Novice Drivers

Commons Hansard
7 Feb 2008

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): 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.


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. I also believe that there is consensus 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.

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 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 entertainment 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.

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 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 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.


Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): ... There is also another group of older novices; people who do not have a driving licence. Joyce Walker, a redoubtable lady in my village, recently lost her husband, who was a former Desert Rat tank commander. Despite being well into her 70s, she decided that she would have to learn to drive and get a licence, because driving was the only way that she could get to the shops or have any sort of social life. I would be concerned if measures introduced to make the tests more difficult and to make it take longer for younger drivers to get a licence would impinge on that type of driver; they are not the sort of people who are causing the death and carnage on our roads.

Mr. Martlew: Is the hon. Gentleman advocating that we have two standards; that young people should do a year and older people should not?

Mr. Goodwill: Not at all. My point is that any change that is introduced must take into account the fact that not everyone who learns to drive is under 20. We cannot have an easy test and a hard test, but the universal regulations should recognise the fact that not only younger drivers take the driving test in this country. The same is true for some foreign drivers. Although some residents of Commonwealth countries can get a British driving licence, others must retake their test. It is difficult to tell someone who has been driving all their life - possibly even a professional driver - that they must wait 12 months to get their licence, despite the fact that they have been driving for many years in a different country.

Mr. Martlew: I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman again, but he is speaking from the Conservative Front Bench. Will he tell us whether he supports the Select Committee with regard to the year-long learning period?

Mr. Goodwill: It is something that we are looking at very closely. We will unveil our Green Paper towards the end of the summer, but a number of issues need to be addressed. The year-long period would not meet our requirements in the case of rural-proofing policy.


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): ... Many others have a keen interest in road safety and the welfare of young people. There are more than 40,000 registered driving instructors, who work with learners every day and have a first-hand view of the present arrangements and the scope to improve. We have spoken to some of them to shape our consultation proposals. Like everyone else, I am keen for the consultation paper to be issued so that we can engage fully in this important debate. It will be published soon. We hope that it will be out before the Easter recess - earlier if possible - but we also want to consider the matters raised today.

Mr. Martlew: My hon. Friend is being very helpful, and we look forward to the publication of the consultation before the Easter recess, as I believe he said. How long will the consultation take?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I have no reason to believe that it will be anything other than the normal 12-week consultation, as per Cabinet rules. Clearly, the volume of responses to the consultation will determine how quickly we can sift and analyse them but, given how much work has already been undertaken and how much is in the public domain, we want to move as expeditiously as possible. Clearly, I strongly take the point that my hon. Friend and others made that time is of the essence, because the longer we take to reform and improve the system, the more people will be exposed to the dangers on our roads that we want to reduce and to minimise.


Jim Fitzpatrick: My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) raised the matter of rural roads. I intervened in his speech - he generously gave way. I can tell him that the beacon counties that were chosen were Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Devon and Norfolk, because they had a particularly good record. We therefore felt that those counties would use the money more wisely. However, the information and evidence that show how they have determined what works for them will be shared with all other interested local authorities, so that it will benefit the whole country.

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On behalf of Eric Martlew, 3 Chatsworth Square Carlisle Cumbria CA1 1HB