Edwin Poots’ proposals on driving

The BBC are covering Edwin Poots consultation paper on driving and changes especially to the rules for younger drivers: the department’s press release is here. The proposals are wide ranging and there is much of significant merit in it: however, it is also something of a curate’s egg and there are potential problems in some of the proposals which might produce further problems by the laws of unintended consequences.

Looking at some of the proposals in the consultation:

Raising the minimum minimum licensing age. Set a minimum mandatory learning period (starting
– potentially from age 16) Revise the practical driving test :

These may have some advantages. The view is that relatively immature young people are allowed to drive at an early age. However, inexperience is probably as big a problem as immaturity and that will not be changed by increasing the age for beginning driving. Furthermore it is unclear whether an 18 year old is likely to be that much more mature behind a wheel than a 17 year old. In many countries the minimum driving age is actually lower than in Northern Ireland. In addition making driving available only to older people may have major consequences on the ability of young people to get to work etc. If the minimum age for motorcycles is not also raised many may utilise these as cheap accessible forms of transport despite them being much more dangerous per mile driven than cars. The proposal to begin at 16 and have a minimum learning period, however, makes more sense. Using such an approach a young person could still be qualified at 17 but would have had longer to practice. It would not change the immaturity problem but would address some of the inexperience problem.

Require learner drivers to take a minimum number of driving lessons and/or hours/miles of supervised practice. Encourage/require skid training for learner or restricted drivers. Allow learner drivers to drive on motorways

Increasing and improving driver training seems an excellent strategy. However, there are problems. An increase in required training makes learning to drive more expensive, making it more difficult for those from poorer backgrounds to become drivers, which could exacerbate their social disadvantage. Allowing learners onto the motorways is probably also reasonable. In actual fact motorways are amongst the safest roads and allowing learners to experience the different skills involved in these roads would probably be useful. The idea of skid training also seems attractive. However, skidding cars is a popular leisure activity (there is a whole sub culture devoted to it) and making people more proficient at skidding may make it more popular and increase the number of dangerous games played on the roads in this fashion.

Amend or remove speed limits for learner and restricted drivers

This seems counter intuitive but is actually likely to be entirely sensible. Learner drivers being forced to travel at only 45 means that they cannot gain supervised practice at higher speeds. Furthermore very few R drivers obey the 45mph speed limit which leads to significant resentment when they are stopped by the police. In addition doing 45 (or 50 on a motorway) causes significant traffic disruption to other motorists. It results in people who are breaking no laws coming up behind the R driver (or learner) at a closing speed of up to 20mph which is relatively high and may well cause a significant number of accidents or near misses.

Introduce night-time driving restrictions for restricted drivers. Introduce passenger restrictions for restricted drivers

These sound sensible and we all know the tragedies of groups of young people being killed on the roads at night. Often the suspicion is that showing off and “playing” with cars may have helped contribute to the disasters. However, restrictions on night driving may make certain weekend and evening jobs impossible for young people which will increase social disadvantage especially for those already from poorer backgrounds. In addition banning car sharing for younger people might increase the amount of drink driving as no longer could one 18 / 19 year old take his / her friends home. In the country expecting young people to take a taxi home from say Enniskillen to Derrygonnelly, Garrison or Derrylin is so expensive as to be prohibitive especially when they may each live miles apart.

Introduce restrictions on high performance vehicles for restricted drivers

Again this one sounds eminently sensible but could produce problems. Very few young people can afford serious performance cars: few enough can afford fast “hot hatches” and the like. However, the definition of a high performance car is difficult. Young people who are into cars are remarkably adept at discovering which seemingly innocuous cars are the fastest. Furthermore older lighter cars, which although not that powerful, are capable of high performance might slip through. Many into cars will remember the likes of the Citroen AX GT which was a seriously fast car with the crash resistance of a crisp packet or most famously the Peugeot 205 1.9 GTI.

An additional problem is that young people especially young men interested in fast cars are far from stupid. The car magazines are full of adverts for simple cheap mechanisms for enhancing performance (normally computer chips which increase fuel supply to the engine). Such modified cars tend to be more problematic than pre-designed performance variants as they will not have the improved suspension and brakes to cope with the increased power.

Overall many of the proposals may make sense. However, it must be remembered that despite the continual increase in the numbers of cars on the road there has been a steady reduction in road deaths and serious injuries. A little of this may be down to the reduction in drinking and driving and a little to greater enforcement of speed limits. However, engineering is much the most important reason for the reduction in road injuries and deaths.

The improvement in roads has been significant in the last twenty and more years. Think of many twisty and potentially dangerous country roads. Often they have been improved by straightening corners, staggering crossroads or removing humped backed bridges. Main roads are also now greatly improved: think of the A1 or A4 where it is now possible, due to the dual carriageways, to pass slower vehicles without exposing oneself to the danger of oncoming traffic. More restrictive speed limits have often been introduced but these are much less important. In towns 20mph speed limits have some value but speed humps, annoying as they may be, are much more effective at slowing cars.

Even more important than road engineering, however, is vehicle engineering. Take my first car: an Austin Metro. (I had two of them and have only owned 5 cars in 23 years). It had no antilock brakes, no airbags, no stability control computers etc. It was also extremely light and had limited crumple zones, crash protection etc. It was a reasonable supermini for its time. However, think of the modern versions: a BMW Mini or Ford Fiesta are much larger; have antilock brakes, much superior suspensions, traction control; multiple airbags etc. The Metro would undoubtedly loose control at far lower speeds and have a much longer braking distance than the Ford or Mini. When it hit something the damage to occupants would be much greater. People may suggest that reaction times have not improved but overall braking times and distances have and by a vast amount.

At the opposite end of the automotive spectrum take a serious iconic performance car: the Porsche 911 (the midlife crisis special: I am a Clarkson fan). The 911 of the 1980s had a reputation for being dangerous. If the fat middle aged man went round a corner too fast, panicked and lifted off the accelerator it could pirouette leaving the midlife crisis over permanently. It was a truly fast car but since age, waist size and wealth did not necessarily bring with it driving talent, it was justifiably called a yuppie killer (oddly yuppies seemed to claim to be young well into their 40s and even 50s). The latest 911 is even faster, even more powerful (middle aged, fat men have not gone away you know and hair lines still recede). Yet it has stability computers, antilock brakes and a raft of safety devices which allow the middle aged man to drive about trying to find a new younger wife without dying. No longer must attractive young women fear that lecherous middle aged men will accidentally kill themselves whilst proving their virility. On second thoughts maybe that is a bad analogy: however, I digress.

The reality is as I stated above that road death rates have fallen and most of that is down to engineering. We will never make younger (especially male) drivers slow boring and careful: only time will do that. New laws may help but the road builders and the car manufacturers are the main unsung heroes of this fall in deaths and injuries (and before anyone get excited electric cars, although maybe having lower top speeds tend to accelerate much faster and even midlife crisis man rarely gets his Porsche anywhere near its maximum speed).

The final issue particular to Northern Ireland is our car culture. We have a significant car culture as many rural areas in the UK and elsewhere do (Mid Wales is another good example). In NI we have almost no public transport. A genuine way of increasing safety would be to reduce the reliance which all of us, young and old, have on our cars. In that context improving and increasing our public transport network, especially the railways which once criss-crossed Northern Ireland (and are statistically the safest form of land based transportation) would make a significant impact on road deaths. If many of the students who travel to and from Belfast every weekend could get there and back more quickly on a cheap and reliable train we might see less car journeys and less collisions.

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