Commons Gate

Novice Drivers (HC 355-iii)

Transport Committee 21 Mar 2007

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Evidence given by Dr Stephen Ladyman MP, Minister of State for Transport, Mr Andrew Burr, Head of Branch, Road Safety Division, Department for Transport, and Mrs Rosemary Thew, Chief Executive, Driving Standards Agency, Mr Neil Cunliffe, Road Safety Group Manager, Lancashire County Council, Mr Brian Pierce, Driver Education Services Manager, Warwickshire County Council, Mr Jonathan Smith, Chair of Cumbria Road Safety Partnership, and Superintendent Ted Thwaites, Cumbria Police.

Q359 Mr. Eric Martlew: Firstly, in your opening remarks, Minister, you gave the implication that the past was not a problem, that the statistics were not getting any worse. We have evidence before us which says that I think in 1992 there were 12 fatalities for youngsters between 17 and 20 for every 100,000 licences issued. It is now, I think, 22, so it has gone from 12 to 22 in those ten years. It does indicate a serious problem, would you agree?

Dr Ladyman: First of all, I am not disagreeing that there is a serious problem.

Q360 Mr. Eric Martlew: There is a problem and it is getting worse?

Dr Ladyman: All I am saying is it might not be getting worse, but it certainly is not getting better as fast as I would like it to get. I can certainly agree with you about that. It may be getting worse. I am not sure we have the data to say absolutely that it is getting worse yet, and one of the factors you would have to build into those statistics is how many miles people are driving now compared with how many miles they were driving in 1992. It might be that per 100,000 kilometres driven it is not getting worse. Having said that, I think this is a sterile argument. I am accepting there is a problem. Even if that is a problem of something getting worse or a problem of it not getting better fast enough, I am entirely accepting there is a problem which needs to be addressed.

Q361 Mr. Eric Martlew: You are perhaps the first person - and we have interviewed a lot - who has perhaps given some indication of why there is a problem and that is an increase in lawlessness amongst some of our young people. Would you think that is the case?

Dr Ladyman: I am not saying that I could give you the hard data to support that absolutely at this time, but that is my instinct.

Q362 Mr. Eric Martlew: That basically what is happening with crime in the cities could be an indication of this as well?

Dr Ladyman: That is exactly right.

Q363 Mr. Eric Martlew: When we come to the issue of a graduated driving licence, for example, what is your view on that?

Dr Ladyman: Once again, I am not going to close down any options at this stage because it would be wrong to do so, especially since I have not seen the Select Committee's views on this yet, but instinctively I do not see that as being the answer for two reasons: one, I have not heard any convincing case from anybody yet about how it could be enforced. I know people could drive around with "P" plates, but the idea that the police could look into a car and see the age of the driver and make judgments about how many passengers he is supposed to have or not supposed to have just strikes me as being very, very difficult to enforce. I am open to be convinced, if somebody can tell me how it can be done, but I do not see it. The other problem I have with it is that it seems to be predicated on a contradiction. It seems to me to be predicated on the idea that people are not fully equipped to drive safely under all circumstances and whilst accompanied when they pass their test, and therefore we need to do something after they have passed their test until they are qualified.

Q364 Chairman: That is not quite what it is, though, Minister, is it? It is a different presumption. It is an assumption that you can have all the skills imparted to you in relation to the control of an engine and the control of a moving body but you will not have the experience which someone older and wiser who has been driving a long time would have which they could impart to new drivers.

Dr Ladyman: Therefore the logic, it seems to me, is to make sure you have that experience and training before you get the qualification to go and drive unaccompanied and under these circumstances, rather than after we have given you a licence we then say, "Okay, we've given you a licence but now we're going to impose some conditions on it." I would much rather we look at how close we can get to making sure you have those skills and experience before we give you the driving licence.

