Last week, a national newspaper carried an article entitled “Why are our young people killing each other?” The story referred to the violent murder of a young boy who was simply minding his own business. His murder brought the number of young people’s deaths from gun or knife crime in the UK to 51. Only the families and friends of those young victims know the pain and hurt of losing a loved one in such violent circumstances. I hope that we all recognise how precious life is but, regrettably, it is of little significance to some others. I do not wish in any way to demean the memory of those 51 individuals, because they are as precious to their loved ones as all those who daily lose their lives on our roads are to their loved ones.
The startling statistics for road deaths show that while individual drivers do not go out with the intention of having a road traffic accident that could result in a fatality, the way in which some people drive on our roads, especially some young drivers, means that young people are killing one another on our roads. Let me make it clear that the vast majority of drivers of all ages on our roads are good drivers. However, among the 3,200 lives lost and 30,000 injuries resulting from road traffic accidents there is a disproportionate number of deaths and serious injuries in the 17 to 25 age group. Male drivers in that group are over-represented in the crash statistics. Under-25s account for one in eight licence holders, yet one in three drivers who die on our roads are in that age group.
Some people argue that the word “accident” should not be used, as it implies that there is something inevitable about such collisions. They believe that they are almost entirely avoidable with appropriate training and testing, the correct attitude, a licensing regime that supports an extended learning period for new drivers, and appropriate sanctions on those who transgress. Single vehicle crashes involving novice drivers occur most often at night between 10 pm and 6 am, and mainly involve speeding with other teenagers present in the vehicle. There is substantial evidence that when teenage passengers are present with young drivers the risk of a crash increases significantly.
I imagine that almost everyone in the Chamber possesses a driving licence. Even with many of the smaller engine vehicles constructed today, it is easy to exceed the maximum speed limit on our roads. How many of us can honestly say that we have never found ourselves inadvertently exceeding the speed limit on an open road when the weather and road conditions were good? It is easy for the speed to creep up without the driver realising, and that is even more so on a long journey. Passing the driving test in 2007 provides nothing more than a certificate allowing the holder to drive safely on their own, and it is worrying that the majority of those who pass are deemed not to be the finished product or a finished driver. Learning to drive is really about preparing for that one day when the test is taken in the hope of passing it.
Only yesterday evening, I spoke to a constituent who hopes to become a qualified driving instructor. He informed me that it is possible for someone to sit the theory driving test on their 17th birthday, and within two months take and pass their driving test. Thereafter, that person can go out and drive any car with any size of engine. Drivers who have just passed their driving test are informed about the opportunity to develop their skills through the Pass Plus scheme, but only about one in eight takes that opportunity. I have explained how easy it is in today’s modern vehicles to drive at excessive speeds, and while it has been shown that speed is all too often a contributory factor in many crashes, accidents often happen because the driver cannot handle or control the vehicle.
I want to thank my local police force, Dumfries and Galloway constabulary, particularly Inspector Gordon McKnight, for providing me with some local statistics for this debate. During the three-year period from January 2004 to December 2006, 61.5 per cent. of all casualties were male, and further analysis reveals that in the under-45 age group, the average number of male casualties remained at 65 per cent. The under-16 category accounts for 11 per cent. of all casualties; the 16 to 20 age group accounts for just over 18 per cent.; and the 21 to 25 age bracket for 11.1 per cent. Overall, the 30 and under age group accounts for 47.5 per cent. of all casualties, and as one in three casualties fall into the 16 to 25 age bracket, Dumfries and Galloway constabulary decided to target that age group through education and, when necessary, enforcement.
How do we attempt to get the message about the dangers on our roads across to young drivers? In Dumfries and Galloway—and these statistics are linked to those for Cumbria—we have witnessed the death of 44 young people between the ages of 16 and 25 over the past three years. Today’s method of communicating with the younger generation is changing rapidly, and I congratulate the Highways Agency on its attempt to get that safety message across by backing the innovative cross-border campaign to try to cut death and injuries among young road users in Cumbria and Scotland. Financial resources from the agency will fund a project that uses YouTube videos and texts to get key road safety messages across to young drivers. Between now and Christmas, there will be three 20-second ads on YouTube. They may be beyond you and me, Sir Nicholas, and other hon. Members—they certainly are for me—but the younger generation often uses YouTube.
The inquiry by the Select Committee on Transport into novice drivers was published in July. I tried to hold this debate in the run-up to the recess, and it is ironic that I should have secured it on the day on which the Government’s response to the Committee’s report was released. However, I regret that I have not had time to study the response in fine detail. I have explained how easy it is for some people to pass their driving test within a few months of turning 17, and we must ask whether it is wise for people to take the test at that age. I am sure that we have all said that we do not start to learn to drive until we are out on the road on our own, after we have passed our driving test. That may be true, but if we cast aside everything that we learned when we received professional tuition, we will develop bad habits and, more worryingly, drive dangerously and all too often be oblivious to other road users and pedestrians. I fully agree that we need to foster a culture that values continuing driver education. Rushing to take a driving test and having too few lessons may be a false economy, especially if people end up failing the test and retaking it.
