New Clause 23

Road Safety Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 1:45 pm on 20th April 2006.

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Restrictions on new drivers

‘(1) The Road Traffic (New Drivers) Act 1995 (c. 13) is amended as follows.

(2) In section 1 (probationary period for newly qualified drivers), after subsection (4) insert—

“(5) During the course of the probationary period, the following conditions shall apply to a qualified driver—

(a) he may not drive accompanied by any person under the age of 21;

(b) he may drive only a vehicle fitted with a distinguishing mark determined by regulations issued by the Secretary of State indicating that the driver is a probationary driver; and

(c) he may not drive when the proportion of alcohol in his breath, blood or urine exceeds the prescribed limit.

(6) The Secretary of State shall prescribe by regulations the size, nature and colour of the distinguishing sign in subsection (5)(b) above.

(7) The prescribed limit of alcohol for the purposes of section 5(iii) above is—

(a) in the case of breath, 9 microgrammes of alcohol in 100 millilitres;

(b) in the case of blood, 20 milligrammes of alcohol in 100 millilitres; and

(c) in the case of urine, 27 milligrammes of alcohol in 100 millilitres.

(8) If a qualified driver drives in breach of any of the conditions set out in subsection (5), he is guilty of an offence.”'.—[Mr. Carmichael.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Transport 2:00 pm, 20th April 2006

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

This is my last new clause. I give credit to the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety—other hon. Members have a more distinguished pedigree of involvement with it than I have—for the drafting of the new clause. It was stimulated by an apparent change in the pattern of new drivers, the age at which people pass their driving tests and the consequences that that seems to be having for road safety.

It is clear that young people are taking the driving test later than ever before and that fewer young drivers are taking it. We can only speculate on the reasons for  that. I suspect that as more and more young people go into tertiary education, the greater burden of personal debt is having an effect on the number who are prepared to take on the expense of learning to drive and, when they have acquired their licence, the cost of a car, particularly the cost of insurance. However, the proportion of young people who are involved in serious road traffic accidents is rising dramatically and during the recess the AA Motoring Trust published stark figures for the period to 2004.

There is a fundamental difference between my approach and that of the Government. Competence and ability to drive stops being assessed on the day on which someone passes their test. I suggest—this is borne out by my personal experience and no doubt that of others—that there is a period post-test when people continue to learn significantly and acquire the degree of competence at which they plateau. The new clause recognises the practicality of that. Subsection (2) of the new clause would add to section 1 of the Road Traffic (New Drivers) Act 1995 a new subsection (5):

“During the course of the probationary period, the following conditions shall apply to a qualified driver—

(a) he may not drive accompanied by any person under the age of 21”.

I am delighted that I can fall back on this being a probing amendment, because I can see practical difficulties with that requirement, although it has been the experience of some states in America that such measures have been introduced quite effectively and caused a marked reduction in road deaths among young people. I have no doubt that the hon. Member for North Shropshire will have done internet research into the matter at some stage. I will be sad and disappointed if he has not.

More importantly, there is the proposal that a probationary driver should drive only a vehicle

“fitted with a distinguishing mark determined by regulations”—

‘P’ plates, so to speak.

Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden Labour, Wolverhampton South East

May I ask the hon. Gentleman about the business of a probationary driver not being accompanied by someone under the age of 21? I presume that the authors of the new clause had in mind the idea that a new driver is necessarily a young driver. It is possible that someone could pass the test in their mid-20s or 30s. The new clause would prohibit that person from taking their son or daughter in the car with them. Surely we would not want that.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

Yes, the hon. Gentleman is right. The reason for including the requirement was to raise the point, on which I should like to hear the Minister’s views, of the pattern of road traffic accidents that is emerging. As fewer young people are passing their driving test, the incidence of road traffic accidents involving a car with four, five or even more young people in it is becoming more pronounced. Such cases predominantly involve young people under the age of 21. We should consider that and debate it, so we needed to include it in the new clause. I can understand that there are some practical considerations, but we cannot just ignore the fact this is an emerging type of  road traffic accident. We will have to address it either by these means or at a later stage.

