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Young Drivers (Safety)

Volume 576: debated on Wednesday 26 February 2014

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Amber Rudd.)

I am grateful to have secured this important debate. I tried to do so having learned the tragic story of Emily Challen, a 17-year-old constituent of mine who was killed in a car accident this time last year. Her death has left a void in the lives of her parents and family that few of us can begin to imagine. I pay tribute to her parents, Keith and Jennifer, for their bravery and dignity in telling Emily’s story and in trying to ensure that some good comes of what their family have been through.

On 15 February 2013, Emily was travelling to school as one of three passengers in a car driven by an 18-year-old friend, when the car ran into the back of a stationary lorry on a slip road. Emily was pronounced dead at the scene. In a few short moments, her promising young life, and the happiness of many whose lives she touched and enriched, were extinguished.

We cannot, of course, undo what happened that day. What we can do, and what we should be doing, is to try to reduce the chances of what happened to the Challen family happening to anyone else. In short, how can driving be made safer for young drivers? What lessons can we learn from other jurisdictions where young drivers cannot simply pass their test and enjoy the same access to the road network as those who have been driving for years? How can we minimise the chance of other families having to suffer what the Challen family have been through?

Road crashes are one of the biggest unnatural causes of death for young people in the UK. The figures are appalling and they speak for themselves. Young drivers are involved in one in four fatal and serious crashes, despite making up only one in eight holders of driving licences. One in five new drivers has a crash within six months of passing their test, and we all know that young male drivers have much higher crash rates than young female drivers.

Why is that so? The reasons are not, perhaps, obscure, but they deserve restatement. As anyone who has been driving for a while knows, young people are more likely to take a number of the deadliest risks on our roads, including speeding, overtaking blind and not wearing a seat belt. Young drivers, especially young men, are more likely to seek thrills from driving fast and cornering at high speed than their older counterparts. Although young people quickly pick up the physical skills of driving and, as a result, feel they have mastered the art and are very confident about their abilities, that is simply an illusion. Young drivers drive unsafely, but they do so believing that they are in control.

Young drivers do all that when, as anyone who has been driving for years knows, although some hazards on the road are easy to identify, many are not. It often takes experience to notice the hidden hazards, and owing to inexperience, young people may be poor at noticing them and reacting in time to avoid them. The research indicates that, since driving is a new experience for young people, they tend to use most of their mental energy on the immediate tasks, such as gear-changing and steering, rather than on general observation of the potential hazards ahead. Inexperience means that they have a poorer ability to spot such hazards; youth means that they are particularly likely to take risks.

As hon. Members will know, that is not the end of the story. Perhaps most worryingly, young drivers are more likely to drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. So it is that drivers under the age of 25 have the highest incidence of failing a breath test after a crash. Any amount of alcohol in the bloodstream can affect a person’s ability to drive safely, as it impairs reaction times and affects the ability to judge speed and distance accurately. Alcohol or drugs, combined with a lack of experience on the roads, is therefore a particularly dangerous mixture.

Of particular concern to Mr and Mrs Challen, given the circumstances of Emily’s death, is the research that shows that having passengers in the car can cause even higher crash rates among young drivers. Peer pressure can encourage bad driving and result in drivers showing off to their passengers, as well as cause distraction. Research in the United States has shown that the already high crash rate for teenagers when driving alone is greatly increased when passengers are present. With two or more passengers, the fatal crash risk for 16 to 19-year-old drivers is more than five times greater than when they are driving alone.

I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for bringing this important matter to the House for consideration. Is he aware that between the hours of 2 am and 5 am, accidents among young people increase by 17%? Does he feel that the Government should perhaps consider a restriction on young drivers between 2 am and 5 am, to reduce accidents and improve safety?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I was not aware of the specific figure that he has given, but I will certainly come on to what the Government might do, and what I—and indeed others—think they ought to do.

The Minister will, I suspect, know the figures I have given to the House, but neither this Government nor their predecessors have taken the action necessary to ensure the safety of young drivers on our roads, as well as that of those who travel with them and other road users. Why? I do not know. I want to hear tonight that the Minister and the Department for Transport will take a fresh look at the issue before more young lives are wiped out in an unnecessary and untimely fashion.

What can be done to make things safer? Although I accept there is a balance to be struck with social and work mobility for young people, the fact remains that we have to do something. I, and others such as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), have been extremely concerned that the Department has delayed its Green Paper on young driver safety, apparently indefinitely. Let me make it clear to my hon. Friend the Minister that not only is that not good enough, but he needs to tell the House why that decision has been taken and, frankly, either reverse it or face the consequences of not doing so, and what that will mean for death and serious injury to young drivers in the future.

