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Roads: New and Young Drivers

Volume 744: debated on Monday 18 March 2013

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in view of the proportion of fatal accidents involving young drivers, whether they will introduce measures similar to those in force in Northern Ireland placing restrictions on new and young drivers.

My Lords, the Government are committed to improving the safety of young drivers. As part of the ongoing work to reduce the risk of accidents involving young and newly qualified drivers, the department is considering several options to ensure that they are properly prepared and drive safely. We continue to work with young people, insurance companies and key partners in considering any changes affecting learner drivers and those who have just passed their test.

Has the Minister seen the case, settled only this month since I tabled the Question, of Courtney Meppen-Walter, aged 18—a £1,000-a-week junior footballer who has played 17 times for his country—who killed two people and injured two children, and was jailed for 16 months? He was exceeding the 30 mph speed limit by 100% and it had been noted that he had been playing games with a VW Golf before the accident occurred. He has now been disqualified for three years. Does my noble friend think that this was just a case of bravado or was it a most unfortunate example of a young person whom other young people would look up to? Is not the matter very serious and should not something be done? That has been resisted by too many Governments in the past when I have moved amendments in favour of such action.

My Lords, it is an extreme case but, sadly, it is not unique. Young drivers are prone to immaturity and reckless driving. They can also be easily distracted, especially when driving while carrying other youngsters. We are seeking to reduce the risk of these very sad accidents and will carry on the work of the previous Administration in doing so.

Does the Minister agree that young motorcyclists are particularly prone to a high accident rate? Do the Government have any proposals to increase the safety with which young people drive motorcycles?

My Lords, my understanding is that the work is concentrated on car drivers but, if I have any more information about young motorcyclists, I will write to the noble Lord. Over recent years, there has been a tightening-up of the rules for acquiring a motorcycle licence. I understand, however, that there is a problem in relation to more mature drivers starting to use motorbikes for recreational purposes, and, sadly, the accident rate there is not very good either.

Can the noble Earl tell the House what progress is really being made? Accidents and serious injuries among young drivers cause the largest number of deaths in that age group. I know he said that the department is considering something, but can he give us concrete evidence of any move which may reduce this toll of unnecessary suffering?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that a motor accident is a very high risk for youngsters—probably the worst risk for an untimely end. However, the previous Government made good progress in reducing the accident rate and we will continue that work.

My Lords, would the Minister consider having probationary plates on the cars of young drivers until they are about 21 years of age? If he did something useful, it would be very helpful for all those parents who have lost young people under the age of 21 who were driving too fast.

My Lords, probationary plates are one of the things that we are considering in order to deal with that sort of problem, possibly linked with other measures—for instance, not allowing young or new drivers to carry young passengers.

My Lords, of course we are happy to support any measure that improves the safety record of young drivers. However, that does not mean that we support the pricing of young drivers off our roads. The increase in insurance for young drivers last year was 53%. How do we expect young people, particularly in rural areas, to be able to get to jobs, apprenticeships or even education institutions if they cannot afford to run a car?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point. Some of the measures we are thinking of have a cost and could have an adverse impact, perhaps meaning that young drivers do not bother with a driving licence at all. Therefore, we have to be very careful about what measures we put in place. As to the noble Lord’s substantive point about the cost of insurance, we are well aware of this. At a previous encounter, I said that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State was shortly to have a meeting with the insurance industry. We intend to hold a further meeting with the motor insurance industry on 25 March, following the successful summits held last year aimed at tackling the high cost of premiums, especially for young drivers.

My Lords, I may be a little out of date but in my day as a Minister in Northern Ireland, which was three decades ago, Northern Ireland had the very useful practice of all drivers having a green sign for the first year after they had acquired their licence. That was 30 years ago. Twenty years ago when I was Secretary of State for Transport, we considered that idea in the department. Would it now be a little premature to reach a decision?

My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that it is very hard to legislate for the exuberance of youths, especially when egged on by other exuberant youths, and that, even with a green plate on the back of their cars, they will test the boundaries of the law as hard as they can? I am not advocating that they should ignore the law but we have to face the facts. We were all young once and did silly things.

My Lords, experience from Sweden shows that a longer period of learner driving supervision can reduce the risk of accidents later. It is one of the things that we are looking at and we hope that it will address some of the behavioural issues.

My Lords, will the Minister ensure that in government discussions with the insurance companies, the issue of young learner drivers, particularly those on motorcycles and scooters who are working and trying to read maps when delivering pizzas, is dealt with? I understood that it was illegal to employ such drivers for deliveries. It is certainly very frightening to look at them trying to read where they are going and not being fully in control of their equipment.

My Lords, during the passage of the Road Safety Bill through your Lordships’ House, in opposition I tried to run an amendment along those very lines but it did not find favour. The reason was that a balance needs to be struck between the impact of the measures put in place and the adverse impact, including the adverse economic impact, on youngsters. It is a difficult balance but I understand the point made by the noble Baroness.