I suspect that the person who holds the driving licence and has the car is becoming the nominated driver for the evening more often. That puts him under greater pressure from his peers to take a measure of alcohol before driving, which contributes to the incidence of accidents following the pattern that I outlined. That is why we suggest in proposed new subsection (7) that for the probationary period, the alcohol limits to be allowed would be roughly a quarter of the current level—that is, 9 mg of alcohol in 100 ml of breath, 20 mg of alcohol in 100 ml of blood, compared to the current level of 80 mg, and 27 mg of alcohol in 100 ml of urine. In the year or so after a person has passed a driving test, before he acquires greater competence and becomes more accustomed to using a car, the impact of alcohol and the level of impairment of his driving is more acute.

I said that the world is changing. Patterns of driving and road traffic accidents are changing and providing us with new challenges. We must start discussing them in order to keep road traffic law relevant for the circumstances on our streets and roads today.

Several hon. Members rose—

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

I am very happy to call the hon. Member from north of Hadrian’s wall, Mrs. Rosemary McKenna.

Photo of Rosemary McKenna Rosemary McKenna Labour, Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East

I have been described in many ways, Sir Nicholas, but that is a new one.

I feel strongly about the subject and disagree with the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland on a lot of the points that he raised. Many, many young people are involved in serious road accidents. Only last weekend, an 18-year-old girl was killed on a road beside Loch Lomond. Without making any assumptions as to the cause of that accident, it is another indication of the problem. On the same weekend, four young people travelling in one vehicle were killed in Aberdeenshire. There are serious concerns, but the new clause will not address them.

I am particularly concerned about the under 21-year-olds. My three sons were ready and able to sit their driving tests the minute that they were eligible to do so. Part of the enjoyment and pleasure of driving, which we all share, is being able to travel with our friends, and there are many responsible young people who take driving seriously, enjoy it very much, and understand that they must be extremely careful. The new clause would not address the problem at all.

To judge under 21-year-olds to be more dangerous than other groups is unfair. However, I understand that we must acknowledge that some young people get behind the wheels of extremely powerful cars without being able to control them. That is part of the problem: the power of the car. Young people learn to drive in fairly sedate driving school vehicles and are eligible immediately to get behind the wheels of powerful cars. I am extremely concerned about parents not accepting their responsibilities. Many of the accidents happen in parental vehicles. They allow their children to take their BMWs or Mercedes on to the roads without any  restrictions. Even new drivers aged over 21 would not be able to control such cars. Therefore, the power of vehicles must be considered.

I agree with the assertion that there should be a distinguishing mark for probationer drivers. It would encourage other road users to have a bit more consideration and to be more aware. Saying that, I always drive as though the people round me are going to do the stupidest things possible and, therefore, I make allowances for that. However, it is something that we cannot always do, and not everyone does.

Nowadays, most young people organise driver rotas; they nominate a designated driver, so if three or four of them are out for the evening, one of them drives. I do not see any grounds on which we should permit them to have any alcohol or drugs. We should say that for the first two years, they should not have any alcohol when they are driving and, therefore, they will be much more able to control their vehicles. Saying that it is all right to drink a certain amount would be condoning young people having a drink when they are driving, which is not right. I want better training before the driving test and a system of continued review after it.

We must consider the power of the vehicles that young people are driving, parental responsibility in allowing young people to drive their cars, and continued training and monitoring for new drivers. I look forward to my hon. Friend the Minister’s response.

Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Shadow Minister (Transport)

It is good to see you back in the Chair, Sir Nicholas. You missed the Minister describe himself as demob happy—[Interruption.] Well, shall we say that he agreed that he was demob happy? It was probably why he maligned Conservatives as pro-European and anti-market, which is about as accurate as describing his party as socialist.

The principle behind new clause 23 is one that we support. The idea of a graduation after completion of a driving test to encourage continued and increasing competency should be supported. The idea of a graduation from provisional through probationary to full, and perhaps even to an advanced licence, would be an extremely useful approach to road safety. We have no problem with the principle behind the new clause.

The substance of the clause itself causes us a number of problems and they have been adequately described. The hon. Members for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. McFadden) and for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch, East (Rosemary McKenna) talked about the problem of age. I will not reiterate their points. The second area where we take issue is alcohol. We would need a much greater discussion about what would be appropriate. The Committee has already had some serious discussions about some and none at all. We have also debated whether it is just over or just under which is causing the problem as opposed to being a long way over.