I should like to highlight some of the issues arising from the Transport Committee report that are worthy of further mention. Again, I emphasise that the vast majority of young or newly qualified drivers are responsible, but if we look at the problems that we face and at the number of road fatalities we see, as with so many other issues, that we must concentrate our efforts and focus on the few who cause problems. Young drivers are vulnerable on our roads and, regrettably, a small number are a danger to themselves, their passengers and other road users. Such unsafe driving arises from an almost total disregard for road traffic laws—speed limits are sometimes ignored even in built-up areas, where there are many more dangers and thus higher casualties if there were a crash.
The casualties that we see year on year must be reduced, and a starting point is a structured approach to driving instruction. I welcome any attempts to ensure that ongoing professional development for driving instructors is more fully considered. Further professional enhancement can only be good for those under instruction. The low uptake of Pass Plus—a scheme for people who have been successful in their practical tests—is disappointing. I pay tribute to the group of advanced motorists and motorcyclists in Dumfries and Galloway who do an excellent job of encouraging young motorcyclists and motorists to learn the skills that they need on the road, and deserve great credit for the work they do with new drivers. The Pass Plus uptake is disappointing, because the scheme benefits those who take up the additional challenge it offers. We cannot force individuals to take it up, but its success and what it offers to new drivers ought to be included in the instruction that people receive before they take a practical test. I hope that that proposal will be considered.
May I return to the issue of how quickly young drivers can find themselves on the road on their own in a powerful vehicle, having passed both the theory and practical tests? Some people advocate increasing the age at which it is possible to hold a provisional driving licence above 17, but it would make more sense to ensure that people have a minimum learning period of about a year. I have been contacted in recent days by the insurance company, esure, which believes that the number of road traffic accidents caused by, and involving, young drivers would be reduced if pre-driver education were rolled out nationally with Government endorsement and support. In 2005, esure ran the safe drive, stay alive road safety campaign in Surrey, which was co-ordinated by the Surrey fire and rescue service and involved a number of local organisations. Although I am not in a position to judge the campaign’s success, the sooner we can get young people involved in the safety aspects of driving, and make them understand the dangers of driving, the better.
Finally, graduated licences have proved relatively successful in other countries and in some parts of the United States. Some people argue that introducing graduated licences would be like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. As I have said several times, the vast majority of young drivers are responsible and considerate to other road users, and are safe drivers. However, consideration ought to be given to the question of limiting the engine size in cars driven by new drivers; reducing the speed limit to 50 mph; and introducing driving restrictions such as limiting the number of passengers during certain hours of the evening and night—some of the worst tragedies on our roads have involved four or five youngsters in a car driven by someone who has recently passed their test.
I hope that the Minister will give careful consideration to my arguments and those that we are about to hear from other hon. Members. We have a duty to reduce the carnage on our roads. Over the years, I have spoken with a number of people who have been faced with that fateful knock on the door and police officers standing before them to break the bad news. It has been a haunting experience for those individuals and their families. Let us move forward in the coming years and ensure that there is a rapid reduction in such visits to people’s homes.
May I first congratulate the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) on the timeliness of the debate? The issue is serious and affects many people around the country in all constituencies. For too long, modern-day young people have found the use of a motor car to be far more accessible than perhaps we did when we were younger. Consideration must be given to car use and the dangers it might cause.
The rural roads in south-west Norfolk in my constituency are long and winding and they are far too often the scene of tragic road accidents in which, on occasion, innocent passers-by are involved and killed.
I shall speak briefly as I wish to make a few specific points to the Minister that I hope he will take on board—I know him well and he has dealt with me courteously in the past. Does he agree that the current legislation might encourage young drivers, particularly those under the influence of drink or drugs, to flee the scene of road traffic accidents? Motorists who kill on the road while driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs face a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison. Failing to stop at the scene carries a maximum sentence of only six months, which effectively encourages those over the legal limit to leave the scene and to leave their victims injured or dying on the road.
I believe that such drivers hope that by the time the police catch up with them, they will have sobered up sufficiently to pass any tests. Does the Minister agree that due consideration ought to be given to reforming the current guidelines and to remove what is an unnecessary incentive to young drivers? That would send a message to every young person who passes their test that they have full responsibility and that the rule of law will come down on them extremely heavily at every opportunity, because we must not fail to remember the victims of accidents and those who must live with the death of a family member for the rest of their lives.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) on securing this debate. It is allowing us to highlight the pressing need for urgent action to tackle the toll of death and injury of young people on our roads.
Of course, any death or injury on our roads is a tragedy for the individuals involved, their families and the wider community, but the loss of a young person’s life is particularly tragic because it means that their potential is destroyed. It is sadly true that young drivers and passengers are so much more likely to be involved in a serious incident or accident on our roads. My hon. Friend gave us some of the statistics, but the fact that the death rate of young drivers—under-25s—is more than double that of the general driving population particularly highlights the situation for me. One more statistic that underlines my point is that the peak age group for passenger fatalities is 16 to 19. So many lives are taken at an early age in such tragic circumstances.
