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7.41 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) for raising these issues and I congratulate him on securing the debate. I am pleased to see so many hon. Members in the House for this short but important debate. The hon. Gentleman said that the House is the right place to raise these matters, and I agree.

Our plan is to introduce a modern, computer-based assessment into the supervision arrangements for existing driving instructors. This new assessment comprises a knowledge-based test of driving theory and instruction, plus a hazard perception test.

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The hazard perception test is now a key element of the way in which we assess drivers, driving instructors and driving examiners. We have already introduced it into the professional process for car drivers, lorry drivers, bus drivers, motor cyclists, new instructors and Driving Standards Agency examiners. Virtually everybody who drives a vehicle, including those involved with either teaching or examining students, is involved.

On the point made by the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) about instructors' competence, of course if they are competent they will pass the exam.

Sue Doughty: I thank the Minister for making that comment, but what worries me is that it is the most experienced and highly trained drivers, driving instructors and police drivers who are failing the test, which is why I have a concern about whether the test was taken by competent drivers in order to obtain feedback on it.

Mr. Jamieson: I shall cover that point as I develop my speech.

We plan to bring the test into the standards-supervision arrangements for existing examiners. Extending it to existing instructors will help their standards maintenance and professionalism, and should present no problems for experienced and motivated instructors.

We are introducing the measure to ensure that when the public buy driving lessons—it is the public, and often young people, who are buying these lessons whom we want to protect—they can have the confidence that whichever driving instructor they choose will have high standards of safety-critical skills and of hazard perception, be familiar with how the hazard perception test works, and have kept up to date with the knowledge and understanding underpinning the learning-to-drive syllabus. The result will be a driving instructor profession better placed to deliver high-quality instruction to the public.

Improving the way in which drivers are trained is a vital plank in our road safety target of reducing by 40 per cent. the number of people killed or seriously injured in road traffic accidents. In 2002, 3,210 car drivers aged under 25 were killed or seriously injured. Nowadays, it is seldom the vehicle that causes the accident; it is usually the person behind the wheel. We know that 95 per cent. of traffic accidents are caused by some form of driver error.

Candidates are coming forward for their driving test insufficiently well prepared. The pass rate that is being achieved by learner car drivers for the overall theory test is 63 per cent; the pass rate for the practical test is around 43 per cent.

We recognise the important contribution that professional driving instructors can make to delivering higher driving standards and to road safety, but that depends on their having the right skills and operating at the right standards. Many instructors on the statutory register qualified before 2002, when the modern hazard perception test was introduced for drivers and instructors generally.

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The new assessment that we are introducing for existing instructors has two parts: first, the multi-choice test of knowledge and understanding of driving and instruction; and secondly, the moving image hazard perception test. Both parts are of value for a standards check of instructors that is additional to the on-road driving test check that has been carried out over many years. The knowledge test draws on a question bank of more than 900 questions, which was updated in 2002 in the light of higher European standards set for drivers. The larger question bank sets a more comprehensive syllabus than the theory test taken when those instructors originally qualified, and it is in the public domain as a learning resource.

The hazard perception test draws on more than 10 years of research showing that hazard perception skills are associated with accident liability. Poor hazard perception skills are linked with poor scanning and anticipation. Those skills improve as experience is gained, although the process can be accelerated by focused training. The research also shows that skill levels can be reliably assessed using computer-based testing.

We have independent evidence that some instructors are not offering their students the support that they should for the hazard perception test that all learner drivers face. Some candidates in a group that was contacted last year said that their instructors had given them little or no advice about what to study or how to practise in preparation for their test, and complained that their instructor lacked knowledge not only of the content of the test, but of the test format. One of them said:

that is, the hazard perception test. Another said:

There were also some very complimentary remarks about driving instructors who had prepared their students well.

Mr. Heath: I am glad that the Minister balanced those views. However, he is describing a failure of tuition technique, not of driving technique. I would be far more confident if the new measures enhanced tuition technique instead of simply testing a mechanical and behavioural skill that drivers should have already.

Mr. Jamieson: The students were complaining about the lack of knowledge and understanding of the hazard perception test by their instructors, who, not having taken the test, were not in a position to discuss it and to give assistance to pupils.

