Previous Section Index Home Page

7 Feb 2008 : Column 317WH—continued

We all know that the most likely way in which a young person will die prematurely is in a road traffic accident. That is, historically, a fact of life. One does not want to labour the point about how risky young people’s lives are, but it is a truism that that is what they most need to be aware of. For the Department to say that it cannot carry out an evaluation of whether the hazard perception test has been of value seems bizarre. I have my own misgivings about aspects of the hazard perception test, but it exists and presumably it is of value. One would have hoped that people who had had accidents would be cross-examined in some way about the degree to which the accident was caused by lack of training or preparation.

Recommendation 19 is about the driving test and whether it needs to be reformed and should include a high-speed element. The Government’s response is:

Either such an element is incorporated in the test or it is not. It seems a funny sort of test otherwise. One can imagine an exam in which one group of students takes 10 questions and another takes 12. How can there be any crossover between those groups? Of course, one of the ways in which someone is most likely to kill themselves is by not knowing how to drive properly on a fast road. Some of us would argue that motorway driving must be part of the examination process, although I accept that that would be difficult in some parts of the country, because it would be necessary to drive 100 miles to get to the nearest motorway. However, it is not impossible to find a relatively fast road. The fact that it is still not laid down that someone should, in the driving test, be tested for capability on fast roads seems bizarre and unfair.

My hon. Friends the Members for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) stressed the importance of making progress with driver education. I would not say that the Government’s response on that issue was unhelpful, although it is not long, but it discusses the possibility of developing a foundation level qualification. The Government’s desire is to keep people—I do not mean that in a pejorative way, so I shall say encourage people to stay—in education or training until the age of 18. Several schools and colleges in my area are willing to offer driver training as part of the inducement, and some already do—that is one of the reasons why people choose their college, but I am not sure whether that is within all the rules, so I shall not labour the point. So in reality such training is already going on.

What makes the current situation strange is that we have an audience who, unlike many other audiences, is already easy to access. I know that there is a group of
7 Feb 2008 : Column 318WH
those not in education, employment or training, and I do not pretend that it is not a difficult group. There may be some research suggesting that that group is particularly vulnerable to road traffic accidents. However, given that we can easily get access to many thousands of young people, I cannot see why we cannot develop, in places of education, appropriate ways to teach people not necessarily the totality of driving but certainly some of the theory work, so that they have an advantage. That is a good reason for them to stay in education, and a good way to develop their skills. I am not sure whether the qualification would be the be all and end all, but we need thousands of entrants to the driving industry, so it would seem that, rather than being a superficial, unnecessary appendage to the education of our young people, spending more time on that training is pretty sensible.

Cycling proficiency has continued despite everything, and I think it is incredibly important that young people should be given some training at a young age in the joys but also the dangers of cycling, so why do we not take the same approach with driving? The vast majority of the group who take cycling proficiency will go on to learn to drive, but while we have them ready and willing—if we make it worth their while, of course they will be willing—we ignore the opportunity. Things are left to chance.

Recommendation 40 is about penalties and whether enough emphasis is placed on road traffic duties and active policing. We all know that there has been a covert strategy to reduce the amount of time, effort and certainly money that police forces put into their road traffic duties. Whether there has ever been an edict from the top, or whether that area of policing has just been seen as a bit of a soft touch, we all know about that. The Government’s response states:

This is a context in which far more people are in danger than in any other walk of life. In comparison with the chance of being murdered, the chance that someone will be involved in a serious accident is exponentially greater. Yet we have increasingly allowed the police or those who make decisions on their behalf to walk away from that. I know that the idea is that we have an alternative in the form of safety cameras and those lovely traffic officers going up and down the motorway. I am not against that, but I am against people thinking that they can drive badly and get away with it, and the penalties often being so pathetic that people think society is not serious about the issue.

Young people know that they can drive badly and get away with it. If they drive badly when they are young, there is no evidence to suggest that they will drive better when they are older. One hopes so, but although I do not know of any research to suggest this, there are worries about how bad drivers are created, and why they continue to drive badly.

I turn to rural roads. The Department for Transport has done very good work—it deserves congratulations on that—in making roads safer in urban areas through measures such as the safer cities initiative in Gloucester, next door to me, although a number of the measures were controversial, and unpopular with some people. Safety on rural roads seems to be going in the other direction, and there are more accidents, fatalities and serious injuries on such roads. We must recognise
7 Feb 2008 : Column 319WH
that and ensure that young people particularly—they grow up in rural areas as well as urban areas—receive driver training. I am not pretending that that could be introduced in a test, because there would be huge disparity between urban and rural areas. Training could be provided on faster roads, but one could not always take someone to a rural road.