Q365 Mr. Eric Martlew: The logic from that would be that people would really need the experience of driving in different conditions, for example in wintry weather, always depending upon whether we got snow. There would be that. There would be the point that people would have to drive on the country roads when it is dark. So we are heading towards an extended period of training, are we not?

Dr Ladyman: That could well be the conclusion that we come to after this consultation, but certainly if you are going to have a much more structured and varied training process before you can take the test and then a much more complex test, those may well be the conclusions that emerge from it.

Q366 Mr. Eric Martlew: That brings us to another point, which is maybe contradictory to what I said before. I was recently talking to secondary school pupils in one of the rural schools in my constituency, Caldew, and these are youngsters who do not really have a social life unless they have transport, and they were not necessarily too keen on raising the age to 18 or adding a year. Have you ever thought of allowing them to start, under supervision, training at an earlier age, sixteen and a half, perhaps?

Dr Ladyman: I have certainly given that some thought and I would be interested in the Committee's views on it.

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Q383 Mr. Eric Martlew: To come back to the Minister's point, I have got a letter here from our Chief Constable where he does advocate a curfew on inexperienced drivers. The problem we tend to have in our area is on Friday and Saturday nights with young drivers with a car full, very often men and women, hitting a tree with nobody else involved. The view we have had from earlier evidence is that the pressure from the parent, if it was illegal, would stop that happening in some cases. You cannot be out at that time, you cannot be in the car. Not because it is dangerous, but because you are breaking the law. What are your views on that? I will let you have a copy of the Chief Constable's letter.

Dr Ladyman: I would be grateful for a copy of the Chief Constable's letter, but perhaps you can tell me whether it says in that letter that he would be prepared to supply additional police resources to enforcing it?

Q384 Mr. Eric Martlew: I am sure the Chief Constable would not be asking for these changes to the law if he was not prepared to -

Dr Ladyman: I am sorry, I just do not accept that, Mr Martlew. I have had more requests from Chief Constables for more laws, which they have no intention whatsoever of providing extra resources to enforce, than I have had hot dinners!

Q385 Mr. Eric Martlew: Is that not a matter for the Home Office, Minister?

Dr Ladyman: Maybe it is, but Chief Constables should not be asking for new laws unless they are actually prepared to put policemen at the side of roads and obey them.

Q386 Chairman: On the whole, Chief Constables, God save us, are not the most imaginative of men!

Dr Ladyman: Or women!

Q387 Chairman: Well, I am sure they are brilliant, yes. Are we really assuming that they are so irresponsible that they would say something like this just on the basis of, you know, "I really want some more policemen and if I say this I will get them"?

Dr Ladyman: What I am suggesting to you is that it is very easy to write a letter and it is very easy to come up with knee-jerk solutions to problems which actually -

Q388 Chairman: You are making them sound like politicians, Minister! Don't go any further.

Dr Ladyman: Well, far be it from me to suggest that policemen are politicians. I have not actually addressed the nub of your issue, which I think is actually one of the reasons why I am very keen to see the insurance database, and the reason for that is that I would like to know whether there is a difference between the rate of serious accidents amongst that group of people who are driving mum's or dad's car or who could be insured by mum and dad and who come from a structured family background compared with those people who are either driving uninsured or who have insured themselves.

Q389 Chairman: Are you saying that only if they are insured by mum and dad can we be sure they are coming from a "structured" family background? I can tell you of some pretty rich families I know which are fairly dysfunctional.

Dr Ladyman: I did not suggest that at all. That was a conclusion which you jumped to, Chairman. All I am saying is that the insurance database will contain information about which young people are driving a car, which is the family car rather than their own car, and which of them has been insured by mum and dad as opposed to themselves and it would be interesting to see whether there is a difference in the accident statistics of those two groups of people because, rather like the implication of Mr Martlew's question, I suspect that families have a lot of influence over the way you drive your car. I know that when my stepson passed his test I had a view about whether he should be out at night driving it until he was experienced. I had a view about how many friends he should be picking up and driving in the car because I know the way young men react in these circumstances. If you are not in that sort of environment, if you do not have those sorts of controls, maybe you do then find yourself more susceptible to peer pressure.