The figures for Great Britain are seen at both national and regional level. In Scotland in the first half of this year, the number of under-25s killed on the roads was up by 30 per cent. compared with the same period last year and compared with a 10 per cent. increase in road deaths in the first half of this year for the general driving population. Of course, that is a very worrying trend for the general population as well as for young drivers, given the long-term trend of road deaths and injuries going down in the UK over more than 30 years, but it emphasises how young drivers and passengers are over-represented in the number of deaths and serious injuries on our roads.
Having taken an interest in this subject ever since I was elected as an MP, I have studied the way in which the Government have taken measures over a number of years to try to tackle the situation. I certainly recognise that they have done a lot, but we always need to do more because, ultimately, any death on our roads is a tragedy and a death toll of more than 3,000 every year, with young drivers and passengers particularly highly represented in that toll, is just not acceptable. We must always try to do more to bring down the figure for deaths and injuries.
I endorse the suggestions made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway and outside organisations and I urge the Government to introduce new measures and initiatives to try to cut the death and injury rates on our roads for all drivers and road users, but for young drivers in particular. The Government have certainly been given many suggestions of what to do, as my hon. Friend the Minister knows. Organisations such as Brake—the road safety charity—other road safety bodies, the Select Committee on Transport and many others have made recommendations. I have recognised what the Government have done, but they still need to move more urgently to take up some of the suggestions that have been made, which have been around now for a considerable time.
It always depresses me that it takes so much lobbying, campaigning and pressure to get changes in road safety law or in road safety measures and to get introduced measures that on the face of it are obvious steps to cut death and injury on the roads. Why that is the case, I do not know. Perhaps there are bureaucratic problems somewhere in the system. Perhaps someone somewhere is always nervous of offending motorists. If that is the case, I hope that the Government will recognise that all motorists and road users will be safer if something is done about the minority of young drivers who drive in such a way that they are a menace not only to themselves and their passengers, but to the general road user. I certainly endorse, therefore, the calls made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway for some of the measures that he has outlined to be considered.
I want to emphasise the measures that I believe should be considered urgently. First, we need to provide more education in schools and among our young people. The Driving Standards Agency has done and is doing good work. It has a programme to give road safety presentations to teenagers in schools and colleges, but at the moment that is still reaching less than 1 per cent. of 15 to 25-year-olds in the UK, which is clearly not enough. There are advertising campaigns but, again, the proportion of the budget specifically targeting young drivers last year was under £400,000, which may buy some time on YouTube, but buys only about seven minutes of prime-time TV advertising, so more needs to be done in that regard.
I am very interested in the proposals for a graduated licensing scheme, to which my hon. Friend referred. Such schemes have been implemented in New Zealand, the USA and Canada, and there is certainly a growing body of support for the introduction of such a scheme in the UK. My hon. Friend referred to Transport Committee recommendations for a graduated driving licence scheme. He and the Minister will be aware that just a few weeks ago a broad-ranging coalition of interest groups, including the Association of British Insurers, the RAC Foundation, PACTS—the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety—and road safety groups, made proposals for a scheme to require young drivers to have a minimum learning period and a structured learning programme to encourage less driving at night, and measures to reduce the number of passengers carried by young drivers. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway that the current situation, in which someone can have only eight, nine or 10 hours of lessons and, the day after their 17th birthday, drive almost but not quite any vehicle will clearly not encourage, in some circumstances, safe driving by some individuals.
Continued action is also needed on uninsured and unlicensed drivers, because unfortunately the reality is that many uninsured and unlicensed drivers who kill themselves, their passengers or other road users are also young drivers. Measures are needed to take further action to deal with those drivers. I would be interested if the Minister could update me on the implementation of the offence of causing death while driving unlicensed or uninsured.
The next question that always has to be addressed is what we do to tackle those who drive under the influence of drink and drugs. It is a reality, even leaving aside the influence of drink and drugs, that young drivers are more likely to seek thrills from driving fast and cornering at high speed than older drivers. That is not true of all young drivers by any means or even the majority of young drivers, but there is well founded research carried out for the Department for Transport emphasising that it is a problem in the case of some young drivers.
Unfortunately, young drivers aged 17 to 19 are six times as likely to have a drink-drive crash, and young drivers aged 20 to 24 are four times as likely to have a drink-drive crash, as drivers in the general driving population. Unfortunately also, young drivers under 25 who are involved in a crash in which someone is killed or injured are twice as likely to fail a breath test as drivers in the general driving population. Only 4 per cent. fail a breath test, so 96 per cent. do not, but it is still twice as many as in the general driving population.
That is another reason why, as part of the effort to tackle death and serious injury among young drivers, we must return to the question of a reduction in the drink-drive limit. Clearly, that would be for all drivers and would be of benefit generally in reducing death and injury rates on the roads, but because of the significance that it would have for young drivers, it would surely reduce the death and injury rate among young drivers in particular.
Brake, the road safety organisation, is calling in its latest statements for a reduction in the limit from 80 mg per 100 ml to 20 mg. If the Government think that that is too drastic, I would say that the case for reduction to the general rate throughout most of Europe of 50 mg per 100 ml is now overwhelming.
