Learning Curves

Well known for its annual ‘Ute Muster’, the NSW town of Deniliquin can now add an effective safety program for young drivers to its achievements.

Paul and Jenny Fellows operate Fellows Bulk Transport based in the Riverina town of Deniliquin and both have demonstrated a long and passionate commitment to road safety.

Their company has been a member of the TruckSafe program for 20 years, winning the ATA’s prestigious John Kelly Memorial Award in 2016.

Paul currently serves as the Chair of TruckSafe. Jenny has been a leading instigator of a community-based road safety program directed at learner drivers which gained national recognition when it received an Australian Road Safety Foundation award in 2020.

The idea to establish a local road safety training program for young people initially came from within the Fellows family.

“Our eldest son is now a commercial pilot, but when he was 16 and learning to fly he was a learner driver as well and we were travelling over to Shepparton every Saturday for flying lessons and I was also teaching him to drive,” says Jenny.

“His flight instructor had been flying for 40 years and it is so specific how they do the training in the aviation industry. There are less pilots in the sky than there are car drivers on the road, so I thought this is crazy — we need to align ourselves with the air industry more and have professional driving instruction. So I came back to the High School and spoke with the principal.”

The concept grew from there and for the first three or four years the activities were mostly opportunistic and arranged at short notice with 16 participants in the first year, doubling to 32 in the second.

The program has since evolved significantly and has been running in its current week long format for the past 11 years.

Normally 80-90 students participate and despite COVID in 2021, 65 students from four local high schools participated.

It’s mostly a farming community so many children have the fundamental ability in driving of even heavy machinery from their early teens.

“Some parents were saying well, these kids can drive and they don’t need additional training,” says Jenny. “But they did and roads are very different.”

As interest in the idea grew, to achieve credibility and recognition the Driver Education Committee was set up as a sub-committee of the Deniliquin High School Parents and Citizens Association (P&C).

“We wanted to capture the Year 10 learner drivers so we needed to get people from the different organisations and I thought what better way to get people involved than its stake holders in road safety,” says Jenny. Regardless of the size of a school, P&Cs generally have a core group of people who shoulder the majority of the tasks. “I thought we can’t get these people to do any more than they already do, so we need to find a different set of people, so I spoke to a policeman, who said ‘yes’ immediately,” Jenny recalls.

“He was fantastic. Then we got an ambulance officer onboard and it grew from there.”

The program, which delivers a holistic approach across multiple safety factors, is now included in the school’s curriculum.

These include professional driver, motorcycle and ATV rider instruction, drug and alcohol prevention, mental health and well-being, as well as personal security.

Being a ‘river’ town, maritime safety is covered as well.

“We’ve had some very good principals over the years, and we have this incredible committee that has ebbed and flowed but there are people who have stayed in there right from the beginning,” says Jenny.

The Police officers and emergency services such as the local Volunteer Rescue Association, were keen to include a realistic mock accident exercise to show the mental and physical trauma associated with road accidents and the processes involved, from the initial emergency call, first aid and extraction of the casualties, and the ensuing work of the Police Accident Investigation unit.

The week provides an excellent platform for the students to interact with various emergency services personnel including the Highway Patrol, which was represented in 2021 by senior officers from both sides of the MSW-Victoria border.

“It’s good for them to interact with the people in uniform and see they are actually people and that attending road accidents involving young people affects them too,” says Jenny.

The ATA’s SafeT 360 education unit attends for the duration and utilises virtual reality to educate novice drivers about truck blind spots and sharing the road with heavy vehicles.

A practical exercise on truck stopping distances has had a profound effect on most students when they realise just how much space a loaded truck needs to pull up safely.

The driver program includes a mock accident with first responders.

The efforts of the organisers in the early days has led to the current situation in which the program smoothly operates.

“It’s beyond my idea now, it’s a driving force in itself,” says Jenny. “We’ve had this amazing group of people and everybody brings something to the table, most just quietly. Everyone now seems to have succession plans, so if they think they may be leaving the committee they’ll have somebody else organised.”

Everyone involved does so on a voluntary basis, with even the ambulance people participating on their days off. Participating students pay just a nominal $50 for the week.

The Committee raises additional funds at the annual Deni Ute Muster by doing breathalyser testing, the proceeds going to support the cost of providing a free professional driving lesson after the students have finished the week-long program.

“To make it self-funding over the years we have applied for and received grants for items such as the breath-testing units. The parents and the kids see the benefits of having professional lessons, so we’ve broken down that barrier,” Jenny explains. “The aim of the week is to be able to educate our young learner drivers to the level that they can make safer choices on our roads. And if we get one kid to think about making a better choice it’s worth every second. It’s a responsibility to have a licence, a responsibility to yourself, your family and your community to stay safe in yourself and be safe around others. It’s worth the efforts of putting the week together for that change in attitude.”

Students are encouraged to join the local car club which has been a great supporter of the program.

There are many unsealed roads out of town and the car club grounds allows the students to become skilled on dirt surfaces in a controlled environment.

The local council even constructed a hill so they can perfect their hill start techniques.

“The Road Safety Foundation Award has given us national recognition and opened a lot of doors because we want to share this program with everybody,” says Jenny. “We’re not saying we do the best thing but everybody can do something in their own community. We can provide the basic template and I’m happy to visit them. It took us three to four years to get through the red tape to set up, so if I can short-cut somebody’s community efforts with that I’m more than happy to do that.”

As a leader in her own community Jenny Fellows exhibits a somewhat maternal attitude towards the program’s participants.

“The first six months on ‘Ps’ is the most dangerous and some of them do get cocky and will push the limits,” she says. “But these kids are great. I don’t think they realise how precious they are.”