Q390 Mr. Eric Martlew: Why not give those parents some support for them being allowed to say to the youngsters, "You'll be breaking the law"?

Dr Ladyman: There are many ways in which we could do that and if the insurance companies are so concerned that young people should not be out at night they could do it through the insurance policies, and most of them do not. You have got to ask yourselves why.

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Q435 Mr. Eric Martlew: Just on that point, I think the evidence we have got is that we usually have about 60 road deaths a year in Cumbria and usually probably 25, 26 or 27 of those will be novice drivers, and that seems to be getting worse. That does not indicate that the training is working?

Mr Smith: We have a number of features of road casualties in Cumbria in particular which Mr Martlew is aware of. There are two particular features of unrelenting casualties in Cumbria in particular. One is around fatal crashes. We are having considerable success in reducing the numbers of people killed and seriously injured in the country, but the number of fatalities on the road is not going down in the same trend. Similarly, among young drivers aged between 16 and 20, and by 20 and 25, there is a similar failure to reduce along the lines which have been experienced in other age groups and that is why that gives us a particular cause for concern in Cumbria, it is the novice driver issue, because of the success in other areas and the failure of that age group to respond.

Mr Pierce: Could I just talk about what we tried to do in Warwickshire? I do agree that there is not a lot of evidence to support education and the reduction of casualties. What we are actually doing is we have taken a base year now, the year that we actually started with casualties, and we are actually measuring the reduction in casualties each of age bands. Our assumption, and this is not 100 per cent accurate, but if there is a large statistical variation between the reduction in the 17 to 20 year olds compared with the other bands we believe some of that will be attributable to the education. It comes back to my first point, that we think we are legitimate in saying that because 75 per cent of the young drivers do have home addresses within the Warwickshire area.

Mr Smith: Would it be possible to try to answer Mr Martlew's question, because I think I stopped before I did? There is a view in Cumbria, and I think it is reflected elsewhere, that there is an increasing number of casualties per collision among young people. So where perhaps in the past young people being injured in road crashes were on their own in the car or perhaps one other person involved, there is an increasing incidence of large numbers of young people in a car being seriously injured at the same time, and I think we believe that the number of crashes has not increased but the number of casualties has, and that is associated with that particular trend.

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Q443 Mr. Eric Martlew: Just on that, this is the problem about teaching the youngsters at a very early age. Are there any negative aspects outside like computer games, t.v. shows like Top Gear? Do you think these have an influence on people's attitudes?

Mr Cunliffe: I honestly believe there is, and there is actually some evidence out just recently, I think it is reported in the papers, that computer games are actually destroying our youngsters, their attitudes to driving, et cetera, these fast computer games. If you die, you get back up and you are back in the car again. It does not work like that. What we have got to do is work with these youngsters, especially the youngsters who are on learner status, and say, "This is the real world. This is how it is," and I think that has to be explained properly. Once it is explained to them what the real world is about driving a vehicle they tend to accept it more readily, but at the moment what they accept is that it is £25 for a lesson, 40 lessons and they get their test, "There's my rite of passage." That is not the way to do it. I think there are programmes, Jeremy Clarkson, et cetera, where it is all about performance vehicles. It is a performance lifestyle and the youngsters aspire to that. What we have got to do is to take that reality or that non-reality and put it back into reality with these youngsters. When they can see that, they can get changes. However, they pass their test in a Vauxhall Nova 1200, whatever, and they can drive father's BMW the day after. Have we got it right? That is the question we should be asking as well.

Superintendent Thwaites: Our attitudes, and more particularly the attitudes of our children, are informed by a number of sources and obviously computer games are a significant attraction. They introduce an element of risk without any possibility of the consequences to them. Obviously other things such as television influences and influences from outside media, as well as from peers are equally influential, but certainly all of these things combine together to introduce an element of consequence, or rather risk without consequence, which is of concern to us all.