We have discussed the problem of serial offenders. We have also talked about how the reduction in the number of police officers on our roads has made  detection of drink-driving and enforcement of the law more difficult. That would render subsection (7) pretty much unenforceable. Although we would support the principle of a graduation in licence, we certainly could not support the new clause.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Minister of State, Department for Transport 2:15 pm, 20th April 2006

Again, I understand that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland is trying to stimulate a debate. He acknowledges himself that there are many deficiencies in his new clause; it would create a number of anomalies. I will not go through those. I will address my brief comments to the principles involved. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch, East (Rosemary McKenna) that this is an important issue, but it needs to be dealt with properly.

We can all accept that there is a threshold in our lives before which being involved in activities with our peers encourages us to be more reckless. After that threshold, involvement with our peers encourages us to be less reckless. The problem with young drivers, as opposed to newly qualified drivers, is quite often they get into trouble when they are with their peers and the normal social controls that we all have over our behaviour break down. That is when people sometimes become irresponsible. However, not all young people are like that, as my hon. Friend pointed out. Many are very responsible. It would be very unfair to restrict their ability to use a motor car for increased social mobility.

Somehow we have to devise a set of arrangements that will help us address the real problem. I do not believe that the real problem is newly qualified drivers. Newly qualified drivers should learn, as we all should learn, that learning to drive is a lifelong experience. Even once we have been driving for 30 years we can still improve our driving and we should challenge ourselves to do so. Clearly, in the first years after getting a driving licence, people are on quite a steep learning curve. However, because we have such a stiff driving test and a high hurdle before people get their licence, they are already quite well up that learning curve.

Evidence is put to me that such and such a country—Australia, some states in America, for example—has had great benefits from probationary periods for new drivers, but we are not comparing apples with apples. In such countries, they may have a very easy test to get through because they have large rural communities and they want people to pass their test easily in order to increase their social mobility. Therefore, people are low on the learning curve once they pass their test and have a lot more to learn about how to drive. In some places people are allowed to get a driving licence at the age of 15 for social mobility reasons.

In this country, people have to be 17 before they can get a driving licence. They have to go through a very rigorous test. The principle that we follow here is that to get through that test a driver should already be fully qualified. It is a very different situation from that in those other countries. We have to get across the message that learning to drive is a lifelong experience and that in the first few years after passing the test people learn most rapidly.

We must provide people with tools to help further learning and encourage them to take the pass-plus test, perhaps with incentives in their insurance bills. We must ensure that the Driving Standards Agency gears up the material that it produces to help people to continue to learn how to drive and be safe on the roads. We need to explore all those avenues before we start to think of much more restrictive legislation which, frankly, would be very difficult to enforce.

Until we have clear evidence that we need such legislation, I am loth to go down that route, but I assure the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland that I am aware of the issue of young, newly qualified drivers. Actually the issue is more to do with young drivers than newly qualified drivers; many of the accidents and fatalities that we read about in the papers happen to kids in their early 20s after they have already been driving for three years and are well outside their probationary period. There are serious things to be done in education and in improving training provision for drivers as they prepare for their test, but at this stage I am not convinced that probationary periods and draconian restrictions on social mobility are the right way to go.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Transport

As I said, the issue between us was that the Government believe that significant learning stops at the point of passing one’s test and they are not prepared to take any interest thereafter. I am disappointed that, from what the Minister said, that still appears to be the case.

The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch, East—south of the Pentland firth, as I see it—said that she disagreed fundamentally with the new clause and then went on to agree violently with most of it. The point about 21-year-olds is well made, though, and I have made it clear that I shall not labour it.

A restriction on engine size might very properly be included in a probationary period, however. Allied with the display of a distinguishing mark, it would not cause any particular problems of enforcement. In fact, it would be one of the more easily enforced provisions in road traffic law—easier than those on driving without insurance or without an MOT certificate, which generally become apparent only after some other road traffic infraction.

My principal concern remains that the changing patterns of driving produce challenges of their own which will have to be addressed. I shall not force a Division today, not least because our debate may allow the House to express a view more broadly on Report. Accordingly, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.