Graduated driver licensing has been tabled for debate at this years Annual Representative Meeting. Some food for thought from Dr Sarah Jones on the topic below – thanks Sarah! I’m looking forward to a good debate.
Passing the driving test is, for most new drivers, the key to freedom and independence. Unfortunately, for too many it also leads to high risk driving and around one in five new drivers crashing within six months of passing their test. New young drivers are at even higher risk and at around 18 months post-test their crash risk is still three times higher than their parents
It’s not surprising that new driver crash risk is high; driving is a complex motor skill. It takes time and practice to master it consistently and competently as well as deal with the whole host of new driving environments. For some new drivers, heavy rain or darkness may be completely new experiences.
For young new drivers, inexperience is complicated by age; with youth comes confidence, exuberance, risk taking, peer pressure, impulsivity and hormones. This all means that for new young drivers even driving within the law can lead to crashes.
The high risk circumstances for new young drivers are well known; night time driving, driving with teenaged passengers in the car and driving after drinking alcohol. At night, distances are more difficult to judge. With teen passengers the weight of the car is changed, and so is the handling, and there is likely to be more distraction and less concentration. Alcohol has a more pronounced effect on driving skills of new drivers, especially young ones, than it does older drivers.
This is not new knowledge and the high crash risk of new young drivers is not a new concern. But, in the UK, as overall crash rates have fallen, young driver crashes have become more important. Young driver crashes are falling in number, but not as quickly as for older drivers and, for some groups may actually be increasing.
So what can we do about it?
Perhaps not surprisingly, this is not just a UK problem – new drivers are new drivers wherever they are and teenagers are always teenagers! So, when we look to other countries to see how they have dealt with this, Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) is often the answer.
GDL is used in countries including the USA, Canada, Austalia and New Zealand to reduce crash risk for new drivers. Some places use it for all new drivers, others just for new young drivers (usually under 25s).
So what is it?
It’s a system for allowing new drivers to gain driving experience in conditions of low risk. Exposure to high risk situations – night time driving, carrying teen passengers and drinking any alcohol – is limited. Differences between the countries that use GDL, such as, age for learning and legal age for drinking alcohol, mean that it is impossible to describe an ideal GDL, but we know that ‘best practice’ includes these three elements.
The way it works is to make learning to drive a three stage process. Stage one is the learner period, usually of a minimum length, with learners passing a test to move on to the next stage. Stage two is the intermediate stage, again of fixed length, and the new young driver can then drive unsupervised, but only during the day and not whilst carrying any teen passengers nor having drunk alcohol. A supervisor in the car removes all restrictions, as long as the supervisor is fully licensed, aged over 25 and sober!
One way to think of GDL is as a teenagers version of a toddlers stair gate. In fact, the whole learner driver process is very similar to a toddler learning to walk. There’s a world of difference between first steps and walking without falling. In the meantime, parents tend to keep toddlers away from dangerous places and these are generally agreed to be stairs and fires. The best way of doing this is with a stair gate and GDL is just a teen version of a stair gate.
Does it work?
For the same reasons that we can’t state what the ‘ideal’ form of GDL is, we can’t say what the exact benefit of GDL is. But, a recent review of all of the available evidence relating to GDL concluded that it only has a positive effect on crashes and casualties.
In New Zealand, fatalities amongst 15 to 19 year olds fell by 57% with the implementation of a 10pm to 5am, no teen passengers and no alcohol GDL system. Learners there begin at 15. In Florida, crash injuries to 15 to 17 year olds fell by 8% with a night time curfew of 11pm to 6am for learners who can begin at 15 years 6 months, but not obtain a full licence until 18. Nova Scotia saw a 28% decrease in all crashes involving 16 to 19 year olds with a midnight to 5am curfew for learners who can begin at 16, but not obtain a full licence until 18 years and 3 months. Across 43 states of the USA, there has been a 31% drop in crashes involving 16 to 19 year olds.
GDL has also been shown to increase parent and teen empowerment; so, teens feel more able to ‘say no’ to carrying groups of friends as passengers, their parents feel more able to restrict teen driving.
So if it’s that good, why don’t we have it in the UK?
The UK Government know that the young driver crash problem is an important one that needs to be dealt with, but they are not currently willing to consider GDL. UK Government arguments against GDL include older learner age in the UK, that the effect of GDL is unproven, that improving training and education will reduce crashes and that introducing GDL will devalue the current learner process.
Of course, for every argument there is a counter argument! The UK learner age is higher than in many countries with GDL, but because of the length of time it takes to go through the GDL system, teens in many places are older than UK teens before they get a full licence.
The effect of GDL has been demonstrated in many places, but the effect of training and education is not clear. Obviously, basic driver training is an important part of the learning process, but there are no formal requirements of this in the UK – many other countries have learners use a workbook to guide learning. Also, programmes such as pre-driver training in schools and post licence training have an unclear effect on crash risk. Some feel that these type of programmes actually increase crash risk because they increase driver confidence.
GDL is not intended to devalue the current licensing system, but to complement it. Basic skills and competence are important to safe driving, but new drivers need time to build experience and to minimise their risk, and the risk to other road users while they are doing this. This is what GDL offers.
Dr Sarah J Jones