Paul Melia: Training for new drivers - what on earth took so long?
WE shouldn't be patting ourselves on the back about the introduction of a formal training programme for learner drivers. It should have happened years ago.
The fact that one in every eight drivers on Irish roads is not qualified should have focused minds a little earlier, particularly when statistics show that drivers aged 17-24 years, who tend to be the ones holding learner permits, are among the most dangerous behind the wheel.
The Road Safety Authority (RSA) says motorists are inexperienced until they have driven 100,000km in all weather and traffic conditions. That's an average of seven years on the road before being considered competent.
The problem is that new drivers, excited about the independence and mobility afforded by a car, often forget that every time they get behind the wheel they're in charge of tonnes of metal with the potential to cause death and serious injury to themselves and others.
Speeding, drink/drug driving and fatigue are the primary causes of collisions. Combined with inexperience, these make a deadly cocktail.
The move to a Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) system will help change our outdated methods of driver 'training' to one where the privilege of driving a car is only granted after ability is proven.
GDL systems are not new and are in place in a number of countries including the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Many of our EU neighbours -- including Britain and the North -- also have them.
Each system is different, but they generally include a range of restrictions for learner drivers, with some being carried up to two years after passing a driving test.
They include a night-time curfew for learner drivers, a restriction on the number or age of passengers who can be carried, a requirement that all learners are supervised while driving and the introduction of a low alcohol limit.
Compulsory training, accelerated penalty points for offences committed by learners and a restriction on engine sizes are also used to make the learner less-risky to other road users.
British Columbia in Canada has a GDL system where drivers must learn for at least three years before getting a full licence.
Learners aged 16 years must pass a theory test before getting a permit, and they are subject to supervised driving, a zero alcohol limit, a restriction on passengers and a night-time curfew that applies from 12-5am.
Accelerated penalty points are also applied, and after a minimum of 12 months' driving the learner must pass a 45-minute road test to go onto the next phase.
The second phase lasts for two years. Any traffic offences committed during this period mean going back to the start of the second phase. A 50-minute road test is passed before securing a full licence.
Authorities claim that between 2003 -- 2006, the programme saved at least 31 lives and saw a 28pc reduction in crashes among new drivers.
In Australia, learner drivers must complete 50 hours of supervised driving before applying for a test. There are proposals to increase this to 120 hours. The Czech Republic requires 36 hours of theory and 28 hours driving practice.
The system proposed here is less onerous, but will still be criticised. Some will say it doesn't go far enough, others will claim that the cost of completing formal training will place an unfair financial burden on some, depriving them of the opportunity to learn.
Road collisions cost the economy a staggering €1.2bn in 2008, with the cost made up of lost output to the economy because workers are not available, either through death or injury. There are also medical costs, property damage, insurance administration, policing costs and the cost of social welfare payments.
But yet some will still baulk at forcing people to take lessons in an effort to prevent untold human misery and unnecessary spending by the hard-pressed taxpayer.
Sweeping changes in attitudes and the law have resulted in Irish roads becoming safer, particularly in the last decade.
It is no longer acceptable to drink and drive. Speeding is less accepted, and gardai have ramped up enforcement in this area.
In the 1970s, when traffic volumes were lower than today, the 'best' year saw 525 killed, the worst 640. A decade ago, in 2001, 411 people died on the roads. Last year 240 people were killed, the lowest since records began in 1961.
But the fact is a driver could still qualify as a driver with no formal training and experience, meaning they were more likely to crash and cause mayhem.
Ireland is now the seventh-safest country in the EU for road safety. Deaths among 17- to 24-year-olds have fallen by 34pc in the last decade.
The vast majority of young drivers are sensible in their driving habits, but that doesn't mean they don't need training, too.
While some will criticise the changeover to a formal system, most other countries will look at us as say: "Big deal, what's taken so long?"