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Q460 Mr. Eric Martlew: I hope you do think I am na´ve, Mr Cunliffe, because unlike education where it is either free or you pay a fee, when you are taking driving lessons you pay per half hour, or whatever, so it is actually that which is the pressure put on the driving instructor to get people through as quickly as possible, is it not?

Mr Cunliffe: But what is the naivety? At the end of the day it is not a right, it is something we have to work to achieve. What is the na´ve part? I do not understand where you are coming from.

Q461 Mr. Eric Martlew: I think what the Chairman was saying was that there would be pressure on the instructors to sign people off, perhaps if they were ready or not, because of the cost implications or the fact that they could go to another instructor who would do it.

Mr Cunliffe: But then we have got to change that ethos. That is no different from MOTs years ago where you paid somebody in a back street to give you one. We have got to change the whole ethos of what we are trying to achieve. What we are trying to achieve is better, younger drivers for our future. It might be na´ve to say at the start it is going to be difficult to do, but just because it is difficult does not mean to say we should not be doing it.

Q462 Mr. Eric Martlew: You accept it will be difficult?

Mr Cunliffe: I accept it will be difficult, but I think actually the work we have done is showing that yes, it can be achieved and if we can get an outcome then that should steer us into the future.

Superintendent Thwaites: I would just like to make clear my position on the experience needed and just to pick up the point which my colleague from Lancashire has made, which is that it is possible that somebody could cram in the last two months of a 12 month period and therefore the 12 month period alone is not adequate. It is equally possible that if it was a 100 hour period that could be taken in two weeks, that somebody could take a crammer course, as people do now, and actually not have sufficient experience in a variety of conditions and over a variety of time to enable them to actually take their test. Therefore, I think a combination of the two, some amalgam of the two, is necessary.

Mr Smith: Can I just suggest that one of the benefits of taking a longer time over the test is a matter which was raised in the previous evidence you received about age. The longer the graduated process takes the older the driver becomes, and the older they become the less risky their behaviour is likely to be.

Q463 Chairman: What would your answer be, however, that if you make it more and more complex they will all try and avoid taking it and they will all be cheerfully taking to the roads without any insurance, any licence or any qualifications at all?

Mr Smith: My view would be that there are some people, a very small minority of people, who commit crime and that includes driving without licences and without insurance. But it is a very small minority of people who do that and by and large most people are law-abiding citizens who will comply with the law. I agree that by making it more difficult, and certainly perhaps by making it most costly, there would be issues of equality and equity of access to private transport, which would be an issue in a rural county like Cumbria in particular. Nevertheless, I do not see that it would drive enormous numbers of people into illegality.

Q464 Mr. Eric Martlew: On that very point - and you picked up on the rural aspect of a county like Cumbria, but obviously there are large towns like Carlisle and Barrow - there is a lot of young people who, if they are going to have any social life at all will need to learn to drive and get a licence as quickly as possible. Public transport is bad. Are you really suggesting that they should not be allowed to pass their test until they are 18?

Mr Smith: I think Mr Martlew has a very valid point. He is on the absolute apex of the crux of the dilemma, is he not? It is not just about social activity either, it is about economic activity and educational opportunities. If you live in a county which is the second largest county in the UK and has a population about the size of Southampton, then a very large proportion of your activities require you to be able to get about by private transport. Every year that passes in somebody's age they acquire more experience and generally become more imaginative about the consequences of their actions, which is revealed, I think, in the casualty trends that we see. However, to exclude people from the ability to move about independently in a deeply rural county where there is not much public transport could have a disastrous effect on the local economy, and I think that is a dilemma which needs to be addressed by this Committee.

This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

The full transcript is available at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmselect/cmtran/uc355-iii/uc35502.htm

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