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Lord Brougham and Vaux: I have a lot of sympathy with my noble friend's amendment. I remember a few years ago when we were debating a previous Road Safety Bill the question of having P-plates as in Ireland came up, which carried some sympathy. Occasionally, you see a driver with a P-plate in England; probably they do it for their own protection. Are the Government considering doing what they do in Ireland and having the P-plate for a certain length of time?

Lord Bradshaw: I rise to speak to Amendment No. 120 which is in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, and myself. Our amendment is slightly different to that of the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, in that we say that for six months after the granting of a full licence the driver shall display a plate with the letter "R" on it. The choice of the letter is of course purely arbitrary, but this is a system which pertains in Northern Ireland and has done so for a long time. It gives with it the ability to restrict what the person carrying an R-plate can do. The immediate suggestions are that they should be restricted in some way in speed and possibly be restricted from going on motorways.

Something which worries many people is that the average driving test and indeed a great deal of the tuition takes place in daylight, and certainly not on motorways. Yet we allow somebody one day to be restricted to driving a car with an L-plate on it in the company of an adult and not on motorways to allowing them virtually to do as they wish. The result is that quite a lot of people end up having fairly serious accidents fairly soon after qualifying. There are many other professions or skills that one acquires in life
 
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where one spends some time working under supervision or where one is restricted to doing some things but not others.

Having the ability to drive and passing a driving test is a privilege. It is not something to be accomplished lightly or to be made light of. I hope that in his reply to these amendments the Minister will hold out something to us in that he might respond to our concerns about novice drivers.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: Amendment No. 120 in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, is grouped with Amendment No. 117 tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Dundee. The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, has taken very specific points, which is not what we intend with our Amendment No. 120. We wanted to make the prime point that the vehicle driven by a new driver should be clearly identifiable and that it should be apparent to anyone that the person driving that car had not had long experience.

I am not sure that six months is long enough, but the Government should take on board that some form of plate should be displayed for new drivers for a period, whatever that period, and there should be ways of testing what would be the ideal period. I have done some research in Australia where there are various restrictions for almost the first couple of years of driving. It is not for us tonight to decide exactly what time it should be, but whatever special measures are needed to help increase the safety of these young drivers—both for themselves and for the others who suffer the damaging effects of this very high percentage of accidents—they could be dealt with at a later stage by regulations. The regulations could then apply to whoever had to display this type of restricted plate. That applies as far as young people are concerned.

As regards older people getting licences for the first time, I remember clearly a case that came to court where one elderly lady drove with her L-plates on and she was pulled up and taken to court because she was showing L-plates when she was a fully qualified driver. The reason was, she said, that people got very impatient with her and, when they saw the L-plates, were a little more patient. The case was thrown out, of course; it was nonsense that it was ever brought, and it was a long time ago.

A lot of young people are not full of bravado but insecure new drivers. They would benefit from other drivers having a little more patience with them and taking into account their lack of experience. Those people would benefit by some type of plate being displayed. In other countries—I think that it is in effect in Australia—there is almost a nil alcohol level for new drivers, or so close as to be virtually nil. That has been accepted very well by young people. When they go for a night out, be it in the pub or to a party, they say, "So who's the driver?". They select the driver and that person does not have alcohol; they drive for the others. That seems to be the type of situation at which we should aim, with the driver going to a party being clear that they should not drive with any degree of alcohol
 
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that could be even moderately dangerous. They would be more dangerous than a very experienced driver with the same small level of alcohol.

I support in principle many of the points in the amendment tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, and I certainly would like the Government to consider some form of identification of the newly qualified driver.

Lord Berkeley: I support the principle of the amendments, although I am not sure that any of them is totally right. The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, said that people passing their test might be frightened; they might equally well be testosterone-fuelled, but either is equally dangerous. They need to be identified to other people and need some restriction on what they are able to do, for their own benefit. You can think of many examples where people get frightened. I understand why someone went around wearing L-plates because they were given a bit more space. Drivers do not always treat other drivers with respect.

I am sure that something needs to be done. In most other forms of training to allow you to be in charge of something that can go extremely fast and kill people if you get it wrong, you do not usually just pass your test on whatever it is and get let out into the big wide world to do exactly what you like. Whether it is six months, two years, five years or whatever, there must be some graduation for people, for their own benefit and that of everyone else. I hope that my noble friend will be able to say that he will take the ideas away, look at them and come back on Report with something that brings in the good parts of all the amendments.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie: Amendment No. 120 reminds us of the special legislative provisions in Northern Ireland. I believe that compulsory seatbelts were trialled in Northern Ireland. That trial was clearly found to be satisfactory so compulsory seatbelts were extended to the whole United Kingdom. Then we have the R-plate, which is still legislated for in Northern Ireland but not elsewhere. Is it the view of the department and the Government that that experiment has worked or failed? If it is working, why is it not being extended? If it has failed, why is it still on the statute book?

Lord Davies of Oldham: I am grateful to Members of the Committee for the careful way in which they have presented their amendments, but I have the bad news that I shall resist them, despite the fact that I of course agree that we want to raise the standards of driving in this country. We are cognisant of the fact that newly qualified drivers have a higher risk of an accident in the early, post-test period than more experienced drivers. That is scarcely surprising because all skills need practice for their enhancement. Of course, that is a worry, but there is no evidence from Northern Ireland or anywhere else that displaying particular plates reduces the risk of accidents. I can see that it might give a certain element of satisfaction to those drivers who do not carry such plates. It might look as though that would improve road behaviour. But we have no
 
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evidence from Northern Ireland or anywhere else in the world where newly qualified drivers carry special plates that they reduce accidents.

9.15 pm

The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, moved the amendment about the "R" plate. We discussed the question of alcohol levels in an earlier amendment, and I sought to articulate then that we do not see why newly qualified drivers should be subject to any greater restriction than anyone else. There are strict limits on alcohol and we have condign punishments for those who break such limits. We fail to see why a newly qualified driver should come under greater restriction.

I am not basing my argument on some cavalier response to intelligent amendments that have been carefully thought through. I would not be cavalier in any case. I know that the amendments have substantial careful thought behind them, as have our responses. We have consulted extensively on how to improve the position of newly qualified drivers. We all recognise the accident statistics and the proof that our roads are difficult to cope with. Drivers need a high level of skill to drive safely.

We have responded by making the test increasingly rigorous, and by trying to improve the techniques of the trainers of those who give driving instruction. We would argue that people who have just passed the test cannot have a level of competence that matches that of the experienced driver because nothing can substitute for experience. I recognise the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, that it would be impossible for us to introduce fairly into the test a requirement to drive on motorways. Newly qualified drivers can drive on motorways. That may be looked on as an added danger, but motorways are the safest roads on which to drive. If all newly qualified drivers spent all their time on motorways there would not be the accident rate that we have.


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