RSA Expert: Why we have to change attitudes on how we're learning to drive
It's all about saving lives by being more careful drivers, our Road Safety Authority expert says
Like many of you, I couldn't wait to get my driving licence. Passing the test ranks up there with some of the biggest milestones you'll experience. It's an acknowledgement that you're finally mature enough to get behind the wheel of a car on your own.
There has always been this sense that the driving test is the final hurdle in the learning-to-drive process. I can understand the mentality. Back when I started, you did a few drives with your mum or dad, maybe paid an instructor for a few lessons too. The the end goal was passing your test and getting your licence, not what you learned along the way.
Then again, back when I did my driving test, we were killing more than 400 people on the roads every year. And among them were significant numbers of young and inexperienced drivers.
Over the past two decades, we have learned more about what causes fatalities and serious injuries. In most cases, it is the behaviour of the road-user. Perhaps they were driving too fast and lost control, or drinking, or not wearing seatbelts or high vis gear when out walking or cycling. The RSA has many public information campaigns to highlight those dangers. By and large, the message gets through.
Inexperience is also a significant contributory factor in collisions. Young/new drivers are particularly at risk when learning to drive and when they have just passed the test.
This is because they are not experienced enough to deal with every possible situation on the roads. A UK study suggests that drivers are not deemed 'experienced' until they have driven 100,000kms.
That's why the RSA has made significant developments in the way we train, license and test our drivers over the past few years through the Graduated Driver Licensing system.
Since 2010 and 2011, learner drivers are required to complete 12 mandatory lessons, learner bikers 16 lessons, and wait six months before they can sit the driving test. This is, of course, after they have passed the relevant Driver Theory Test which now includes questions on the impact of alcohol on your ability to drive.
While they are learning to drive, they must be accompanied by a fully licensed driver at all times and display L-plates on their car or tabard. Once they pass their test, they are required to display N-plates for two years to let other road-users know they are newly qualified, novice drivers and bikers. If they don't, they risk getting penalty points.
Unfortunately, recent figures show that 9,572 penalty points have been handed out to learner and novice drivers since 2014. The majority were given to learner drivers driving unaccompanied, or not displaying their L-plates. Learner and novice drivers who entered the system on August 1 2014 are now also subject to a lower threshold of seven penalty points before being disqualified.
Another important restriction designed to protect both learners and novice drivers is a lower drink-drive limit. This is set at 20mg, which is effectively administrative zero. And it's this restriction that's behind the setting of the two-year novice driver period. Studies have shown that when you set a two-year period during which newly qualified drives are restricted from drink driving, there is a strong likelihood that they will voluntarily 'self-impose' the restriction when it is lifted.
These are important measures to reduce the number of young and inexperienced people being killed. And they are working. Since 2008 there has been a drop in the number of 17 to 24-year-olds fatalities.
The challenge we face now is to change people's perception of learning to drive from the attainment of a final goal - the driving test - to the lifelong development of important skills.