Graduated driver licensing exists in many other countries, and at present I see no good reason for why it does not exist here. Exact requirements vary slightly, but the main aim, which any licensing system ought to share, remains the same: to build up the ability and experience of young drivers in stages on a structured basis, to minimise the risks that they face. That means limiting the exposure of new drivers to the dangerous situations I have mentioned. Novice drivers going through graduated driver licensing could be subjected to certain restrictions and conditions, including restrictions on the number of passengers they can carry, driving at night and alcohol consumption. A graduated licence system would also go hand in hand with road safety as a compulsory part of the national curriculum in schools, where we should be teaching young people about the risks that they face as novice drivers or young passengers and how to minimise them.

Presently, we allow eager young 17-year-olds to be out unsupervised on public roads exceptionally quickly. In the UK, drivers can go from never having driven at all to being fully licensed in months or even weeks. Each year, 50,000 17-year-olds pass their driving test with fewer than six months’ driving experience. That gives them very little time to develop experience while under the relative safety of some form of supervision.

Tragically, I have raised a similar case with the Minister. One of the solutions proposed by the family in that case was a probationary period, perhaps for three years after passing the test, where the P-plate, rather than the L-plate, would need to be displayed. Does my hon. and learned Friend think that would be a good idea as part of the package of solutions?

That is certainly one of the options that the Department ought to consider, along with a number of other options from many other jurisdictions, some of which I will come on to, as part of a graduated licence system. Unless we do something, we will simply continue with this epidemic of death and serious injury to young drivers in this country.

One thing that could be introduced is a minimum learning period—for example, one year—before taking a theory or practical test. All learner drivers would therefore have time to develop experience under full supervision before being allowed out alone. However, because the Green Paper has been put on hold or delayed, that is apparently not something that the Government are prepared even to consider or consult on, which is more than regrettable.

Evidence from other countries that have introduced some form of graduated driver licensing system shows that a difference can be made. Analysis of such a system in New Zealand by the UK’s Transport Research Laboratory showed that, following the introduction of a graduated driving licence, there was a reduction in car crash injuries of 23% for 15 to 19-year-olds, and 12% for 20 to 24-year-olds.

In the great state of Michigan, home to the US auto industry, research has found that young people are 11% less likely to be killed or injured on roads than their parents, thanks to their reformed system of learner licensing. In Washington state, annual deaths and serious injuries among 16 and 17-year-old novice drivers reduced by 59% after the introduction of a driving curfew between 1 am and 5 am for the first year, a ban on carrying teenage passengers for the first six months and a licence suspension for under-18s of up to six months for committing two or more violations.

Why, oh why, are we not learning from those figures and experiences, and saving hundreds of young drivers in the UK from serious injury and death every year? It is not as though calls for something to be done are new. In 2007, the Transport Committee reviewed the evidence available and called for the introduction of a graduated driver licensing system, including a minimum 12-month learner period; raising the age of unaccompanied driving to 18; a maximum blood alcohol limit of 20 mg per 100 ml of blood for up to 12 months after passing the test; a ban on passengers aged 10 to 20 years between 11 pm and 5 am for a year; and a learning programme undertaken and examined by an approved driving instructor.

The House will not be surprised that the report, as with so many good and considered Select Committee reports, appears simply to have been ignored. It is not as though such changes would be unpopular. Again, we have the research to prove it. A survey by the road safety charity Brake and Direct Line found that 87% of drivers thought that learners should be required to achieve a minimum level of experience before taking their driving test and that 81% thought that there should be restrictions on drivers’ licences for a period of time after they first passed their test. If and when the Department publishes a Green Paper, those figures will no doubt be replicated in responses, so why on earth are we not getting on with it? How many families have to go through what the Challen family has been through before the Department for Transport gets the message?

The number of young people being killed or injured on our roads unnecessarily is too high, the present position is untenable, the attitude of the Department inexplicable, the persistence of the problem inevitable and the solution readily and easily apparent. Not only can something be done; something must be done. In the name of Emily Challen, for God’s sake let us do what we were sent here to do and act now.

I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) on securing this debate on the safety of young drivers. I am always glad to have the opportunity to discuss an important subject such as improving the safety of our young drivers. I was extremely sorry to hear of the tragic death last year of his constituent, Emily Challen, and I am saddened by the continuing toll of fatal accidents on our roads. Every one of them is a tragedy.

There are very few of us who have not been touched by such a tragedy. In my locality, there was a recent road collision involving an 18-year-old friend of my son. His car crashed into a tree and, sadly, he was killed. That shocked the whole year group at Malton school. We cannot be complacent about our road safety record, and we must continue to seek improvements and identify the changes that can make our roads safer for all. This is why it is vital that the Government strike the right balance, so that young drivers remain safe on our roads, but, at the same time, their freedom is not restricted. We feel that it is important that all views are considered and the right decisions are made. We will issue a paper when we have considered the matter further.

Britain’s roads are among the safest in the world. We are proud of that record, but we know that there is more we can do to make our roads safer. The latest figures for 2012 show another drop in the number of people killed on our roads. In fact, it was the lowest figure since national records began in 1926. It is a testament to the hard work and dedication of road safety professionals that we are able to make consistent progress year on year. However, I suspect that, like me, all hon. Members feel a mixture of emotions whenever such statistics are published, because every single one of them is preventable.