This year, road safety week runs from 5 to 11 November. Coincidentally, or perhaps deliberately, Brake is launching new research on the morning of 6 November, just before the Queen’s Speech. The Minister is one of the speakers at the press launch. It would be a major step forward if the Government could make cutting the death toll among young drivers and passengers in particular a major theme of their programme this year. I am sure that those who are responsible for advising Her Majesty on the contents of her speech are already well advanced in the writing of that important announcement, but I hope that what I have described will be reflected at some stage in the Government’s programme in the coming year, because, to conclude where I started, the death toll of more than 3,000 people on our roads every year, a disproportionately large number of whom are young drivers and young passengers, is unacceptable.
Much has been done, but much more needs to be done, and I hope that the Government will give serious and favourable consideration to the measures that I propose and that have been proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway and by the various organisations, campaign groups and pressure groups that seek to address what is a scandal for our society.
I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown). The debate is long overdue, and to bring it to the table on the day of the Government’s response to the Transport Committee is very apt. I also add my thanks to Brake. We have had tragedy in our constituency over the past couple of months, and it has been a source of comfort in some respects to know that there is a group out there fighting for the health and safety of young drivers.
We have had two significant incidents in my constituency in the past six months. The first killed four young girls under 16, who were passengers. The driver, who was 17, had passed his test only three days before. If that does not bring home how serious the driving test and driving ability are, nothing will. Within months of that, a 15-year-old passenger was killed. The driver, again, was only 17. Age is a significant factor, although I understand that driving is a necessity in this day and age.
The important thing is education, which has been mentioned a number of times—education in accident statistics, how to drive and what can happen. At the end of the day, a car is a deadly weapon; it can cause huge damage to those inside and out. That should be part of the citizenship agenda in schools. At 14 or 15, young people look forward to driving lessons and learning to drive, and it should be part of the curriculum.
My other worry concerns intensive driving courses—in which someone can supposedly learn to drive in a fortnight, three weeks or even days in some cases—especially at an age when the individual’s maturity must be questioned. Intensive courses can be very dangerous.
Although I have not read it completely, it is interesting to note from the Government’s response that although the number of accidents and serious injuries has fallen, the number of deaths has risen since 2000. That must be of concern to us.
I do not wish to throw a hospital pass at parents, because we as a society are quick enough to blame them, but there is a parental responsibility involved in driving. When people under 18—or 20, or 21—apply for a driving licence, perhaps we should consider showing the parents themselves what can happen to young people in road accidents. It was wondered earlier whether we would have had the kind of cars that are on the road today, and I often wonder how young people of 17 and 18 can afford to drive some of those cars—we heard about engine sizes—with such significant power under their foot. I wonder also whether parents should think twice about what type of car they buy for their children. An educational programme on that would be worth while.
The tragedy that hits a constituency after such an accident—I know that it has happened in probably every constituency in the country at one time or another—cannot be underestimated. The effect of losing four lives, as we did in my constituency, is unbelievable, but still we see young people speeding in the streets. Having seen the press coverage at the time, we still see speeding vehicles driven by young people. It worries me, and that is why I think that education before young people learn to drive is important.
The other thing with which we are struggling in my area is the implementation of speeding fines. We do not have enough hand-held speed cameras to catch young people and others who speed or drive erratically in our streets. I am sure that we have all seen it in main streets, not just bystreets or side streets. It is very dangerous, not just for drivers but for passers-by and passengers.
I thank you, Sir Nicholas, for the opportunity to express the feelings of Blaenau Gwent today. It is a subject that we need to discuss thoroughly. Some issues have come out of the Select Committee that we might discuss seriously, one of which is an age limit of 18. Initially, I supported it fully, but then I had phone calls from young people saying, “How will I get to work?” or “How will I get to college?” It is not as easy as saying, “Put the age up to 18;” there are lots of other issues to be discussed, but I urge the Government, as have other hon. Members here today, to take preventive and not remedial action.
I am concerned about a threat to the island. It affects those who learn to drive on motorcycles. The test centre will be closed and motorcycle tests will instead be provided on the mainland—not even close to ferries. That is wholly unsuitable for motorcyclists, as tests will be 20 or 30 miles from where they live, and I fear that they will drive without a licence. I ask the Minister to look at that again.
You have a disadvantage, Sir Nicholas—we are not labelled—but thank you for getting there in the end.
I appreciate the opportunity to speak in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) on bringing up an issue that, as the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies) said, affects every constituency. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent on his contribution, which touched the emotional core of the thoughts of everybody here—the tragedy of the loss of young life, or indeed any life, in a car accident.
I shall try to keep my comments brief, as so much has been said and we are all eager to hear from the Minister on the Government’s reply to the Committee’s report. Like many others, I support the idea of a minimum learning period before achieving a driver’s licence. When I first got my licence, back in the mists of time, I was, frankly, dangerous. Like many of us, I came from a family that had never had a car and in which nobody else was a driver. My ability to deal with anything other than the most predictable events on the road was minimal. How we got through that without a crash is beyond me.
