It takes a pretty brave person to sit in the passenger seat with a learner driver sans dual controls, but Larry Webb doesn't get nervous. Besides, after years of training many hundreds of learner drivers in all types of vehicles, he's a master at grabbing the wheel and steering the vehicle through precarious situations.
Larry, 82, has volunteered as a driving instructor at People Potential since the Whangarei-based education services provider began its Driving Mentoring Programme three years ago.
"I've been driving all my life and retired a couple of years ago and thought, 'Well I'm not just going to sit around and do nothing'. I thought I'd use my experience and qualifications to help other people," says Larry.
Larry's own driving career spans almost 70 years and began, aged 15, when he delivered groceries around Whangarei in a van. A later job involved transporting the steel over the Auckland Harbour Bridge during the construction of the side clip-ons. Amongst many other driving occupations, he was a tour driver in both Australia and New Zealand, a highway patrol officer for the Ministry of Transport, and owned his own driving school, involving trucks, buses, motorbikes and cars, where he also trained driving instructors. More recently he was a casual bus driver before retiring.
So, with all this experience under his belt, Larry put his hand up to pass on his knowledge to 16-24-year-olds, who don't have access to registered vehicles or mentors.
"I want to see people get ahead. The Whangarei driving schools do an excellent job but I just feel that the students need that extra bit of help. There's more volume of traffic on the roads these days and cars are faster, a lot of young kids today can't handle the speed because, as we understood at Victim Support (where Larry also volunteered for years), your brain doesn't develop until your 20s.
"I was a voluntary fireman for years and have seen some shocking scenes. I don't like seeing people get hurt or killed on the roads."
One would think, going from a driving school, where cars are equipped with their own passenger pedals, to sitting in the passenger seat unaided, would be unnerving, but Larry is not fazed. There's been plenty of times when he has had to reach over and grab the wheel.
"I always tell my students to hold the steering wheel up high in case I have to grab it. I've stood on the step of the bus and grabbed hold of the steering wheel when the guy said he couldn't go across the bridge. When you're sitting left of the person and trying to steer a vehicle, you have to have some sort of knowledge how to gauge the distance."
Although Larry or his students have never caused an accident – "I never let it get to that point" – he's had his fair share of close calls himself; he once was transporting a bus-full of passengers down Arthur's Pass when the brakes collapsed.
"I only had a split second to think; I could either go over the edge of the ravine and kill everybody onboard or take the one-way bridge, where a small car with two girls was coming towards me."
He opted for the latter and the collision caused the car to spin around sideways where the rubber tyres acted as a buffer, enabling the bus to stop.
Thankfully, no one was hurt although a shaken Larry later collapsed on the road.
Teaching driving is in art in itself, Larry believes. "You've got to teach people to control the vehicle. Don't let the car control you – you tell the car what to do. I won't put them on the road until I think they're safe."
Larry's lack of nerves seems to have a flow-on effect to his students.
"It just becomes a second nature. The students all get out and say they don't feel so nervous now. I love when they come back and say to me that they really enjoyed it and can they come out with me again. It really gives me a lift.
"I'm working harder now than before I retired but I don't mind doing it because I want people to be safe on the roads."