Solo learners are only part of the problem
Eleven of the 13 learner drivers who died on our roads in 2017 were unaccompanied - driving without someone with a full driving licence for at least two years. From 2014 to 2016, of the 35 learners involved in fatal collisions, 25 were unaccompanied.
Significant improvements have been made for learners that can be linked to compliance with and enforcement of laws governing new drivers such as N-plates and lower alcohol limits, but while the number of learners being killed continues to fall, the high proportion of unaccompanied learners in that group remains static.
As young drivers face the steepest car insurance costs, many parents would simply add their son or daughter to their own policy. However, tougher sanctions for learner drivers and car owners who facilitate them driving unaccompanied are likely to be introduced in a proposed amendment to the Road Traffic Bill. If enacted, car owners could face a fine of up to €2,000, six months in prison, and have their vehicle seized if a learner driver is caught in it unaccompanied.
Treating the car owner and unaccompanied learner driver equally in the eyes of the law is not without its challenges: how likely is the law to be enforced and what signifies consent? A more measured approach may be to seize the car.
It has been illegal for learners to drive unaccompanied since 2008. But the message is still not getting through. Our blase attitude to learners driving unaccompanied comes from the time when you had to wait years for a driving test; an Irish solution to an Irish problem allowed holders of second provisional licences to drive unrestricted.
Reductions in waiting times for the test over the past few years means there is no excuse for those breaching the terms of the learner permit. The Road Safety Authority (RSA) target time is 10 weeks but depending on location and test centre preference, waiting times vary considerably. In Wexford it is 18.5 weeks and Birr is 8.6 weeks. Priority will be given to those who require a test urgently for a job or who can be flexible and make use of cancellations.
Since 2011, all new learners are required to complete Essential Driver Training (EDT), a 12-lesson programme to improve critical driving skills. Statistically, almost half of all people taking their driving tests fail, with the national pass rate at 53pc. According to RSA research, those that underwent EDT are much more likely to turn up for their test appointment, are better prepared and have a higher pass rate. But are 12 lessons enough?
More needs to be done to safeguard new drivers. Research tells us that novice drivers are most likely to be killed in the first two years after passing their test. This is due to a lack of experience, a tendency to take more risks and speed. Maybe building a positive driving environment for young drivers starts with a conversation before they ever get behind the wheel. Spending time teaching road safety and citizenship in secondary schools could be where the real benefit lies.