My children learned to drive in the United States and they learned much younger. Their provisional training began at age 15, and they had their licences on their 16th birthdays. The whole approach to training was entirely different and gave me enormous comfort. I hope that the Government will consider that range of possibilities. My children’s school took on the responsibility of ensuring that they received driver training. It was a year-long programme. The children could get behind the wheel earlier by signing up than they would have otherwise and it was cheaper than traditional driving lessons. It was a great incentive to the youngsters. The training was far more comprehensive and they learned with their peers, so it was not just one child learning to be responsible but probably all the children with whom they spent their free time.
As a result of the programme and how it was packaged, I felt entirely comfortable getting into a car with my youngsters, whereas, looking back, I would have been terrified to get into a car with myself. There is a great deal that we can do, and we can learn a great deal from other countries if we make it a priority.
The idea of a graduated licence and some sort of provisional period seems to make sense. We must question whether some adults might earn only a provisional licence. Maturity and judgment create a different environment. Some adults have many years’ experience driving in another country and are thus earning only what they see as a British licence, but we should probably consider that provision for all new drivers without significant experience.
During this debate, we have focused almost exclusively on drivers themselves and the rules governing licences, but the number of accidents raises questions about issues such as road design. When we design our roads, is safety as high a priority as necessary? In my constituency, we have struggled endlessly for funding for some particularly difficult roads about which everybody agrees that action must be taken, but for which money is not easily available.
I was about to come to that. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) tabled a ten-minute Bill suggesting that the default speed limit in urban areas should be 20 mph rather than 30 mph. We need to examine such issues, and local councils certainly need much greater flexibility to set appropriate speed limits. There are quite a number of issues around speed, which we need to examine so that we can at least ensure that local conditions are appropriately managed. We will probably need to return to that issue in a different debate and for longer.
Others have mentioned enforcement, and it is one of the most significant issues. I have been trying to have conversations with various chief constables, and many of them, as they have come under financial pressure, have essentially decided that they can make cuts in road traffic policing. That should be of general concern to us. As hon. Members will know, the British crime survey does not give a line item to road traffic accidents. In a sense, that pulls it off the list of matters that gain forces brownie points and which affect how forces are measured and how chief constables are rewarded. We need to re-examine those issues and to give much higher priority to a problem that causes so many deaths, especially among young people.
The Highways Agency traffic officer service has received a lot of investment, but, again, we have a significant body of uniformed officials who cannot enforce most aspects of the law. They cannot stop drivers for drink-driving and they are not equipped to test for drug-driving. Essentially, they can manage the scene of an accident and direct traffic around it, but their inability to enforce laws is now widely recognised among drivers, which is leading a fair number of drivers to abuse those laws. Having sailed past one of the service’s cars, young people will be more tempted to drive at totally inappropriate speeds on motorways in the future. We therefore have to look at the whole issue of enforcement.
I look forward to what others will say in the debate. I am glad that the issue is being given high priority. It may not be glamorous, and the only time that it hits the newspaper headlines is when there has been a terrible tragedy, but so many families have suffered in one way or another—perhaps they have not suffered a death, but an accident—and they deserve the protection of the House.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) on choosing such an important subject for debate. We have all heard horror stories from around the country, and I am sure that the poignant one from Blaenau Gwent about the young people who tragically died just when they were beginning their adult lives hit home with us all. Thirty-two years ago, a school acquaintance of mine was killed in a road traffic accident during the summer holidays. He had been celebrating the end of his A-levels and was on the point of going to university, and his death brought the issue home to me.
It often seems sensible to see what people are doing abroad and what we can learn from them, and the story is actually very good from the United Kingdom’s point of view. England and Wales have about 62 fatalities per million of the population—that includes young and older drivers—while Scotland has 74. That compares with Portugal at 289, Greece at 225, France at 144, Germany at 104 and Italy at 117. In fact, only two European countries have a better record than us. That is no reason for us not to try to do better, but we can at least take pride from the fact that a lot has already been done. None the less, more needs to be done. Those statistics are particularly surprising, given the problems that we have with the way young people use alcohol in this country, compared with other EU countries.
I suppose that I should declare an interest because my eldest son is 18 and has passed his test, and he now drives to work every day at the bus factory in Scarborough. When he embarked on driving, it was interesting to see how difficult it was for him to get insurance. When I started driving, my father bought me a big, solid Volvo, but my son has had to get a Vauxhall Corsa with a very small engine, although it still cost him £1,700. I am sure that the engineering in it is as good as it was in Volvos 30 years ago, but just out of interest I rang my insurance agent to see what it would cost my son to drive a Volvo. A Volvo F40 with a 1600 engine is not a particularly large car, but it would cost my son £5,063 to insure for himself. So not only are our young drivers inexperienced and sometimes reckless, but they also have to drive around in much smaller vehicles than we did a generation ago.
During my 18 months on the Select Committee on Transport, we were given evidence by groups such as Brake, which do wonderful work on behalf of young people, many of whom have had personal experiences that have caused them to become engaged with such groups. I have to say that if my son had been killed in an accident caused by a drink-driver, I would want to reduce the alcohol limit to zero. If he had been killed by a speeding motorist, I would want a 20 mph limit on all our urban roads and perhaps a 60 mph limit on all other roads. It is difficult for someone to take an objective view when such experiences have affected their lives so much.
