Is it time young motorists had a graduated driving licence?

Crashes involving a young driver between the ages of 17 and 21 are taking a terrible toll on teenage passengers, according to the latest figures from the RAC Foundation.
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Last year, 234 teenage car passengers were killed or seriously injured when the young driver they were travelling with was involved in a crash. That’s more than four a week. If you include casualties of all severities, the figure is 2,144, or around 41 each week. It’s not just passengers that are caught in the wreckage. In 2013 there were 191 people under 24 killed and 20,003 injured as drivers and riders of cars and motorbikes, according to government data. The casualty figures are not only high, but they are also disproportionately high. Teenage drivers between the ages of 17 and 19 make up only 1.5% of full licence holders yet they are involved in 12% of accidents where someone is killed or seriously hurt.

Shocking statistics

The shocking statistics perhaps explain why road accidents are the biggest killer of young people in the UK, bigger than both alcohol and drugs. The latest figures have prompted renewed calls for the introduction of a graduated licensing system, where young drivers do not gain access to a full licence until they have acquired experience on the road. Professor Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation, said: “Graduated licensing has been common in many countries for some time and would help keep newly-qualified young drivers, and their passengers, safe during the critical first thousand miles after people have passed their test. “It is a tragedy it has not been introduced or even debated as a policy option.” Justin Tomlinson, the Conservative MP for North Swindon, tabled a Private Members Bill calling for a graduated licensing scheme in 2013, but it has since been parked. The coalition government also promised action but failed to deliver its Road Safety Green Paper.

Restricted activity

Graduated driver licensing restricts the activities of newly-qualified drivers and has proved effective in countries including Australia, Canada, New Zealand and United States.
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There is a wealth of evidence that the system is effective in reducing young driver casualties. For example, in New Zealand, car crash injuries reduced by 23% for 15-19 year olds and by 12% for 20-24 year olds following the introduction of graduated licensing. It’s a similar story in America where 16-year-old drivers were shown to have 37% fewer crashes per year and 17% fewer crashes per mile driven. It has been estimated that a graduated system in Great Britain would result in up to 114 fewer deaths and as many as 872 fewer serious injuries a year.

Staged process

Graduated licensing typically involves three stages. The first is the ‘learner’ period that lasts a minimum of 12 months. The ‘intermediate’ or ‘novice’ stage is next, usually with restrictions on passengers and driving at night. After a period of between six months and two years, the driver is awarded a full licence, though usually with age-based restrictions on alcohol limits.

Learning period

The Association of British Insurers (ABI) is a fan of graduated licensing and has put forward proposals for a minimum learning period for young drivers of one year. One in five newly-qualified young drivers will have an accident within six months of passing their test, so the ABI would also restrict the number of young passengers that can be carried by a young driver in the first six months after passing their driving test. This reflects the fact that the crash risk increases significantly with young passengers in the car – what might be termed the ‘larks and distractions’ problem. Plus, it would impose a zero alcohol limit and a driving curfew between 11pm and 4am during the first six months, although young drivers travelling to work or to their school or college would allowed to drive at night.

Reduced premiums

The ABI says the system would not only save lives, but would also cut insurance premiums.
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It calculates that the average motor premium paid by a 17-18 year old could fall by between 15-20%, a potential saving of up to £370 a year. Brake, the road safety charity, has put forward similar suggestions. It too calls for a minimum learning period of one year, with a minimum of 10 hours of professional tuition in a car with dual controls. Under the current system, drivers as young as 17 can become fully licensed in a few months or even weeks, and 89% of young drivers complete less than the recommended 40 hours of driving lessons before taking their test.

Passenger restrictions

When they have passed their test, Brake recommends that drivers hold a novice licence for two years with restrictions on young passengers, night-time driving, alcohol and the size of the car engine. Novice drivers would also be banned from driving on motorways. The charity also suggests that novice drivers be required to take a further 10 hours of professional tuition, during which they must drive on motorways and at night. They would then have to pass a second driving test at the end of the two-year period.

Public support

The public would seem to support graduated licensing. A recent survey by the RAC Foundation found that two thirds (68%) of adults and 41% of young drivers in the UK would back the introduction of a graduated system.

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