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Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Canning Town): I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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Newly Qualified Drivers

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

1.55 pm

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West): These are difficult and challenging times for us all and I wish that the subject of this Adjournment debate could lift our spirits, but the House will soon recognise that it is a very sad tale that I have to share.

There can be nothing worse than losing one's children. Tragically, on the morning of 26 August, two families were devastated when three young men were killed in horrific traffic accident. Two brothers, Glen and Gary Dineen, and Mark Baker ploughed into an electricity transformer. Their car exploded and they were killed. No one knows precisely how the accident happened.

Let me say at the outset that I have no intention of blaming anyone for the cause of this accident. I am simply concerned that the two families who now have to cope with this tragedy should be reassured that this mother of all democracies will take the matter seriously. They realise that they are not unique; this has happened to many families before. However, I want to reassure them that the House is minded to consider the proposal that has been made by one of the fathers involved.

Mr. Henry Baker—the father of Mark—came to my surgery a few weeks ago and shared with me his ideas for trying to change the circumstances in which driving licences are granted, so that such a tragedy could never happen again. I know that the Minister is sympathetic to some of the points that I shall now share with him.

Mr. Baker has organised a petition, which I shall present to the House in a few weeks' time. It is headed "Help Save Young Lives", and goes on to state:

I think that I will carry the House with me when I say that it is remarkable that this father has set about trying to do something positive as a result of this tragedy. I certainly applaud him in all his endeavours.

I have been furnished with a great deal of information on this subject and, as ever, I am grateful to the House of Commons Library for the information that it has gathered for me. I must admit that I had not been aware that this was recently the subject of an exchange of views in the other House. I had not realised that quite a number of hon. Members are interested in the subject too, but I suppose that I am on my feet now only because of personal circumstances in a constituency. I hope that some good will come of it.

I am informed by the Library that, during the 1990s, many states in the United States of America—I know that it is a much troubled country at the moment—moved to a system of graduated driver licensing. If the House is not familiar with it, under that system the driver moves gradually to full licensing.

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There are three stages: a minimum supervised learner's period; an intermediate licence once the driving test is passed that limits unsupervised driving in high-risk situations; and a full licence available after completion of the first two stages. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in the United States has produced a blueprint for graduated licensing. The minimum age for a provisional licence is 16; some states have lower minimum ages but I certainly would not advocate that for this country. The learner stage lasts at least six months, during which parents must certify at least 30 to 50 hours of supervised driving. The intermediate stage lasts until at least 18 years of age and includes a night driving restriction starting at 9 or 10 pm and a strict teenage passenger restriction allowing no teenage passengers, or no more than one.

I fully realise that, if the House were to agree to such a scheme, it would be very difficult to enforce—we need only consider the fact that the law relating to curfews at night for youngsters has never been brought into force. There are great difficulties, but I personally have always been in favour of identity cards. I am proud to say that three ten-minute Bills in my name deal with identity cards. Indeed, the one to bring in a voluntary system was not divided on in the House—the first time ever that that had happened. This is a wonderful time for us to revisit the matter. It would be useful in changing the requirements for young people to have licences.

I know that the Minister is pleased that the Transport Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs conducted an inquiry into standards and training of young drivers in 1999. I am a member of the Select Committee on Health. Our Select Committees do wonderful work. However, I sometimes despair. The time that we have on the Floor to debate these issues is under pressure. I wonder sometimes whether the reports, which are worth while and contain evidence from expert witnesses, are given sufficient time for us really to consider the conclusions and then perhaps legislate.

The Automobile Association mentioned the findings of a British study on the peer group effect in its memorandum of evidence to the Select Committee. It said:

this is the crux of the matter—

a large percentage—

I have five children, the oldest of whom are 17 and 16, and I know that everything that I am now sharing with the House will go down like a lead balloon with them—but when this House legislates it should take not what we believe to be popular measures, but the measures that we feel are right and proper. If we feel that it is right and proper to tackle this issue, we should.

All the figures prove that when youngsters first pass their driving tests and go out with fellow youngsters, without more experienced people, they are more likely to have an accident. There is no argument about that fact,

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which is reinforced by a second study that examined in detail the differences between the safest and the least safe drivers in the original sample. There is little evidence that the position has changed in the 10 years since then; if anything it has got slightly worse. Later I shall talk briefly about mobile phones, whose use by very young people is aggravating the situation.

