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7 Feb 2008 : Column 310WH—continued

The Chairman of our Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who so ably guided us through the inquiry, mentioned statistics such as that in 1998, drivers aged between 17 and 21 accounted for 7 per cent. of the driving population but 13 per cent. of drivers in collisions.
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One in eight driving licence holders is under 25, but one in three drivers involved in a collision is under 25. Almost half of all drivers killed at night are under 25. One frightening statistic that we might remember is that 27 per cent. of 17 to 19-year-old males are involved in road collisions in their first year of driving. That stark figure should concern us all.

The statistics showed the Committee that the problem is far greater with young males than with young females. That might have changed, but no change was reflected in the figures that we saw. In 2006, 870 of the 17 to 19-year-olds killed or seriously injured on our roads were male and 281 were female. That balance reflects what has happened over several years, and it seems still to be the situation. The problem is about new and young drivers, and seems to be more strongly related to young males than to young females. Of course, our concern must be equal whoever is being killed or injured, seriously or otherwise.

The Committee considered various ways of addressing the problem and made several specific recommendations, all of which were practical and capable of being implemented. We considered restructuring the driving test to ensure that no one can pass it without one year of driving experience. That would involve raising the age of eligibility for passing the driving test to 18, and would stop what often happens now when people are anxious to drive. They rush their driving instruction, compressing it into a short period, and find out how to pass their test without having experience of different driving conditions. The evidence seems to show that experience of different driving conditions is very relevant to road safety.

Mr. Russell Brown: I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend’s comments. On the idea of not allowing people to take the test until they have been learning to drive for about a year, one thing that seems to help is the pass plus programme. If it succeeds in reducing numbers of accidents, should we not incorporate some of its objectives into driving lessons as youngsters head towards their tests? Young people focus on the day on which they can pass their test, but we should build more into the programme. Does my hon. Friend see the advantage of incorporating aspects of pass plus into it?

Mrs. Ellman: Yes, we considered the pass plus programme and similar initiatives, such as one conducted by Lancashire county council, but we were concerned that no full analysis was available of the benefits of such programmes. However, we were impressed by what we heard in our evidence sessions and we thought that such programmes should be incorporated into people’s experience of driving.

When we considered restructuring the driving test, we recognised that it might involve changing how driving instructors are trained. In the evidence that we received, it was made clear that that was already under way, and that it was already recognised as being important.

The second area that we looked at was graduated licence restrictions. We asked for consideration of some restrictions on new drivers, possibly within the first year after they had passed the test, and based on evidence as to whether the changes would deliver results. In particular, we suggested that there should be a rule that virtually no alcohol was to be taken by young drivers. I am aware
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that there is a general consultation taking place on this issue in relation to all drivers.

We also looked at the possibility of restrictions on new drivers carrying young passengers at night. We singled that out because it seems that there is a high accident and death rate at particular times and in particular circumstances.

Mrs. James: I again refer to representations made by young people in my constituency, many of whom work in the entertainment and service industries. They told me that they rely on their cars late at night because public transport is poor, and that they share transport after working. One example is finishing work at McDonald’s at 12 midnight and then having to make their way home. They felt that such a restriction would be particularly unfair. I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that one of the important elements of the review is that it actually considers young people, their lives, the things that affect them, and how they would be affected in the long term.

Mrs. Ellman: I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. I accept that what she says is important. Indeed, I myself have heard those comments from young people since our report was published. It is for such reasons that we suggested that the changes be implemented in the light of experience as to whether they in fact deliver results. We are aware that such changes would affect the mobility of young people, and that that can be extremely important for employment as well as social life. That is why we made suggestions rather than recommending something definite. Of course, while I am sure that my hon. Friend’s points are valid, they do have to be weighed against the other priority of saving lives and preserving good health.

In the third section, we considered changing attitudes. There is considerable evidence that young people, particularly young males, often see driving and driving styles as something to do with personality. They have an idea that what others might call aggressive driving is showing strong character or something of that nature. Since such driving is often identified with serious injury and death, we felt that it should be addressed, not just at the point of driving but much earlier. That is why we looked at schools, for example, and training about and awareness of safety issues in relation to driving, and to attitude and personality development as well.

I understand that these issues have been addressed in Sweden, and it would be interesting to know what progress has been made there. I was pleased with the Government’s reference in their response to the possibility of a foundation level qualification in road safety. Those are all things that we felt should be considered.

We have received the Government’s response to our report. They responded in detail to several proposals. What comes out of the response is a feeling that the Government are looking at these matters seriously, but instead of agreeing to any specific proposal, they are talking about more consultation. The response refers to producing a consultation document. As far as I am aware, that document has not yet been produced, so it would be helpful if the Minister indicated when it will be produced, and when action might be taken.