By adding the computer-based assessment to the instructor qualification arrangements, we have already ensured that new instructors are familiar with the content and nature of the tests that their pupils will be taking. We now want to ensure that all instructors have the opportunity to gain a first-hand empathy for what their pupils have to undertake.

There is nothing novel about driving instructors being reassessed. The statutory registration scheme for professional instructors has always provided for periodic check-testing of their continued competence. The new feature is our plan to use the technology at our

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disposal to undertake the standards check in an effective and efficient manner, thus minimising the compliance costs felt by instructors.

Consequently, all instructors will be assessed objectively on the same benchmark, regardless of when they were registered.

We are focusing on the initiative to avoid unnecessary burdens. Instructors who passed a hazard perception test as part of their qualifying exam will be exempt from the assessment. We do not expect professional driving instructors to have problems meeting the standard in the assessment. We have kept them informed about the nature and content of all the current theory tests for learner drivers or potential instructors.

We are ensuring that instructors will have the learning resources that they need to perform at their best in the new assessment. We decided, against the advice of some in the driving instructor profession, to publish the question bank from which the knowledge part of the theory test is drawn. Driving instructors expressed considerable opposition to publishing the bank of questions to which they could be exposed.

We plan to send copies of the question bank to driving instructors free of charge when they are called to take the new assessment. In addition, last year, we gave all professional driving instructors a copy of the "Roadsense" hazard perception video and workbook pack free of charge in the run-up to the introduction of the new test in November 2002. An interactive "Roadsense" DVD and other preparation materials are also available.

The availability of the question bank and the hazard perception preparation materials means that driving instructors can engage in the learning process in a focused fashion. After all, the test is only a validation on the day of the all-important learning process. It is the preparation that counts.

The preparation aids will support driving instructors. The aids and their professional experience mean that they are well placed to perform to a high standard in the new, computer-based assessment. The pass marks for the hazard perception and multiple choice question parts of the new assessment will be the same as for those who seek to qualify as driving instructors.

The pass mark for the hazard perception element will be 57 out of 75, which is higher than the mark for learner drivers. We would expect that. After all, one would generally expect the teacher to get a higher mark than the pupil in a test. If that did not happen, we would be surprised.

We first consulted about introducing a hazard perception assessment, including for existing driving instructors, in December 2001. When we announced the results of that consultation in September 2002, we set a date of November 2002 for introducing the hazard perception test generally and said that we would hold further consultation about existing driving instructors.

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We issued a further consultation document to industry bodies and other interested parties in April 2003 and announced our decisions in December. I believe that we have taken great care to gather opinions on that important topic. We shall introduce regulations, which provide for the new assessment of existing instructors, as soon as practicable. I believe that that will happen towards the end of the year.

Some instructors have suggested that they might not be as experienced in using a computer as learner drivers and that they might therefore find the computer-based assessment difficult. I assure hon. Members that the theory test was designed specifically to take account of varying computer aptitude. One does not have to be a computer wizard to take the test. That has been shown by the number of new drivers who have taken and passed the test.

The clips in the hazard perception test show various potential hazards, including other motor vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians, for each candidate to identify. Each clip contains at least one hazard, although there may be more, and each test includes a mixture of hazards. I contend that it is not a game. If it was, why did the instructors' organisations support it for learner drivers and new instructors? I have seen it and it is a serious piece of apparatus that raises standards.

Let me deal with the important issue of livelihood. I acknowledge that the driving instructor profession feels threatened by the initiative. We do not take removing people's livelihood lightly.

I can therefore announce today that we have amended our plans, to help to smooth their introduction. Instructors will have up to two years, rather than the one year that we originally planned, to pass the new assessment. This will remove any reason for instructors finding it difficult to schedule the assessment. We will not, as we originally planned, impose a limit of a maximum of three attempts to pass this new test. This will remove any excuse that a person might be unsuccessful because they initially found difficulty with the computer-based nature of the assessment. The first attempt will still be free of charge, but there will be a charge for any subsequent attempts at the test.

The public who pay instructors for their driving lessons have a justifiable expectation that proper standards are being maintained. I hope that I have been able to demonstrate our commitment not only to improving road safety but to the public, so that they can be assured and confident about the quality of professional driver training services available to them. In conclusion, this measure is good for the driving training profession, good for their trainees and good for road safety.

Question put and agreed to.

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