Several measures are, of course, already in place. The Government have legislated to disqualify young drivers who get six points in the first two years after they have passed their test—other drivers require 12 points. There are several options that the Government could take, and we have heard them rehearsed this afternoon. I am sure that the Government are keeping them constantly under review. For example, we could make the test harder. That is an obvious step, because it would take people longer to learn. We know that male drivers between 17 and 20 are 10 times more likely to be killed or seriously injured than men aged between 40 and 49, but they are precisely the people who pass the test with flying colours, and I am sure that the Department collects the figures. Making the test harder would not affect those young drivers, who are, by and large, the ones who easily pass the test. It would, however, affect people such as the lady in my village who took her test in her 70s after her husband—a former Desert Rat tank commander—died in his 70s. Sadly, she is the kind of person who would be affected by making the test harder, even though she is a careful driver, and it is wonderful that she has managed to learn to drive.
Hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer), have talked about a longer training period. We could perhaps have a six-month training period, but in a rural constituency such as mine that would cause particular problems for people who want to get to work or to enjoy a social life. It would also impinge greatly on young people’s freedom to do what they want, and they will have to impose on their parents, who will have to run them around and pick them up. In many cases, young people who cannot upgrade to cars will spend longer riding mopeds, which are more dangerous.
It has been suggested that we have a curfew from 11 pm to 6 am, and that is probably a good idea, but who will police it? How many police are on the roads of the Isle of Wight, rural Wales or Scotland at that time of night to enforce such a provision? It is always a problem to ensure that such matters are policed.
Another proposal is that we reduce to one the number of passengers in cars driven by young drivers. That is fine, but it may result in more people racing. When my son goes out with his friend and their girlfriends, I am sure that he would resist the temptation to race with the four of them in the car. However, if those four people were in two separate cars, there might be more incentive for them to race around the countryside.
Limiting the engine size sounds like a good idea, but many young drivers gain important experience by driving the family car, and most people’s family car probably has a larger engine than the cars that young drivers start with. In my part of the world, most young drivers start off driving a Land Rover, which has quite a big engine. So what can we do? The most important imperative for the Government is to address these issues through policing. We need real police on the streets—not cameras or Highways Agency officers who do not have the powers of the police. They need to be out on the road, policing—not back in the police station filling in forms.
I recently met traffic police representatives and we discussed the issue of drink driving. Yes, we could reduce the limit, but drink driving is not a key performance indicator for the police. It is not a crime that is reported. In many cases it does not feature highly on the priority lists of police forces. Perhaps there should be more incentive for police forces to pay attention to drink driving. Perhaps there should be more high profile policing of drink driving. The fact is that if someone’s car is taxed and insured, and does not trigger the automatic number plate detection system, and if they are driving in a reasonably straight line with no back lights off, there is a good chance of their getting away with drink driving in some parts of the country, where there are not so many police around, for quite a long time.
Although there has recently been a lot of press coverage of the inquest on the death of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, there are only two conclusions that we can all draw: that there were three people in the car not wearing seat belts, and they were the ones who were killed; and that one person in the car was, reportedly, over the drink drive limit, and that was the driver. Those are the lessons that we need to learn, and to apply to policing, for our young people.
There are problems with respect to uninsured people and MOTs. On that point, one of my son’s friends recently bought a vehicle for £50, in which he drives around. Can I have an assurance from the Minister that we shall not move to a system of MOTs every two years rather than annual MOTs? I know that the matter is under review, but it is much more likely that many young drivers will drive a car that is not roadworthy, if we go with the European model of two-yearly tests.
It is vital to improve children’s education in this context. My children are not keen on the citizenship studies that they do in school. They are taught a lot of stuff that they do not want to know about, but it would be very useful to teach them what can happen if they drive irresponsibly, show them the videos that are available and get people who have been touched by accidents in to talk to them. A friend of mine was recently flashed by a camera when he was doing 33 mph and given the option of taking a £50 course, rather than have points on his licence. He went on the course. Before he did so, he was rather cynical about it and thought that it would be a complete waste of time. After he had taken the course, seen the videos and learned a little more about the dangers of speeding, he was very positive about the whole thing.
On that point, does my hon. Friend accept that that course, with which I am familiar—because constituents have drawn my attention to it, not because I have been a victim of it myself—is not available across the country, and that not every constabulary has adopted it? Perhaps it is time that they should.
It is an excellent suggestion that best practice should be shared around the country. Of course, we have heard about YouTube in this context. I admit that I occasionally surf around that site to see interesting films and find out what is on there. You may, Sir Nicholas, remember the “Top Gear” film highlighting level crossing safety problems, in which a train was driven into the side of a car on a level crossing. That is on YouTube, and many young people watch that. Perhaps we should look at imaginative ways to get the message across, using new media such as YouTube.
In conclusion, may I once again thank the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway for securing the debate today. If we can reach evidence-based solutions—measures that will work, rather than those that we wish would work—Her Majesty’s Opposition will be more than happy to support the Government in bringing forward measures.
