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Westminster Hall

Thursday 7 February 2008

[David Taylor in the Chair]

Novice Drivers

[Relevant documents: Seventh Report from the Select Committee on Transport, Session 2006-07, Novice Drivers, HC 355-I and II, and Eleventh Special Report (Government Reply),HC 1051.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Diana R. Johnson.]

2.30 pm

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): Mr. Taylor, it is always a delight to see you in the Chair, particularly when we are debating something that I know you will find very important, because in a country where we succeed in lowering the number of deaths and injuries among drivers by a sizeable amount each year, deaths and injuries among novice drivers nevertheless continue to rise in a way that the Select Committee on Transport finds absolutely unacceptable.

How does one define a novice driver? Although the bulk of the Committee’s evidence relates to young drivers, one can be a novice driver later in life if one does not have sufficient experience, because one defines a novice driver as someone who has been driving for less than three years. Although we took a great deal of evidence about the problem of controlling the motor car, we found that, almost inevitably, the fears and worries of a large number of our population relate to young drivers, because they constitute a disproportionate number of the people who are affected.

It is almost axiomatic that young males feel that the process is a passing of some ritual—that they must be able to drive themselves all over the United Kingdom, irrespective of the state of the vehicle in which they are driving. If one thinks about the people who take driving tests, one realises that any measure that seeks to limit their experience will be resisted. Even though various Governments have genuinely accepted that deaths from road accidents and the damage that can be done by long-term injuries are very real, they have brought in a series of measures which, somehow or other, has not addressed the size and difficulty of the problem.

Our report states that

Those figures mean that we are not convincing either the young or those who support the young in accessing motor vehicles of their responsibility for keeping not only themselves alive, but everyone else in a happy state.

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We were particularly concerned about whether the Government could at least move towards doing something about this great problem. The scale of the casualties is clear, and the driver training regime, which is the beginning of many difficulties, must be reformed as a matter of urgency. It is clear from the evidence that we took that we need a more structured learning programme, a minimum learning period, and ongoing assessment, because we cannot just assume that if people can fill in a series of tick boxes and participate in mandatory group activities, they have acquired the expertise or the experience that frequently gets drivers out of trouble on the road. We too often rely on incremental changes, which have not produced the required results.

The Committee said:

Furthermore, if the Home Office continues to treat traffic offences as less important than the other core tasks of the police force, we will find it difficult to bring home to the public, and to police, the dangers of bad driving and the difficulties that arise when people drive either drunk or under the influence of drugs.

Serious driving offences ought to be included in the offences-brought-to-justice target for the police. We are always told that their new toys, which are important, such as automated number plate recognition, enable them to stop people, acquire much more information and make an impact well beyond simple traffic enforcement. However, if there are no traffic police available, and if chief constables feel that traffice enforcement is the least important function of the police, the horrifying situation in my constituency will continue whereby even after some cars have crashed and four young people have been killed or severely injured, there is still an excrescence of the same problem. In other words, whatever we are doing, either by enforcement, by carrot or by stick, we are not making it work, and we must consider other options.

The Department ought to do much more about road safety education, and insist that the Department for Children, Schools and Families assists it. The two Departments ought to work closely and ensure that people are targeted at a young enough age to change their attitudes towards driving. Young people frequently think that they are invincible, and that whatever they do will inevitably be safe, because it never crosses their mind that there is any difficulty. By the time they find out, however, they may very well be dead, so we, as a nation, must examine not only the vulnerability of novice drivers, but how we can change their attitudes and the way in which they learn and are assessed throughout their learning period.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): I appreciate that we are discussing drivers, but my hon. Friend mentioned the education process. I do not know whether she or other Members have witnessed what I witness regularly, but young pedestrians simply wander into the middle of the road, with no concept of vehicles’ speed or the danger in which they put themselves. There should be an education process for pedestrians, too, alongside whatever the education system can do to enable young people to recognise the dangers that exist on the road for them as drivers in later life.

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Mrs. Dunwoody: I accept that point, but the issue goes further. It is about not simply pedestrians, but cyclists and all people who use the road. In this day and age, they frequently demonstrate a cavalier approach not only to the safety of the people whom they encounter, but to their own safety, which I find difficult to apprehend.

