Justin Tomlinson is MP for Swindon North
It is every parent’s worst nightmare. The blue lights at the window, the knock at the door, the policeman on the doorstep to bear the life-changing news that your child has been killed or seriously injured in a car accident.
Sadly, this is the reality for four families every day in the UK. Our statistics on young driver deaths are some of the highest in the developed world, and we stand woefully behind many of our contemporary nations in taking action to change these figures.Young drivers account for just one in ten of licence holders, but one in four of road fatalities. Tinkering with legislation is not enough. We need bold reform to bring these figures down.
That is what I set out to do with my Private Member’s Bill, due for Second Reading this Friday. I have met with road safety charities, the insurance industry, driving instructor bodies and the emergency services. I have examined in detail how other countries have tackled this problem, and looked at what worked and what didn’t. Throughout, I have been mindful of the need to balance conflicting priorities: driver safety, individual freedom, economic contribution and enforceability. The Graduated Driver Licensing Scheme Bill strikes a balance I feel is appropriate.
A graduated driving licence seemed the obvious route to go down. Typically, upon passing the test, drivers receive a ‘graduate licence’ for any period between six months to two years that enables you to drive alone, but not with the freedoms of a full licence. Other nations like the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia have all implemented a graduated system of some description and to good effect. Coupled with some form of restriction in the ‘graduate’ period, such schemes have seen up to a 60% reduction in young driver road deaths.
I received many representations on what restrictions I should include on ‘graduate’ drivers in my Bill. The aggravating factors that increase risk for young drivers include driving at night, having passengers in the car and alcohol. Again it was about balancing conflicting priorities. I have opted for a 12 month ‘graduated licence’ period. In this period, drivers would be subject to a passenger limit of one and to a lower drink drive limit (five micrograms down from 35) or as close to zero as it is possible to get, allowing for naturally occurring alcohols.
Alcohol was an easy one for me. I know that the Government has concerns about the impact this could have on the night time economy, and argues that those who drink and drive will not be deterred by a lower limit. From my point of view, the argument for a zero limit in the first 12 months of driving is a simple one. Alcohol, even just one drink, even below the current drink-drive limit, impairs judgement. As a more experienced driver, this can be compensated to some degree by this experience and the skills and instincts it brings. Young drivers fresh out of the test do not have this; they cannot compensate. The economic argument does not cut it for me. We have the ability to eliminate the demonstrable added risk alcohol brings, the responsible thing is to act to do so.
The passenger limit is again about impairing judgement. The case evidence shows that so many of these accidents are when the car is full of young people. Talking to people, especially when they are in the back seats, is distracting. Again, young novice drivers cannot compensate. Again it is the responsible thing to do to limit the risk. One passenger is a fair balance between safety, freedom and enforceability.
Whilst the problem manifests itself after the test, it can be addressed before test, too. There is too big an element of luck in the test, luck that it was a quiet time of day or that the difficult manoeuvres, junction or route did not come up. You can attempt the test at any stage, and some people do get lucky. I know that the Government is examining a minimum learning period, but to me that smacks of a statist one-size fits all approach that overlooks the individual. Some people are gifted drivers, some are not. The learning process needs to reflect this.
That is why I am advocating graduated learning to sit alongside graduated licensing. We need a curriculum in driving, rather than a piecemeal list of examined elements. Rather than ‘yes, this person has been introduced to parallel parking’ it needs to be ‘yes, this person has executed parallel parking confidently and to a high standard’. It should be about competency, not about familiarity. This is something supported by the Driving Instructors Association, which proposes that a book of competencies needs to be signed off by an accredited instructor before you are allowed to book the test. This would be moderated by a group of advanced instructors to address fraud. I agree.
The final consideration is not only improving safety, but reducing insurance premiums. There will be a natural tendency for this to happen as a result of the reduced risk situation we would be creating in the ‘graduate period’, but more can be done. Again, the industry is like Government with a one size fits all approach where pricing is done according to the average risk. The issue with this is that the average is skewed hugely by the very reckless young drivers who literally cause death and destruction, driving up costs for their sensible contemporaries.
Government should do more to encourage the use of telematics technology to deliver a far more individual insurance product, where premium is based on your driving habits not on those of a mythical ‘average’ person. I believe this and the market and price incentives it creates also can play the role of regulation. Night-time driving is a prime example. Statistically, it is the most dangerous time of day for young drivers and therefore carries a higher risk. Rather than Government imposing a curfew, let insurance companies, through telematics, incentivise it with cashback and lower premiums for those who drive less at this time of day. Incentivising low risk behaviour rather than forcing it on young people through legislation is psychologically far more likely to produce the outcomes we want.
Since my Bill was first introduced to Parliament, 512 families have received that knock on the door. If we can do just something on Friday to reduce that number, we will have had a good day. We have the power to legislate to eliminate the obvious risks, to encourage better driving and to reform the system to produce better drivers. Now is not the time for caution nor tinkering. Another four families will today receive bad news. It is time that someone took responsibility and took action. I hope that Friday brings us one step closer to that.