It is a pleasure to see you presiding this afternoon, Sir Nicholas.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) on securing the debate on a very important issue, which is of concern in all our constituencies. I especially commend his setting of the tone for this serious debate about how to cut deaths and injuries among young drivers.
We are making encouraging progress, with a 33 per cent. reduction in reported incidents of people being killed or suffering serious injuries, against the 1994-98 baseline that we set ourselves, but we must do much more. There were 3,173 road fatalities in 2006 and more than 28,000 serious injuries, including 8,500 to 17 to 25-year-olds. The debate is about young driver accidents. There were 1,065 fatalities in crashes involving a driver aged 17 to 25, including 393 of those drivers themselves.
Against that bleak background, let me say something first in defence of the majority of young drivers. I am pleased that my hon. Friend made similar points. Those drivers want to be safe and responsible. They deserve good training. Unlike a minority of young men, they do not speed and drive dangerously, or drink and drive. They and their passengers wear seat belts. A minority disregard the basic road traffic laws that would, if they were observed, make our roads much safer. They would probably treat any new laws in the same way. It must remain a priority to enforce existing laws against those irresponsible people.
We must consider whether driver training and testing meets the needs of the responsible majority. In February, the Department for Transport promised fundamental reform. The debate allows me to explain why. We aim to start consultation on our proposals before the end of the year. The driving test was introduced in 1935. Roads and traffic have changed out of all recognition in 70 years. The test has also changed over time and it is still recognised as one of the best, but we cannot go on with incremental fixes. The time has come for a new system for the years ahead. In 1935, only a minority had the opportunity to drive. The test was conceived to ensure that those who had access to a vehicle knew how to operate it. Driving has become very important to most of us, especially young people, as the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) described. It gives access to the social and economic opportunities of independent adulthood. A modern driver training and testing system is thus more vital. It must deliver safe lifelong drivers.
We must ask how the present system measures up. Let us start by asking whether learners value it. Our conclusion is that they do not. Young people in particular say that they learn to pass the test and then teach themselves what they see as proper driving. The pass rate is low. It could be much better if learners generally waited perhaps only a few weeks. Too many learners waste money on tests when they are unready, because they think that the result is a matter of luck. Learning to drive is not cheap. Many spend more than £1,000 on lessons, and some spend £150 on tests. Training still focuses on vehicle handling, but we know that attitude and motivation are also very important, if not key factors in good driving, and that learners are insufficiently prepared to make safe use of road space shared with others, many of whom are vulnerable.
I do not blame driving instructors. My father was one for many years. Their customers are driven by perceptions of the test. They want to know only how to get through quickly. Learners are ill-informed about the test standard, and learning is poorly structured. Some have little or no exposure to typical conditions such as night driving. Most of those who fail have thought themselves ready, and they put their failure down to bad luck and nerves. Eco-driving is not integrated into the learning process. That cannot be tackled with a quick fix: it calls for a wholesale change of driving and training style. Extra lessons do not seem to make things better. Research suggests that learners overall are taking more lessons, but the pass rate and accident record are not improving. Some candidates are nowhere near the standard. Driving examiners often have to grab the handbrake or steering wheel, or use the dual controls.
Many trainees pass without achieving a consistent standard. We asked a group to take the test twice in the same week and of those who passed only 64 per cent. passed on both occasions. Hon. Members may ask themselves if they would still pass the test if they took it today. The truth is that too many learners who passed last week would not pass either. Women find the test more difficult but have fewer accidents as novices—more evidence of female superiority, if any were needed. Training and testing should achieve a consistent result across all groups.
I do not overlook the main point made today—that those most recently trained and tested have the worst accident record. Young drivers are over-represented in the casualty figures. They make more expensive claims, so they face very high motor insurance costs. There have been calls for restrictions on novice drivers. Many believe that those who pass the practical test are not ready to drive solo. That surely reflects on their training. How can we expect young people to understand the risks that come with bad driving if it is not a formal part of what they have to learn to be a driver?
Finally, coming back to whether people value the present training and testing process, too many people opt out of the licensing system altogether. They are the most dangerous drivers. It would be a mistake to try to fix one or two of all those problems.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the validation of licences issued by European partner states. Enforcement in the case of foreign qualified drivers is clearly even more complicated when one has to check foreign credentials. I recently visited the DVLA at Bristol and saw how the credentials submitted by drivers who have qualified elsewhere are checked against the documents issued in their own countries. It is a very thorough process. However, just as some domestic drivers drive while disqualified or drive without passing the test, I am sure that some people from those countries are in the same position. We need to bear down on them as much as we bear down on people here who are not following the norm.
We talk of fundamental reform because we believe that there is a case for it. We said in February that we need a comprehensive package of reforms. They include education to influence attitudes before the age of 17, thorough training and a reformed assessment process. We need to do more to help drivers maintain high standards for life, especially if they drive for work.
On the specific point of what needs to be done, would the Minister give careful consideration to an issue that has already been raised—those who are not insured and who have no intention of being insured who take cars? Dare I say that some parts of the country have gained cult status through the activities of such people, which often get videoed and put on the internet—and which encourages all their mates to do precisely the same?
