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Father regrets putting son behind the wheel

The father who filmed his seven-year-old son driving the family vehicle down a quiet country road says he regrets letting young Samuel take the wheel, but he doesn't understand the uproar the stunt triggered.

Sylvain Fortier maintains that his son's drive with four passengers was safe, even if the boy could just barely reach the pedals.

Mr. Fortier said his life has been hell since the video emerged, but he's prepared to face the consequences of the police investigation.

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"I just wish people would stop making it out to be worse than it was. They're treating me as if I killed someone, it just doesn't make any sense," Mr. Fortier said in a phone call to Quebec TV news station LCN.

"How many parents have their kids drive in the middle of a city, a street, where there's traffic? There were no cars, no traffic."

The child never broke 40 kilometres an hour, Mr. Fortier said, contrary to his narration of the video clip where he bragged that the boy hit 70.

The drive took place two years ago, said Mr. Fortier, whose family lives in a small town north of Montreal. He posted the video on the Internet because he was proud of his son's driving skill.

His wife, who was against the stunt, is not so happy. "My wife is upset, my kids are crying, this is hell," he said.

The debate over the incident may be cast in a different light after provincial police said late Tuesday that they are investigating the death on Sunday of a five-year-old boy who was apparently crushed by a farm tractor driven by a seven-year-old in Quebec's Abitibi region.

While most people agree that 7 is too young to drive a car filled with family members, without seat belts, down a public road, opinion on underage driving is separated by a gulf between rural and urban Canada.

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In the city, collective wisdom seems to frown on letting an underage person behind the wheel in any circumstances.

Out in the country, legions of parents quietly take children younger than 15 out for clandestine driving lessons, and many elementary-school-aged children regularly pilot powerful all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles.

Last year, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall drew criticism from opposition parties, but shrugs from everybody else, when he admitted giving his 14-year-old daughter a driving lesson on a back road. Underage driving is illegal in Saskatchewan, but it's also an accepted part of life, especially on farms.

The defiant Premier said he'd be repeating the lesson.

Dennis Coffey, a driving instructor for 18 years from Carlyle, Sask., said he can tell seconds into the first lesson which students have had some underage experience. The ones who have driven before are often much safer drivers, he said.

"It improves them immensely, as long as the driving was closely supervised, preferably in a field or somewhere quiet," Mr. Coffey said.

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"They learn what's going on, where the controls are, it helps them to figure out what happens when you hit the gas or turn the steering wheel. Everybody out here does it, but you have to do it with discretion."

Mr. Coffey said children with learner's permits whose nervous parents won't allow them to drive are a much bigger problem. Many inexperienced drivers turn 16 and are unleashed on the highway with no supervision and little clue about what to do.

The incident taped on a forest road in Quebec's North Shore, however, is clearly way over the line, even in forgiving rural Saskatchewan, Mr. Coffey said.

But standards are shifting there, too. Donald George was eight years old in 1978 when his father was ill and the boy insisted on plowing all the family farmland in southeastern Saskatchewan.

He drove the tractor on weekends and for hours after school each day, although he never drove on public roads. His mother monitored him by radio. He stresses that nobody pushed him to do the fall cultivating: "Mom says she just couldn't keep me off the tractor."

A neighbour once called at the farmhouse to report a runaway tractor rolling down a field. She just couldn't see young Donald driving it.

"I barely remember any of it," said Mr. George, now a professional truck driver. "It's kind of ridiculous, when you think back on it."

Today, Mr. George can't fathom his seven-year-old son mowing the lawn or herding cattle, let alone driving a multi-tonne tractor or the family car.

"I just can't see it, I would have no confidence at all," he said, adding that his wife might kill him if he allowed it.

Mr. George does take his 13-year-old daughter out for the occasional low-speed drive across a pasture or down a back road.

But he says some of his neighbours still allow younger children to operate tractors and trucks. Many of those children joined their fathers for 14-hour days on the tractor before they could walk, he said.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Les Perreaux joined the Montreal bureau of the Globe and Mail in 2008. He previously worked for the Canadian Press covering national and international affairs, including federal and Quebec politics and the war in Afghanistan. More

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