The Committee suggested that

We took a great deal of evidence on the matter, considered it carefully and said that

Of course, there would be an increase in the minimum age at which someone was entitled to a full driving licence, but, we continued,

We also made recommendations about the various ways in which the measure could be implemented and the various issues that flowed from that.

Mrs. Siân C. James (Swansea, East) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for the report and the work that the Transport Committee has undertaken. One of my constituents, a young man named David Rees, has taken the time to read it and to write to me about it. He is particularly worried about the suggested 12-month learning period and has made the point that it could be very expensive and an unfair burden on young people, many of whom do not have parents who could cover the costs, or who come from families for which the financial challenge would be great.

Mrs. Dunwoody: We understood and debated that, but the reality is that if people are to be taught properly—after all, that is the beginning of the method that we were concerned with—they will have to pay. Driving lessons are not cheap, as many parents will know. We are saying that there should be a 12-month period in which they must gain and demonstrate experience, which would be an added hazard in some ways, but my hon. Friend will know that the real danger at the moment is that even with our existing machinery, a large number of young people seem to be driving without any licence at all. That means by definition that they have no insurance and contributes to the difficulties that arise.

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): In the long run, the proposal would be cheaper for young people. At the moment, they are expected to pay extortionate insurance costs because of the likelihood of their having accidents. If they are trained better, become better drivers and have fewer accidents, their insurance premiums will go down in the long term. I therefore do not accept that the cost will be prohibitive. In the long term, the proposal will save them money.

Mrs. Dunwoody: That is a valid point. Also, we were concerned by the clear evidence that people were taking exams for someone else. There were fraudulent cases. There were 70 convictions of offences arising from driving test impersonation. Another 75 people received cautions. A further 96 court cases are pending and 502 investigations are ongoing. We are dealing not just with
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people who are worried about the costs, but with those who think that it is quite all right to pay somebody else to get them a licence and then to go back on the road and drive. I find that worrying.

I do not wish to take up too much time, but the Department needs to take the report seriously. The Committee talked about the role of the insurance industry and the sort of driving tests that we have, and specifically about the role of penalties. I hope that the Department is saying urgently that, since the Road Traffic (New Drivers) Act 1995 has not succeeded in meeting its original objectives, its application and implementation ought to be reviewed. If the Department can assure me that it is beginning to do that and will come up with useful answers in a short time, we shall feel that our work has been worth while.

We are concerned that penalties of disqualification and licence revocation are not working as a deterrent and are being widely flouted. If we are to use penalties, they must be commensurate and effective. Something like vehicle forfeiture would at least impress upon the minds of those who are not playing by the rules that the matter is serious and savage. I used to threaten my late husband with the fact that if I wanted to murder him, I would use a motor car. In this country, we quite cheerfully kill and injure a large number of people every year with them. They are one of the greatest sources of death and injury, yet somehow or other we do not seem to feel that that is a serious matter that ought to be dealt with urgently.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am interested in the idea in the report of graduated driver licensing. Good examples are given of countries that have increased the tariff of when young people should be able both to drive and drive alone. However, although there are good examples, there are other parts of the world where people can obtain a driving licence easily and use it to drive in this country. Did the Committee consider that? I fear that there are people who are not just young and inexperienced but have had no formal training.

Mrs. Dunwoody: That is relevant in my part of the country, because we have had a problem with an influx of eastern European drivers who have frequently flouted traffic laws, I think sometimes because they have simply not understood them. They certainly were not properly trained. The matter was not part of the remit of this report, but we have raised it with the Department more than once.

We are a bit sad and disappointed that there has not been a lot of progress since the publication in October of the Government’s response to our report. We are told all the time that there is going to be a consultation document, but it has not been published and seems further away now than it was last October. It is more than a year since the Department published the second three-year review of progress towards the 2010 casualty reduction target, which referred to the need to

If that is the case, we need to ask why the consultation has not begun, and we need to put into operation whatever changes it comes up with, as long as the House of Commons has had the time to examine them in detail.

