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By Maureen Bishop

For almost 32 years David O’Donnell has been teaching drivers the theory behind driving defensively – and all of it voluntarily.

Now he has decided it is time to retire and enjoy more spare time.

The tutoring role began back in 1985 in Alexandra when he was working for the Ministry of Works.

As a government employee, he had contact with traffic officers within the Ministry of Transport and got them to conduct a defensive driving course with his workmates.

A close encounter with a 40-tonne truck also convinced him of the need to drive defensively.

He was driving on a road across the Clyde dam during its construction when he noticed a cloud of dust, signalling another vehicle, although he couldn’t tell which way it was travelling.

He slowed and pulled over on the narrow road, as near as possible to a bank, but the truck came round the corner and had nowhere to go other than over the top of his vehicle. Luckily it landed on the deck and not the cab.

Mr O’Donnell was asked to become a tutor for the course, and so began his long involvement.

He took his skills and experience with him when he moved to Invercargill and again spread the message of the benefits of driving defensively.

While in Invercargill the course moved from being administered by the Ministry of Transport to the Automobile Association.

A move to Ashburton in 1992 saw him get a couple of months away from the tutoring role until he met the late Trevor Hyde, who worked for the AA maintaining its road signs. Again he was asked to facilitate courses.

“The late Ralph Benny was taking courses but he was sick and he asked if I would do a couple of sessions for him – and I’m still here,” he said.

“I’ve had a fair innings but I think the time is right to go.

“The cost of retraining was one of the things that made me decide to retire.”

In earlier days there were also classes for young drivers, working through the road code to give them the knowledge to get a driver’s licence.

In Ashburton, the Ashburton District Road Safety Council, a group of volunteers who promoted road safety education conducted the defensive driving courses. It also ran road safety campaigns such as intersection safety, an off road driving course and courses for mature drivers and worked with partners to provide rest stops for drivers and on the community alcohol action projects.

For about 25 years Mr O’Donnell has been its president, but with very few members, it too is looking at winding up.

He was involved in many of the campaigns and was often the person towing toilets or caravans out to the Dromore Corner for fatigue stops or to the Ashburton Airport for the off road course.

When he first began tutoring, the young drivers attending classes were as young as 15 years of age. Now following the introduction of a graduated licensing system, they can be 17.

“Raising the age has made a huge difference in things like vocabulary skills and their thinking. I wasn’t in favour of raising the age because of the difficulties in a farming community, but I have changed my mind and I think it is the best thing they ever did,” Mr O’Donnell said.

“At 17 they are much more mature.”

Mr O’Donnell will continue with his employment as a water ranger with the Ashburton District Council.