I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips) on his powerful speech. Does the Minister agree that it is imperative, not least for their own self-interest, that insurance companies are involved in the process of guiding behaviour, given that most young drivers will be driving legally and that fixing insurance premiums to guide behaviour is an important part of changing behaviour in the long run?

Indeed; in fact, many young people cannot drive because they cannot afford the insurance. However, I will come to some exciting developments in the field of telematics, which insurance companies are engaged with.

It is knowing that deaths are preventable that gives us such a strong incentive to carry on trying to improve what we do. For me, as road safety Minister, that means providing support to road safety professionals such as the police, the fire service and many other road safety organisations. That support may come through funding, policy or raising awareness of important issues.

As we have heard, young people are involved in about a fifth of all road crashes, but only about 5% of all the miles driven in Britain each year are driven by them. That worries us, and we know it worries parents and young people too. We know that young men cause more crashes than young women and that more collisions occur at night, when young people have their friends in the car or are on roads in the countryside. We also know that drivers of all ages are most at risk of causing a collision in the first six months after they take their practical test.

We are also conscious that this unfortunate safety record gives our young people some of the highest insurance premiums. As budgets in many households are tight, we want to do what we can to bring those insurance costs down. Estimates provided by the insurance industry suggest that drivers could expect discounts on a telematics policy of between 25% to 33%, with the highest being 50%, and that some young drivers have saved over £1,000 by using such policies. Such policies are cheaper because the claims history of the drivers using them is so much better. It is also worth mentioning that some studies suggest that parental viewing of feedback from telematics devices can improve young people’s driving further.

For those who are not conversant with the concept of telematics, I would liken it to having the electronic equivalent of a glass of water on the dashboard. Every time the water spills because of severe braking or cornering, the policy cost is loaded up. Indeed, there are currently 296,000 live telematics policies from a number of companies in this country. Only recently I met the insurance industry to discuss how we might consider commissioning research into how telematics can change the behaviour and attitudes of learner drivers. Like many things in life, the more someone practises, the better they become. We know that more practice before taking a practical test improves hazard perception and understanding of risk, and results in a lower collision rate.

The driving test has been steadily refined since it was introduced in the 1930s. We have recently made changes to the theory test, so that it is harder to learn the answers by rote, and we have introduced an element of independent driving—driving without instruction or direction—during the test to help to prepare for the real-life driving environment. The Government recognise that there are many voices calling for a graduated driving licence to be considered or introduced in Britain. We recognise that there is a significant body of evidence to suggest that a GDL regime would have a beneficial effect on British road safety. However, against that we need to weigh carefully the implications for the freedom of our young people, as any such change to the law would result in some difficult cases—for instance, where a young person is stranded, unable to drive home legally—or would limit the ability of young people to offer each other lifts and thereby reduce transport costs.

Caution also needs to be exercised before making quick comparisons between Britain and other countries with GDL regimes. British roads are among the safest in the world and Britain’s road safety record is considerably better than all the countries that have already introduced GDLs, with the exception of Sweden, whose record is similar to ours.

We are in the process of undertaking some face-to-face research with parents and young people to get a better understanding of the issues from their perspective. As I hope the House can appreciate, this is a difficult topic, as I have mentioned, and it is important that we get this right. Once we are confident that we have struck the right balance between driver safety and restricting the freedom of our young people, we will come forward with our proposals. In the meantime, there are other things we can look to improve.

We want to improve the quality and accessibility of resources to support road safety. There is a range of resources to support the process involved in gaining a licence, but relatively little information targeted at parents, at those who accompany learner drivers or even at young people themselves on the risks faced by inexperienced drivers after they pass their driving test. There are also initiatives like Bikeability, which operates in the cycling sector, that could be used at an early age to instil road safety behaviours.

There are technologies that could potentially reduce the crash and casualty risk among novice drivers, and we want to provide incentives for their take-up. Because young and inexperienced drivers’ decisions about the vehicles that they buy are influenced by their overall budgets and by the cost of insurance, new vehicles, which are safer but more expensive, are less likely to be driven by the drivers who are most at risk and who would benefit most from the technology. I expect that that will change over time as today’s new cars become tomorrow’s cheap bangers.

We recognise that if we tighten the processes of learning to drive and licensing, an unintended consequence may be that more young people choose to ride motorbikes or mopeds. We also know that powered two-wheelers are involved in a significant number of crashes, many more than cars. We therefore think it important to consider ways of improving the process of compulsory basic training so that that, too, is as safe as we can make it.

We are worried about the safety of our young people. It is simply not right that a young woman in Britain today is most likely to be killed while being driven by her boyfriend. The safety record of our young and inexperienced drivers has long been a topic of discussion among the road safety and insurance communities. I hope that the examples that I have given illustrate our determination to work with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham to improve road safety throughout our country. In the months ahead, our objective will be to ensure that we contribute to the reduction in the number of accidents and fatalities on our roads.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.