Learners who use our roads as a playground must be driven out
The sentencing of an unaccompanied learner driver this week for causing the death of a mother and daughter last Christmas in tragic circumstances has prompted an overdue debate on how to protect the public from high-risk drivers on our roads. The case exposed the all-consuming grief of those bereaved and the remorse of the young driver convicted.
Of course the case was exceptional. No comparisons can be made or conclusions drawn on an individual basis, but it has brought a focus to a wider problem.
Of the total number of drivers on Ireland's roads, stated to be around 2.5 million, 250,000 are learners. These young drivers lack experience but the majority behave sensibly, and in the main will mature to become experienced and competent. Nevertheless some of these young drivers die on our roads or are responsible for the deaths of others.
Regrettably, there is a particular cohort of young drivers who are high risk takers. The combination of inexperience and a reckless lifestyle forms a catastrophic cocktail. Overconfidence, bravado, immaturity and peer pressure combined with alcohol, not wearing seat belts, drugs or speed. This is the scenario that frequently ends in horrific crashes.
There is a further subset, a very small number who treat the public roads as their playground. They care neither for their own lives nor the lives of others. Little can be done to change their delinquent behaviour. The only solution is to remove their right to drive on the public roads.
Learner and novice drivers are themselves among our most vulnerable road users. Crash data both here and abroad shows that learner and novice drivers, particularly in the first two years after passing their test, are at greater risk than experienced drivers. The evidence suggests that a motorist is considered to be inexperienced until he or she has driven 100,000 kilometres.
It is common for inexperienced drivers to overestimate their ability and skill levels. This places them at higher risk of being involved in a collision.
Research conducted in the UK shows that an 18-year-old driver is more than three times more likely to be involved in a crash than a 48- year-old. Furthermore, one in five new drivers has a crash within six months of passing their test.
The Road Safety Authority has a particular focus on young drivers. The learner permit has now replaced the provisional licence. The days of having several dog-eared provisional licences and driving on them for years have long gone. The driving instruction industry is now regulated by the RSA, ensuring learners get a quality standard of instruction. The new Graduated Licensing System informs the way new drivers learn to drive. It places certain restrictions on a driver during the learning phase and also the danger zone immediately after passing their test. This means that the learner driver who graduates to a full licence in the future will be a better safer driver.
Public discourse this week revealed a good deal of confusion about learner drivers and the law.
A learner permit is just that, a permit; it is not a driving licence. A learner permit allows an individual to learn to drive under certain conditions, until they are ready to take their driving test. These include, that they be accompanied by a driver who has held their full licence for more than two years and that L plates are displayed at all times to alert other motorists to the presence of a learner driver. They must sit a theory test, take 12 mandatory driving lessons, wait six months before they can take their test and are subject to a lower drink-driving limit and penalty point threshold of seven points. These are tough rules and for good reason.
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. They are also restricted to a lower drink-drive limit.
These laws are there to protect this group who are vulnerable road users by the fact that they are inexperienced drivers. The rules are there also to protect other road users who might fall victim to their inexperience.
There has always been the notion that the driving test is the final hurdle in the learning to drive process. In the old days, one did a few lessons with a parent and took a few professional lessons to finish off. But the end goal was passing your test and getting your licence, not what you learned along the way.
It is an offence for learner drivers to drive unaccompanied or without L plates. This law is regularly ignored. Some parents turn a blind eye and allow youngsters to use the family car or ignore their non-compliance. Unfortunately, recent figures show that almost 10,000 penalty points have been handed out to learner and novice drivers since points were introduced in December 2014. The majority were given to learner drivers caught driving unaccompanied, or not displaying their L plates.
These are important life-saving measures put in place to reduce the number of young and inexperienced people being killed on our roads. And they are working. In 2005 almost 10pc of learner drivers were involved in fatal collisions. By 2013 this had dropped to almost 3pc. But anecdotally non-compliance with the rule about being accompanied is widespread.
The challenge we face now is to shift people's perception of learning to drive from passing the test to the lifelong development of important skills. As with other life skills, parents have a huge role to play as influencers during the driver's learning phase. I would appeal directly to the parents of young learner drivers to intervene and not allow their son or daughter access to a vehicle, unless they are accompanied and have L plates displayed. Parental responsibility could be legislated for in respect of permitting vehicle access to unlicensed learner permit-holding drivers.
Last week we marked World Day of Remembrance for road traffic victims. Already this year 169 lives have been lost. All road deaths are calamitous and most are avoidable. Each death is a devastating loss to a family and community. The loss of a young person is a unique tragedy; this year two out of five victims to date were aged between 16 and 35 and most were drivers. The strict laws for learner drivers aim to put a wise head on young shoulders. It is to protect them and reduce crashes. Ideally to see a learner driver alone in the car should be as rare as a unicorn. The reality is different and it's up to us as a society to change that.