We must ensure that people are conversant with different road conditions. Most road accidents, sadly, occur because people do not drive according to road and climatic conditions, let alone what they may have done to their bodies earlier. All those factors contribute to the problem, and we do not take it seriously enough, although we are better in this country than some others. That is why I raised with my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich the issue of people from different countries who can drive on British roads with no problem if they have a licence that qualifies them to do so. That causes tensions, and if they have not been trained, there are likely to be all sorts of adverse consequences.

I want the Minister to treat the report seriously, and to have a word with whoever drafted the response because, at best, it was not terribly positive, and to move on. The matter is important, not superficial. All of us who have children worry about our kids when they learn to drive, and what will happen to them. As hon. Members have said, we all bear the consequences, because we meet people who have lost their nearest and dearest, often through no fault of their own. The problem deserves attention and, thankfully, this debate has provided that.

3.33 pm

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): I pay tribute to the amount of work that the Select Committee does, and in particular to the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), not because I happen to be a member of the Committee but because the House knows that the Committee’s work has been excellent, certainly since I came to Parliament. It does an excellent job in keeping the Department for Transport, the Secretary of State and all its Ministers on their toes.

I thank the road safety charities and other organisations for their work in promoting road safety, particularly Brake, which puts a lot of time and energy into the all-party group.

I warmly welcome this debate on the Transport Committee’s report on novice drivers. I have a personal interest in road safety, and I am a member of the all-party road safety group. The number of young people killed and seriously injured on our roads is appalling. Significant progress has been made in reducing the overall number of deaths and serious injuries, but whatever figures are used, the proportion of young people who are killed or seriously injured is disproportionately high. I shall give a few figures.

In 2006, 794 drivers or passengers under 25 were killed on our roads. One in eight car drivers are under 25, but one in four drivers who died on the roads in 2006 were under 25. One in two drivers killed at night are under 25, and 27 per cent. of 17 to 19-year-old men are involved in a collision as a driver in their first year of driving. Young drivers under 20 are nearly 12 times
7 Feb 2008 : Column 320WH
more likely to be at fault for an accident than men aged between 35 and 65. The number of deaths of drivers aged 17 to 20 rose between 1992 and 2005, but the number of young people getting licences fell, so the death rate rose considerably more than the raw figures suggest.

It will come as no surprise to hon. Members that, as a member of the Transport Committee, I support, on the whole, the recommendations in its report. The Liberal Democrats are undertaking a transport policy review, and this report will provide a valuable contribution to that review.

This afternoon, I want to concentrate on four issues concerning novice drivers. The first is driver training and testing. The learner driver training scheme clearly requires a complete overhaul. There is an attitude among learners that they are learning to pass the test, rather than learning to drive. That was clearly evident when a number of Committee members went to observe young driver attitudes in the Royal Automobile Club’s study. At the same time, driving instructors understandably focus their attention on getting people through the test, rather than teaching them how to drive.

According to a number of witnesses, voluntary additional schemes such as pass plus have helped to reduce novice driver casualties, but evidence from the Association of British Insurers suggests that that has resulted in only a marginal improvement in accident rates. I suspect that that is partly because the people who go on the pass plus courses are likely to be more responsible, cautious and conscientious about their driving in the first place. The voluntary nature of pass plus has resulted in only 14 per cent. of people who have passed the driving test taking up the additional training.

In 2002, the Driving Standards Agency launched the voluntary driver record logbook, the effectiveness of which was to have been reported on at the end of last year. That has not yet happened, and I hope that the Minister will be able to give an update on that. Any proposed changes to the testing process should incorporate a compulsory logbook if that proves to have been effective.

I support the view that there should be a minimum learning period of 12 months. The learning should be structured so that new drivers cannot cram the training into a couple of months at the end of the 12-month period. That would also give novice drivers the opportunity to drive in different weather conditions. I was amazed to hear the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) say that a mother cancelled her son’s driving lesson because it was too frosty. One would have thought that that was exactly the sort of weather in which learners should have lessons, so that they gain valuable experience.

Surely it cannot be right that, in theory, a novice driver can take their test having never driven at night, in the rain, in the snow or anywhere outside the small driving test area. The driver training scheme should include a minimum number of driving hours, and there is a strong case for compulsory lessons with a qualified instructor, as well as for reviewing the age and experience required for someone who is not a qualified instructor to supervise a learner driver. At the same time, we must ensure that the quality of tuition from qualified instructors is of an equally high standard across the board—from the large national organisations to the small local driving instructors who work alone.