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The last thing that we want to do is to create any kind of climate where disregard of public safety of the sort that he described is encouraged in any way, shape or form. We need to ensure that such behaviour is tackled as effectively as possible.
The tools are already available to create a new approach. At the heart of our reform is a new framework setting out the skills, knowledge, understanding and attitudes required for safe driving. That will be the foundation for all our work on education, training, testing and lifelong learning, including developing skills, remedial training, and work-related driving. It is a modern template, consistent with vocational frameworks in the education system and in industry. Systematic assessment criteria will be used to establish that candidates have the required level of competence. A similar framework will be developed for instructors and examiners, linked to schemes for continuous professional development—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway.
Our overall aim is simple. Anybody who prepares properly should expect to pass the test; and those who skimp or treat the test as a matter of luck will fail. Too many young people opt out of driver training and testing. We will aim to persuade them, but we will not tolerate the dangerously bad driving of the minority. We do not propose new restrictions on learners and newly qualified drivers, but we intend to have a wide-ranging and open consultation. I undertake that it will be fully addressed, even though it may not form part of our proposals.
I turn to some of the points raised during the debate. The hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) raised an interesting and challenging point about penalties. I regret to report that I am unaware of any work being done on the matter. However, he made the point effectively; I am certainly happy to raise the matter with the Ministry of Justice, and I shall keep him posted.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) asked about enforcement and mentioned the DVLA. As I said earlier, those who avoid paying tax and/or insurance are among the most dangerous drivers. The DVLA now has more new technology and a partnership with National Car Parks, and something like 1,500 vehicles a week are being impounded. New electronic equipment is being rolled out: all Welsh and Scottish police forces have it, and 12 English forces have it, and the aim is to complete the process by the end of 2008. In 2009, we will be introducing continuous insurance. That will ensure that vehicles can be tracked. Much as with TV licences, when the authorities know where people live and whether they have a licence, it will soon be known whether they have a car and whether they have insured it. In due course, that will help considerably.
I echo your comment, Sir Nicholas, that it is good to see the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) in his place today. He, too, contributed to this important debate, but I have not been briefed on the details of the main issue that he raised. However, I will contact his office and look into the matter in detail. The hon. Gentleman spoke about motorcycles and particularly about motorcycle safety. When I had responsibility for the fire service two years ago I visited Cheshire, where I saw a special initiative called “Fire Bike”. As many as 70 motorcyclists each year were being killed on Cheshire’s roads. It is a wonderful county, with lovely lanes and so on. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I have not visited the lovely Isle of Wight. However, I know that it has the reputation of offering similar enjoyment to those motorcyclists who enjoy riding on rural roads. However, some motorcyclists may not be used to such roads. The police in Cheshire were trying to tackle the inordinate number of people being killed on motorcycles in that county, but I will look into the matter. I assure him that I have had several meetings in the past fortnight with motorcycle organisations and I have discussed motorcycle safety and other issues.
The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) made a challenging point about what price we were prepared to pay when trading freedom against additional restrictions. Our consultation, which will be published shortly, will provide the opportunity for organisations and individuals to comment, and the balance of that argument will obviously colour our judgment as to what we should do.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about enforcement and police numbers. I entirely agree with him that the prospect of being caught is one of the most effective deterrents. We are working closely with the Home Office and the Association of Chief Police Officers to ensure that traffic policing and enforcement is maintained. We are looking at how the issue is reflected in police targets in order to ensure that it receives the appropriate attention. Recent drink-drive campaigns have increased the number of drivers being tested. Again, that demonstrates that we are moving in the right direction. I am also informed that more speed awareness courses are being rolled out.
I was asked about the MOT consultation. That is still being discussed between Departments, and I shall alert Members as to when that is likely come about. However, I hear exactly the point that was made; it was made also by a number of organisations when I was at the Department of Trade and Industry, and as Minister with responsibility for better regulation I chaired a challenge panel every quarter to deal with exactly the same concerns, particularly about a move to less frequent MOTs such as on the continent. However, the issue is still very live.
Driving is a skill that people use for most of their lives. It is vital that we prepare new drivers properly. It is a huge challenge. There is no quick fix. Change will take time to complete, and there must be full consultation. The debate has been a valuable opportunity and I look forward to further discussions—especially with drivers and with the public at large—as we thrash out our proposals in the coming months.
I conclude by again congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway on securing the debate and by thanking those hon. Members who have participated in it. The subject matter of the debate is very important, and we all agree that too many people still die or are seriously injured on our roads, so I hope that the debate will help in the efforts to reduce those numbers. I assure hon. Members that I shall use my own very best efforts to work with them for further progress in the months ahead. Government, Opposition parties, road safety campaigners and other external bodies such as the emergency services and enforcement organisations all want to achieve the same objective. I hope that, together, we shall continue to drive casualty figures down.
I congratulate the House on a most well-informed and interesting debate. It has been a pleasure to be in the Chair for it, and I congratulate all those hon. Members who participated on their contributions. The debate has finished some 20 minutes early and, although the initiator of the next debate is present, the Minister sadly is not, so I suspend the sitting.