Young drivers: Will Westminster follow Northern Ireland’s lead on driver training?

Learner driver plate on a blue car

The Northern Ireland Assembly is planning changes to driver training and testing. A Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill has been drafted and will have to progress through the Assembly's legislative process before the changes can come into effect.

Insurers in the UK are watching developments with keen interest. Many of the measures mooted for Northern Ireland are on the Association of British Insurer’s shopping list for reforms in this area – principal of which is the introduction of ‘graduated driver licensing’, where learners must demonstrate their improving capability before they achieve and retain a full licence. Some of the possible changes being considered in Northern Ireland include:

Applying for a provisional licence

  • you will be able to get a provisional licence at age 16 and a half
  • you will need to have a provisional licence for at least a year before you can sit your first practical test
  • you will not be able to get a full licence before you are 17 and a half.

Driving lessons

  • you may take lessons on motorways when you are accompanied by an Approved Driving Instructor in a dual-controlled car
  • you will no longer be required to drive at or below 45 mph as a learner or 'restricted' driver
  • your driving test will include driving on a wider range of roads at up to the posted speed limits
  • you must complete the new 'Learning to Drive' course and produce the student logbook, signed by your Approved Driving Instructor (ADI), before you sit your first practical test.

'New' drivers and riders

  • R plates will be replaced by N (for ‘New’ driver/rider) plates which you must display for two years
  • as a new driver (under 24 years old) you will not be allowed to carry passengers aged 14 to 20 (except immediate family members) during the first six months after you have passed your driving test and got your full licence
  • this restriction will not apply if there is a supervising driver (aged 21 years or older and who has held a full driving licence for three years) in the front passenger seat
  • there will be exemptions for appropriately trained emergency services drivers
  • you will have to take a remedial course if, as a new driver, you are at risk of having your licence revoked because you have accumulated six or more penalty points.

Progressive reforms

Commenting on the Bill, which was given its first reading this week, James Dalton, motor spokesman at the ABI, said: “This is a meaningful and progressive reform that sets an example for the… UK. For too long, politicians have failed to grasp the nettle of changing the young driver testing and training system. This not only fails young people but all road users. “While the reform in Northern Ireland falls short of the full measures the ABI is calling for, the Executive is to be applauded that, while Westminster sits on its hands, they have introduced a package of measures based on the international evidence that Graduated Driver Licensing works.”

Shock tactics

The ABI points to shocking statistics about young drivers to support its calls for reform of the rules in the UK:
  • the single biggest cause of accidental death of young people aged 15-24 is dying in a car
  • in 2012, 5,021 people were killed or seriously injured as a result of accidents involving at least one young car driver
  • 40% of 17-year-old males have an accident in their first six months of driving.
Dalton argues that premiums for young drivers will only fall significantly if steps are taken to improve safety: “Insurers want to see premiums for young drivers come down, but the only way this can happen is to help make them safer drivers. We want to ensure that the young drivers of today become the safer, older drivers of tomorrow.” The ABI is calling for the Westminster Government to introduce a package of reforms that would include:
  • introducing a 12-month minimum learning period
  • developing a more structured syllabus and introducing a restricted phase where there is a limit of the number of passengers a new driver can carry
  • the time of the day new drivers can drive
  • a lowering of the blood alcohol limit.

Night-time restrictions

It is the ABI’s call for a night-time curfew – between the hours of 11.00pm and 4.00am – that is missing from the reforms proposed in Northern Ireland. This restriction has drawn criticism on a number of fronts, including that it might affect the ability of young people to take jobs with anti-social hours. There are also concerns that drivers might be tempted to speed home if they driving in the hour before the curfew takes effect.

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