Harder driving tests again? Please no!

This morning, I was driving to work and was listening to the BBC London breakfast show, which features Jo Good and Paul Ross, who is every bit as irritating as his brother Jonathan (I had to turn him off in the end when he started practising the few bits of German he said he knew for a German caller who was telling us how they do things back home). Apparently there is some statistic that a fifth of accidents involve newly-qualified drivers, so there is some sort of consultation about whether restrictions ought to be placed on such drivers, such as having to attach a “P” (provisional) plate to the vehicle or not being allowed to drive on motorways or at night.

When I took my test back in 1995, I do not remember even doing a theory test; the only theory test I’ve done was during a brief foray into bus driving in 2001 or so. Round about 1997, they introduced a theory test for all new drivers, and they have also reduced the number of points a new driver can get (points are penalty marks on the licence) before they are taken off the road. The rules are that learners can drive while accompanied by a qualified driver, but must attach a regulation “L” plate to the car and stay off the motorways. The suggestions raised today include introducing a third test, separating the manoevres from the general driving, including motorway driving.

The problem is that the current system allows learners to drive on dual carriageways, which in some parts of the country (particulary East Anglia) entirely replace motorways and are generally more difficult to drive on because their surface is often inferior, the lanes are fewer (usually two rather than three) and narrower, the traffic just as heavy (both the main dual carriageways into East Anglia, namely the A12 from London and the A14 from the Midlands, carry trucks going to the ports at Harwich and Felixstowe) and the speed limit for cars just as high (70 mph, with some cars going a lot faster). If someone happens to live in a part of the country where there are a lot of these roads, they will get the practice necessary for the motorway without having to go on one.

For many drivers, passing the test with the current system is really quite difficult. Some people do pass on their first attempt; many take more than that; it was four in my case. It is a matter of a half-hour demonstration of your driving to a total stranger who is drilled with the dogma of how to “drive properly”, which includes things like not pulling out halfway across a road when one side is clear and you do not have priority besides the more practical and sensible rules. They also get you to demonstrate some common operations like an emergency stop and reverse parking. Some might argue that the system does need reforming, because this might not be the best way to demonstrate that one is safe on the road. The reforms, however, seem to involve making new drivers jump through more and more hoops.

Let’s face it, the statistic really does not mean much - “20% of accidents are caused by new drivers” means “80% of accidents are caused by experienced drivers”. There is the matter of who some of them are driving with, so prohibiting a young and very new driver from taking round a group consisting entirely of people under a certain age might be worth considering, as might allowing learners to take motorway lessons in a proper driving school car. Perhaps they could even have “driver education” in schools, which would weaken the influence of the private operators, many of whom are cowboys and some of whom charge exorbitant fees. However, I do not think that trotting out well-worn stereotypes about young, particularly male, drivers is helpful; people do not want to be assumed to be bad drivers just because some young men are idiots (and besides, you do get careless young female drivers as well). Making the test harder just because of the “boy racers” just penalises everyone who wants to learn how to drive, and is a gravy train both for the bureaucrats and for the training industry.

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