It is clear that our proposals are not without problems. There is the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mrs. James) raised about effects on
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young people’s mobility. There is also the important question of enforceability. All those things matter, but perhaps what matters above all is saving young lives.

It is important that serious consideration be given not just to the content of the report but to its recommendations. We were struck by the broad consensus among the witnesses who gave evidence to our inquiry. Safety groups, driving instructors, road traffic organisations, members of the general public, local authorities and the police all agreed on the need to do something, and on the direction in which we are moving. I hope that at the end of this debate we will hear how things can be taken forward, because our prime consideration is to save lives.

3.5 pm

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): I apologise for not being here for the start of the debate. I am pleased that we are having this debate today. The timing is good. I am sure that the Minister will be able to tell us that the consultation will take place fairly soon. I read a report in one of the tabloids that seemed to be based on a leak from the document. Of course, I do not believe everything that is in the tabloids—perhaps the Minister could confirm the report. We need consultation; it should be comprehensive but short. I believe there is a consensus in the country and in the House that we need to change the way that novice drivers learn to drive, and on the emphasis in the Select Committee report. As the Chairman forcefully said, any delay will cost lives.

My concern came about because of several horrendous accidents on the outskirts of my constituency of Carlisle. If people look at the problem in detail, they will find that rural roads, not urban roads, are often involved. I asked the Library for information about the number of youngsters being killed or seriously injured on rural roads. Like the rest of the statistics on road traffic accidents, the numbers were coming down. We must remember that this is one of the safest countries in which to drive, except perhaps for Sweden. In 2000, for some reason, the numbers for rural roads started to increase dramatically, from 318 to 382, I believe, and that was when my attention was drawn to the problem.

The mother of a young teenage girl who had been killed tragically in one of the incidents outside my constituency came to see me. Her daughter had been a passenger in the car of a novice driver. At our meeting, the mother explained things and asked at the end, “What are you going to do about it?” It was difficult to reply to that lady. She knew that it was too late for her daughter, but she did not want other people to experience the same anguish.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): May I say to my hon. Friend that we in the Department are also concerned that, although progress is being made in reducing deaths and serious injuries across the country, the numbers are not falling as quickly on rural roads? We announced only two weeks ago an £8 million package for four beacon authorities—four authorities that have been doing better than others—to pilot some additional research and address the problem of rural roads in particular. That evidence will be used to shape policy for rural roads in the future. My hon. Friend was right to raise the issue.


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Mr. Martlew: I am grateful for that; I was not aware of that programme. I do not know whether the beacon authorities have been chosen; but if they have not, perhaps Cumbria county council can be considered, as it has been active in this area.

As I said, that lady came to see me and explained what had gone wrong—the tragedy of it all—and that she did not want other parents to go through what she did. When the Select Committee report came out, I took a copy to her. I said, “There you are.” She said, “That’s fine, but it’s only words. What we need is action.” That is what I say to the Minister today.

At the time, I also received correspondence from the then chief constable of Cumbria, Michael Baxter, and Cumbria police and the Cumbria road safety partnership also gave evidence to the Committee, because they were concerned about the issue. They are the people who must go to the accidents, deal with the problems and then knock on the parents’ doors, and they feel that greatly. I must congratulate the partnership, however, because Cumbria’s road traffic accident figures for 2007 are out, and the number of casualties is down right across the board. The number of fatalities has gone down from 55 to 44, and there has been a large reduction in the number of young people involved. Does the Minister have any preliminary figures for the rest of the country, so that we can find out whether Cumbria’s figures represent a trend or are simply the result of the work that has been done there?

Let me turn now to one or two aspects of the report. I appreciate why youngsters will not like a minimum 12-month learning period, but they will understand it because they are used to minimum learning periods. It takes two years to do an A-level and three years to do a degree, so youngsters should understand that it will take a year to get a driving licence. There is a logic to that.

I was talking to members of the Driving Instructors Association in my constituency just before Christmas, and one instructor said that somebody had rung up to cancel her son’s lesson because it was too frosty and she did not want him to be learning to drive in winter conditions. But people should learn to drive throughout the seasons, because as they become more experienced, they learn to adjust to situations, whether slippery roads or fog.

I remember the first time that I drove on my own on a rural road at night, and it was frightening. It makes no sense to say that we can train people to drive on a dual carriageway, but not a motorway, when they can go on a motorway the day after they have passed their test. We should therefore be looking at a 12-month period and at having a logbook for that period. Not all novice drivers are youngsters, but youngsters are used to doing project work and to building up logs for their examinations. During that period, however, they must also have a minimum amount of professional tuition to ensure that they have gone through the programme.

My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mrs. James) said that youngsters would have difficulties, particularly if they lived in rural areas, and I am conscious of that. Young people want their independence and freedom, and they need to be able to drive to get employment or to continue their education as apprentices
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or at college, but there is little or no public transport in rural areas, which makes youngsters very dependent on their parents.