7 Feb 2008 : Column 321WH

Evidence from New Zealand, which introduced graduated licences as early as 1987, suggests that they have been successful in cutting casualty rates among novice drivers. There has been a reduction in car-crash injuries of 23 per cent. for 15 to 19-year-olds and 12 per cent. for 20 to 24-year-olds. Restrictions imposed on novice drivers in New Zealand include a ban on driving between 10 pm and 5 am, not being allowed to carry passengers unless accompanied by a fully licensed adult driver, a reduced drink-drive limit and the requirement to take a further practical test after the restricted period.

There is a case for introducing restrictions on night-time driving and carrying passengers late at night. I accept that young people often use cars to get home from work, but the reality is that they have to get to and from their jobs before they learn to drive. It is not a good enough reason to stop the restriction on driving at night, especially when one in two casualties at night are young drivers. We have to take that seriously and consider imposing some sort of sanctions on young people driving at night. The insurance industry can and must play its part in reducing the risk by imposing restrictions on drivers using their cars at night, or offering lower premiums to young drivers who are prepared to stay off the road at night.

I disagree with the Select Committee report on lowering the drink-drive limit for young drivers. That sends out the wrong signal and suggests that it is okay for people to drink more after they have gained a certain level of driving experience. However, I welcome proposals to lower the drink-drive limit. Previously, my party has tabled amendments to reduce the limits to bring them into line with most of Europe. We want people’s attitude to be that one drink is one too many, not that they must have 12 month’s driving experience before it is okay to have a drink and then drive.

All the measures proposed in the report to reduce deaths and serious injuries warrant full consideration by the Government, but at the same time we need to look at how to change young people’s attitudes to driving. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents states:

I think that that is the case in all walks of life, not just in respect of driving. It continues:

The Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety noted in focus groups that driving gives young people, especially men, a sense of identity, self-confidence and the opportunity to express themselves. It is therefore little wonder that accident rates are higher among novice drivers. Research by Reading university showed that young people of secondary school age were already developing undesirable attitudes to driving and an affinity for speed.

There seems to be strong evidence for early intervention and education, and a strong case for the inclusion of road safety in the national curriculum and for it to be brought into schools. There is compelling evidence from the Under 17 Car Club that practical driver education
7 Feb 2008 : Column 322WH
between the ages of 11 and 16 has a positive impact on people’s driving. Statistics show that former Under 17 Car Club members have an accident rate that is half that of other novice drivers.

There would, of course, be a cost implication for improved education, but the potential benefits would make it money well spent. As well as cutting down on untold personal tragedies, the financial savings from eradicating fatal and serious injury accidents would, according to the Department for Transport’s figures, be in the region of £2,645 million, based on 2006 figures. However, I accept that that would apply only if there had been no fatalities or serious injuries, rather than the 794 that I mentioned earlier.

Once again, I welcome the debate. I hope that this debate and the report of the Transport Committee play their part in bringing about real, lasting changes to road safety strategy that will have a lasting and positive impact on the number of young people whose lives are devastated or ended on our roads.

3.45 pm

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Taylor, despite the fact that it reminds me of the drubbing that I received in my 1997 general election campaign.

I pay tribute to the work of the Transport Committee, of which I was a member for the first 18 months after my election to the House, and to its Chairman. There are not so many people who only need to be referred to by their first names—Kylie, Madonna and Boris spring to mind—but, certainly, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) falls into that category. I remember, in the corridor outside the Select Committee, having great fun chatting to the hapless witnesses and describing the interrogation that was likely to befall them. I am not sure that all the hon. Lady’s tactics would meet the requirements of the Geneva convention for the interrogation of prisoners.

I also pay tribute to the support given by the secretariat of the Committee and to the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety.

As somebody with one child of driving age and another who is almost of driving age, this issue really concerns me. My father-in-law, who was in North Yorkshire police for his entire career, has told me about occasions when he had to knock on the door to inform parents that their children had been involved in fatal or very serious accidents. It is no consolation to hear that ours is one of the safest countries in the world in which to drive. However, figures released today by the Department show that, in the third quarter of 2007, further progress had been made.

We have heard the statistics, which make grim reading. In 1998, 7 per cent. of the driving population was between 17 and 21 years of age, but 13 per cent. of collisions involved those drivers; almost half the drivers killed at night are under 25; and 27 per cent. of 17 to 19-year-old males involved in road collisions are in their first year of driving.

Next Section Index Home Page