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Everyone understands that the reform needs are complex. They are not simple because human beings are not simple, and their relationship with the combustion engine is the least simple thing in the whole of their lives. But the agony that is brought to any family by a death or serious injury is compounded if it comes in a motor car accident. Every Member of Parliament must deal in their surgery with families who are bereaved and completely bereft because they do not understand exactly what has happened or the reason for it.

I expect the Department to say not only that it will start urgent reform but that it will make its recommendations to Parliament very shortly. Otherwise, we shall continue to lose large numbers of young people to a wanton, pointless and utterly dispiriting pattern of injury and death that will cost us all dearly. I am proud of the report and of the members of my Committee who helped me to come to its conclusions. Unless the Department can say today what practical results it is offering us, we shall feel that, once again, a real opportunity has been lost.

2.48 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Lady—is that right?

Mrs. Dunwoody indicated dissent.

Bob Spink: No? The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). We were having a discussion earlier and I expected to be corrected on that immediately. She should be a right hon. Lady, because she is a doyenne of this place. She is one of the most valued, highly respected and dedicated Members in the House. When she speaks, the House listens. She leads her Committee with great dedication and dynamism and produces good, common-sense-based reports, and this is one such example.

The hon. Lady mentioned attitudes and the invincibility problem, particularly for young men, not so much for young girls. She is absolutely right about that. It is a great problem and we must address it and find ways to get more training.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman makes the point that that is true particularly of young men, not young women. I was talking to the association of driving instructors in my constituency. It pointed out that young women are starting to drive like young men, which must be a concern to us all.

Bob Spink: If that is the case, I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has disabused me, and the matter should be addressed. I am sure that it will come through on the insurance statistics, as does the driving of young men.

Young people have one thing in their favour in relation to driving: they are generally more responsible with drinking and driving than more mature drivers. We should not allow today’s debate to pass without mentioning that.

The hon. Lady talked about young people driving without a licence, often when they are under 17. Under-age drivers can be prosecuted for driving

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contrary to section 87 of the Road Traffic Act 1988. Paragraph 19 of schedule 2 to the Road Traffic Act 1991 provides that an obligatory endorsement with points in the range of three to six and a discretionary disqualification will follow in a case where

or, indeed, her. As a driving licence cannot be granted to a 16-year-old, it is argued that such an offence would not be endorseable. Although the provision might have to be interpreted by the divisional court, the submission is that that is somewhat tortuous reasoning, and the Department should consider that issue in the review that I hope it will undertake. The hon. Lady’s report calls for that in the section on “The role of penalties”.

Totally unlicensed drivers, including those who are too young to hold, or to have held, a licence are surely in the same position as those who have a licence but have failed to comply with the conditions thereof. It is difficult to see any logic in an alternative interpretation.

I shall now get to my reason for speaking in the debate. Every order of disqualification must commence from the moment the order is pronounced. That ruling comes from several cases, including Taylor v. Kenyon 1952 2 All E.R. 726. I do not choose that case to embarrass you, Mr. Taylor; I am sure that you were not even born in 1952. My point is that a disqualification cannot be suspended until a young person reaches 17, so if someone is caught driving at 14, 15 or 16 and gets a suspension, it starts immediately and they may be able to start driving as soon as they are 17. If they are given a year’s suspension at 16, it should start when they are eligible to drive, not before. That is total nonsense. I hope that the Department will correct that error in the law. I congratulate the Committee again on its excellent report.

2.53 pm

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): I hope that the debate will help to resolve the scandal of the needless loss of young people’s lives on our roads. We are all familiar with this issue, but it is rarely pinpointed or considered to be of major concern and to require action. I suspect that we are all only too familiar with reading newspaper reports about young people who have been killed in car crashes, often at night and in a group. We all read about such cases and feel how tragic they are for the families and friends of the young people concerned, but it is not always understood that such incidents are not isolated. They are part of a pattern in which young people continue to be killed on our roads in large numbers. Although safety in general is improving, that is not reflected in what happens to young people on our roads. In 2005, 1,200 young drivers were either killed or seriously injured on our roads. That is more than three people a day, so we are talking about many young people. This issue is counter to the general trend of more lives being saved on our roads.

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