Although I did not move an amendment on this issue in Committee and although this seems contrary to what I have said, will the Minister consider bringing down to 16 and a half the age at which people can start learning to drive under instruction? That would still give people a year. That sounds a bit radical and it might be counter-productive, but we must accept that there is a problem.

If we are not careful, youngsters will give up on the driving test and not take it at all. Although it is illegal not to have a licence, people do not need one to drive a car, and if we are not careful, fewer people will take the test. The other problem is that cars are not the only sort of mechanical transport, so if we prevent people from driving them, some will graduate to motorbikes, which, as we all know, are far more dangerous than cars. There must, therefore, be a balance.

I am totally in favour of the 12-month proposals, but the training should be professionally guided. I have some concerns about the effect that the proposals might have, particularly on youngsters in rural areas, and, as has been said, there is the issue of people going to work in the entertainments industry. In years gone by, that would have been sorted out by the employer, who would have got taxis to take people home, and I suspect that that could still happen.

Another issue is the graduated licence. Under such an arrangement, there would be restrictions on newly qualified drivers, perhaps for a year. Again, that is probably correct.

Mr. Russell Brown: I want to raise an issue that I raised in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman). The focus for young people is on passing the test, but we all know that they can sit the theory test on their 17th birthday and be driving on the roads within two or three months if everything goes well in the practical test. I accept that we need to do something to broaden that period, but one of the big issues is that there are no restrictions on the size of car that young people can drive, so someone aged 17 could drive a 2 or 3-litre car. Does my hon. Friend think that there should be restrictions on the size of vehicle that people can drive under a graduated licence process?

Mr. Martlew: As my hon. Friend will know, I agree with him on many issues, but I disagree with him on that one. There is a myth that youngsters will get into a brand-new BMW with a 3-litre engine and tear off, but that rarely happens. The reality, as the Committee found, is that the vast majority of youngsters, including those involved in accidents, drive cars that are 13 years old on average. They are small cars, which have fewer safety features than the brand-new BMW and give little protection in an accident, but they can go fast as well.

Mr. Leech: The hon. Gentleman’s final point was one that I was going to make. Even cars with the smallest engines can still do 70 and 80 mph.


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Mr. Martlew: People will drive those small cars on their own and everything will be fine, but the tragedy is that, when they put five of their mates in, the car will react and corner completely differently. As we have seen so often, it is the small cars—the Peugeots and the Golfs—that go off the road, hit trees and cause carnage. Although it is rare that I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown), I cannot agree with him on this occasion.

Another issue relating to the graduated driving licence is the introduction of a different alcohol level for newly qualified drivers, which my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside Mrs. Ellman mentioned. Once we have two levels, the issue starts to become complex, but introducing different levels is probably the right approach. We all know that a little alcohol has more effect on young drivers, so we should try to reduce the permitted level. Of course, there is a feeling that many youngsters are more responsible than older people on this issue, but we all know that youngsters cannot take a drink as well as those who are 10 years older. On balance, therefore, I think that a different approach is right, although the issue is complicated, and I know that the police will be concerned.

Another issue is enforcement. At one point, there was a dispute between the then chief constable of Cumbria and the then Transport Minister. The Minister felt that the police would not enforce provisions such as those that we are discussing, but the chief constable said that they would. We must therefore put the onus on the police, and if they do not enforce the provisions, that is their responsibility.

We talk about novice drivers, and some people may think that what is proposed is unfair to more mature novice drivers and that it would be more pertinent if the title of the report referred to young drivers. However, it would not be possible to justify that. A 12-month learning experience for any driver will mean that they will be a better driver. I do not think that an age consideration should be included.

If we are to adopt 12-month training, we should expect a higher pass rate, on the basis that people have been trained well. I got my first provisional licence when I was 17. I think I was about 19 and a half, having failed several tests, when I got a full licence. If we extend the period, we should get a higher proportion of passes, so people will not be disadvantaged. My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) has already said that time is of the essence. Every year that we delay, there will be more deaths and more family tragedies. We shall never eliminate them totally, but if we can bring about a 10 or 20 per cent. reduction in the number of young people who are killed, we shall have done a good day’s work.

3.21 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to take part, albeit briefly, in the debate. I had not intended to, but I am intrigued by the answers that the Government have given to the Select Committee report. Having read many responses to many reports—I exonerate the Minister, because fortunately he was not in office at the time—I wonder who signed off the responses to the present report, which raise more questions than they
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answer. The issues are important and should be discussed, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will give me some assurances that attitudes have changed somewhat.

In the Select Committee’s initial recommendations, recommendation 16 dealt with the need for an evaluation of the impact of the hazard perception test. The Government’s response states:


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