Another AA Foundation study by Reading university, although concentrating primarily on gender differences in road safety, highlighted the effect of age as greater than the effect of gender. Young drivers—usually those of our own fair sex, Mr. Deputy Speaker—drive faster and closer to the car in front. There is no doubt about that, whether it is testosterone or anything else that causes it. They overtake more riskily, they pull out into shorter gaps and they enjoy speed and sensation seeking.

There is little evidence to suggest shortcomings in young drivers' mechanical ability to drive, and much evidence that a risky driving manner is chosen, rather than caused by poor training or technique. None of us wants to criticise our driving instructors or driving schools.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): I strongly agree. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I do a lot of work in the House in connection with death on the roads. Young people take people such as Michael Schumacher as their role models. Michael Schumacher is a brilliant driver, but we cannot use his skills on the road. We need to emphasise more and more strongly the point that for road safety a different style of driving is necessary from that used for going fast on properly designed tracks.

Mr. Amess: I agree heartily with the hon. Gentleman, who has long had an interest in that matter. Is it not tragic when these young people are killed, and all their friends turn up and are devastated? I suppose politicians are not necessarily the right role models for young people, as we saw during the general election, with the very low level of interest. It would be wonderful if we could find some real role models whom young people could connect with, to say that speeding is not a macho thing to do. I fully acknowledge the role that the hon. Gentleman has played in that regard.

The peer group effect is also reinforced in that: the presence of young male passengers leads young drivers, both male and female, to drive faster, and there is no doubt that the presence of female passengers leads to slower speeds for drivers of both sexes.

I am grateful for some information from the RAC—a valuable briefing prepared for me by the British School of Motoring. It says that there have been recent reductions in the number of road casualties, and I congratulate both this Government and the previous Government on everything that has been done to bring those about. When my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley), who is part of one of the husband and wife teams in the House, was a Transport Minister, that was always in the forefront of his mind. Last year, however, we still suffered more than 3,400 deaths. We are devastated by the events in the United States of America, yet the figure of 3,400 just trips off the tongue. The lives of all the families involved will never be the same again. There were also 38,155 serious injuries last year and more than 278,000 slight injuries. Those are huge numbers. The House would do well to deliberate on those tragic figures and come to some positive conclusions on how to deal with the problem.

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It is a regrettable fact that a disproportionate number of those statistics relate to young, relatively inexperienced drivers and riders. Drivers aged between 17 and 21 account for only 7 per cent. of the driving population, yet they are involved in 13 per cent. of all injury accidents. If we are to meet the Government's casualty reduction targets, which I fully support, a strong focus on the new driver is vital, and I know that the Minister wants to pursue that matter.

Methods of addressing the safety of new drivers must start before they are of driving age. My wife would be the best person to ask about my driving skills. I have never pretended to be a wonderful driver. The other day, a Scottish lady of 100 who had been driving for more than 70 years had her first road accident. I applaud her. When people say that they have never had a road accident, I do not know whether that means that they have not been damaged or whether they are ignoring the fact that they may have inadvertently caused accidents. However, from what I observe on the roads, the overall standard of driving is not wonderful.

As someone born in London, I have seen how traffic congestion has developed. Nowadays if we stop at traffic lights—which is a requirement—when the lights change from red to green, unless we take off immediately we are likely to get tooted. The impatience of other drivers is appalling. I do not want to bore the House with my views on mobile phones again, but the situation is completely out of control. I drove in from Southend, and when I was stuck in traffic I could see any number of people with their mobile phones hooked underneath their arm, turning corners, with no regard for what was happening. Everyone seems to be doing it. I do not know whether there are enough police officers to enforce the law in this regard, but I can see very serious accidents resulting from the use of mobile phones.

The British School of Motoring believes that methods of addressing the safety of new drivers must start before they are of driving age. We need to reconsider the requirements for getting a driving licence. Skill and reaction times are very little to do with the driving performance of new drivers. Their attitude to owning and driving a car is key. According to the British School of Motoring, these youngsters, by reason of their age, feel invulnerable and capable of anything, yet they lack the experience necessary to function on the road.

