It’s 30 years since I passed my driving test. My little blue fiesta didn’t have power steering, it still had a manual choke to get it started and it didn’t have seat belts in the back. I have fond memories of dad taking me out to practice my driving in that car; of mastering hill starts, as well as the odd tantrum when I stalled the car so many times at a junction I got out and walked home, leaving dad to drive the car back!
When I learned to drive, the process was very different to how it is today; no theory or hazard perception test, no motorway driving allowed as part of the learning. If the driving examiner asked you a question about motorways at the end of the practical driving test you were pretty certain to have passed.
Today, young people have a much more stringent learning process to try and make them better and safer drivers when they pass their test and start to drive solo. But young people are still massively overrepresented in the casualty statistics. In the UK young people aged 17-24 years make up 7% of licence holders but account for 23% of killed and seriously injured casualties. One in five new drivers crashes within their first year on the road.
Why are so many young people involved in collisions in those early years of driving? It’s down to a combination of youth and inexperience. Their inexperience means they have less ability to spot hazards and are prone to errors of judgement. Their age means their brains aren’t fully developed until the mid to late twenties – this includes the parts of the brain which help to regulate impulsive decision making. This means young people are particularly likely to take risks which could lead to driving behaviours such as dangerous overtakes or speeding.
So, what more can be done to help our novice drivers become safer, experienced drivers?
The Safer Roads Partnership has developed a package of interventions for young people as they start to learn to drive and become new drivers. These include sessions around hazard perception, online theory practice, courses to help control young people’s impulsivity which could lead them to demonstrate risky driving behaviours, wellbeing advice and practical driving sessions to improve skills once young people have passed their test.
But these interventions will only do so much. Not every young person in South Yorkshire will be able to take part. Nationwide this is a problem, so we need to consider a national solution.
Many other countries around the world, faced with similar issues, have introduced what are called graduated driving licences for new drivers. This is a half-way house between a provisional licence and a full driving licence allowing new drivers to build up their skills and experience gradually in stages. Whilst being legally allowed to drive unsupervised, it would put restrictions on activities that are shown to put young drivers at additional risk such as driving at night or with lots of friends in the car. Alongside these sorts of proposals, a more rigorous learning process is introduced to ensure new drivers reach a higher standard before driving unsupervised. This could include a minimum number of supervised driving hours or increasing the driving test age to 18.
Evidence from countries like the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Sweden, who have introduced such measures, show that graduated driving licences have been hugely effective at reducing crashes and ultimately fatalities among young people. However, such proposals undoubtedly impact on the freedoms that young people today expect to have once they have passed their driving test.
I think the pain is worth the gain. So, I cheered when the Government published proposals in 2019 to improve safety on Britain’s roads which promised to explore a graduated driving licence system. However, a recent Transport Select Committee Report looking at road safety for young and novice drivers, published in March 2021, recommended that graduated driving licences should not be introduced. There were concerns following feedback from a small number of young people, who were consulted as part of the evidence gathering, which seemed to skew the outcomes. Of course, young people are anxious about the impact on their mobility as part of a graduated driving licence system. However, do they fully understand the additional risk they are facing as young and novice drivers? Young people are invincible, right? I think this was an opportunity missed to save casualties and fatalities and it’s disappointing.
The Government continues to undertake research and is looking at different ways to extend the learning-to-drive experience to decide on the best way forward to improve young driver safety. However, with the wealth of evidence from around the world on strengthening the licensing system, this feels like delaying the introduction of policies and processes which could help.
At the Safer Roads Partnership, we shall continue to do everything we can to engage with young drivers and try to influence their attitudes and behaviours to make them safer novice drivers. But I shall also continue to bang the drum for more national measures to be introduced. That is what will make the biggest difference. We must protect our young people and enable them to become the safer, experienced drivers of the future, able to reach their goals and ambitions and hopefully become advocates for a new way of learning to drive.
Until next time, stay safe.