - rats raised in an enriched environment will learn how to drive to a destination they know has a reward (food). And then, even when the reward is later taken away, their ability to drive remains.

Driving and car control are not the same thing. Even rats can learn to drive. Photo: Shutterstock.

Driving and car control are not the same thing. Even rats can learn to drive. Photo: Shutterstock.

This demonstrates that operating a vehicle successfully enough to reach a desired destination is not difficult, at all. So don't be getting grand delusions about your ability simply because you happen to be a human.

Being able to control a vehicle even after the tyres have said "nope, sorry, we can't do this", is an entirely different level of ability, and a skill that it seems very few people have.

Ideally, those who have acquired such skill should also have the wherewithal to realise it should only be used in certain settings such as a competition, or recovering from an unexpected slide, or a major emergency like outrunning a bushfire, and not done on purpose on the street. This is because learning what a vehicle is generally capable and incapable of is best done in an environment where harmful (or vulnerable) obstacles are removed, and an instructor is explaining everything clearly (including the importance of driving calmly on public roads because the whole point of learning this is safety).

I've been out with driving instructors on tracks and skidpans and even dirt. I learned a lot from each of them, and years ago I got the opportunity to pass on a little of what I had been taught.

Back then, the car club I was part of in Sydney's inner-west trialled an initiative in cooperation with a private school to give learner-age students the chance to actually explore car control on the skidpan at Eastern Creek (now Sydney Motorsport Park).

I took a day off work to help out, and having recruited, trained and worked with teenagers in retail as a young adult, I quickly learned that teaching them car control was fundamentally the same as teaching them how to use a cash register and serve customers. By that I mean, start with something easy, and gradually increase the challenge.

Throughout each step, clearly explain and demonstrate what to do, get them to have a go when there are no consequences (so a pretend customer, or an empty wet concrete pad) and then go from there. You praise what they do well first, then kindly correct their errors, and get them to have another go. Just rinse and repeat (more praise, more kindly-delivered corrections), and progressively build up not just their ability and knowledge but also their respect and confidence.

On this occasion, in a matter of hours I had one 16-year-old girl controlling a BMW sedan around a witches hat course better than her parent, who was also in on the session.

However, before you get the wrong idea, she wasn't powersliding her way around like the clowns you see on TV, instead she was recognising, responding to and even anticipating minor losses of traction at the front or rear based on what the wheel in her hands, and the rest of her body in the seat, was telling her. Understanding, as well as experiencing the feel of, understeer and oversteer was our main focus, and teens can learn the basics rather swiftly when you engage their attention and give them the opportunity.

Now, at this point in time I already had the firm belief that electronic aids are a poor substitute for teaching the population how to actually control a vehicle themselves, but that day solidified this view in my mind.

Don't get me wrong, traction aids certainly help in an emergency or in a competition (real or simulated), but they should always be secondary to the driver's actual ability. It is also beyond my comprehension why the ability to actually control a vehicle, not just reach a destination, isn't a compulsory part of the learning experience in Australia like it is in some Nordic countries for instance.

Sam Hollier is an ACM journalist and a motoring fanatic who builds cars in his shed in his spare time.