Pre-driver education focusing on attitude—such as the British School of Motoring courses "Ignition" and "Signal", which have recently received funding from the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions—is a vital component in what must be a multi-agency approach.

Road safety should be a feature of the school curriculum. Courses designed to improve risk awareness and hazard perception are of the greatest importance, and provide an opportunity to influence the attitude of potential drivers. The pressurised environment in schools currently means that too often road safety is unfortunately glossed over. It appears that the portion of time given to road safety is inadequate, given the number of deaths and injuries that I have described, especially compared with the amount of time that is spent on talking about drug or alcohol abuse.

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Once formal driving tuition has begun, it is vital that it is structured and balanced between tuition and practice. Tuition needs to be delivered in a structured way by properly trained instructors employing all the latest techniques. Practice needs to be facilitated in a safe environment and should be linked to the tuition received from the instructor.

The current test regime fails the candidate; once they have passed there is no formal requirement to take any further tuition. I can hear the howls of my constituents, as they say, "Goodness, David, you want to call us all in for another driving test, you want to have our ability questioned and you want us to be monitored." All I am saying is that the current arrangements are inadequate. If my constituents have attended the funeral of someone killed in a road accident, it might make them think again about being retested.

New drivers may have driven only 600 miles or so, yet they are able to drive anywhere, with anyone, without further assessment. A graduated licence system would be a logical step forward. It could prohibit the novice driver from driving a car with more than a modest engine capacity for six months. The number of passengers could be restricted. Obviously, I am aware of all the difficulties in that, but the BSM believes that in a car driven by a newly qualified driver of 17, each extra male passenger increases the risk of an accident by 30 per cent. That is a huge increase. Restrictions could be placed on the use of motorways pending additional training. Training for driving in adverse weather conditions might be considered.

As the Minister knows too well, the graduation of licences is not a new idea. That approach is currenly taken in relation to motor cycles. The BSM believes that better driving skills and driver behaviour would make an enormous difference in reducing the number of road casualties. The way in which we train new drivers and the standards that we require from them need to relate to the demanding nature of driving. We must make sure that systems are in place to protect young people as they venture out on to the roads. The right attitude is vital, and it must encompass the issues of alcohol, drugs and fatigue. Above all, learning to drive in all its aspects must be relevant to today's road conditions.

I end with a final plea from Mr. Baker. He would like a graduated driver's licence. Phase 1 would be L-plates. There would be a written exam. He would like to see minimum professional driving tuition hours for a set period of six months to one year, the introduction of computer-based driving hazard simulator tuition to teach driving on motorways and dual carriageways, night driving, and driving in built-up areas. I certainly think young people would readily enjoy that. The final part of phase 1 would be that the driving test would include a simulated test.

The second phase would involve the use of a P-plate probationary licence. That would ease new drivers into high-risk driving exposure in low-risk settings. No passengers under 21 would be allowed. Night-time restrictions would apply between 9 pm and 5 am. Road and speed restrictions would apply, perhaps on motorway and A roads, for at least six months. Finally, to enable those criteria to be enforced, deterrent penalty points could be imposed and driving licences would be carried at all times.

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The final phase would involve issuing a full driving licence only after young drivers have gained experience for six months in a safer environment, when they should be more proficient at driving in high-risk areas.

I do not say this to criticise other right hon. and hon. Members, but all sorts of measures have been opposed since I have been a Member of Parliament. Hon. Members will recall that some Members opposed seat belts. I have never forgotten sitting next to my former colleague, Toby Jessel, who spoke from the Government Benches in a debate on a road safety measure. I did not quite understand what the measure involved, but he became very emotional. His only daughter was killed, as a child, in a road accident, and he was devastated by it. I simply use that example to show that, although the majority of adults, including hon. Members, understand the sense in what I have been advocating, a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House would oppose such legislation. If we are seriously to change the requirements, a Private Member's Bill would not be the correct way to proceed; a Government Bill would be necessary.

I know that the Minister and his colleagues genuinely want to do all they can to help. I know that he recognises how those two families have been devastated by the loss of those three young men, and I simply ask him to consider very carefully whether there is a way to agree on the issue and to change the law so that, I hope, there will never be another occasion on which an hon. Member has to address the House because of the deaths of young people on our roads.

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