Mark speaking on the need for Government action to improve Road Safety

July 16, 2008 3:00 PM
By Mark Hunter

It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to contribute to today's debate with you in the Chair, Mr. Hancock. I congratulate the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) on securing the debate. As he has said, road safety, particularly in relation to young drivers, is especially important. We have already heard many relevant statistics, but I am afraid that I shall mention a few of them again, because as the hon. Gentleman said, they bear repetition and make one think about the scale of the problem.

According to the Department for Transport, in 2006-the last year for which figures are available-2,943 people were killed on Britain's roads, 27,777 were seriously injured and 217,060 were slightly injured. Although I am extremely pleased that road deaths have fallen below 3,000 for the first time since 1926, there is no room for complacency. Members on both sides of the House will agree that there is still much to be done. In the last year for which statistics are available, almost 250,000 people, including more than 3,000 children, were killed or were seriously injured and had to face the trauma and consequences of road accidents.

The comments that we have heard so far show that this is not a simple issue. We do not want to demonise all young people, and they are not all the same, just as all middle-aged people are not the same-as this House can testify. The latest consultation appears to give us a way forward that is, broadly speaking, worthy of support, but there is no simple, magic solution or one, central way forward to these problems. We have to accept that some people will always drive recklessly, whatever the Government try to do, and that there will always be people who simply do not think or care about the lives of others around them. It is important to acknowledge that accidents just happen sometimes, but we live in a society in which, increasingly, someone always has to be to blame for a problem.

None of that detracts from the fact that more can and should be done to tackle this problem. The statistics that we have heard so much about show that young drivers are involved in more accidents than any other group of driver. One in eight car drivers is under 25, but one in four drivers who died on the roads in 2006 was under 25. So, although road deaths and injuries have fallen by a third since the mid-'90s, casualty rates for young drivers, particularly young male drivers, have not changed at all in that period. The numbers are not small. One in five car deaths on British roads involves newly qualified drivers and their passengers. I do not think that it has been acknowledged yet that newly qualified drivers are not always young drivers. In the spirit of not wanting to demonise all young people, let me point out that that statistic, which equates to more than 300 deaths a year, concerns all newly qualified drivers and their passengers.

There is no doubt that inexperience at any age is a big factor. According to DFT figures, 20 per cent. of all new drivers have an accident within six months of passing their driving test, but that is not to say-it is important to restate this-that all novice or young drivers are poor drivers. On the contrary, we are talking about the minority, and possibly a small minority, of young, novice drivers who take unnecessary risks.

This issue concerns a small minority of young and novice drivers who take unnecessary risks. We should recognise that the majority of such drivers want to abide by the rules, drive safely and enjoy the freedom that comes with driving. The problem that faces young drivers is that they are often hampered by a lack of adequate training and by their own inexperience. The driving test-and, indeed, driving lessons-focuses too much on controlling and manoeuvring the vehicle, whatever it might be, and not enough on driving independently and in different hazardous conditions. We need to ensure that young drivers are taught properly and gain the experience that will allow them to enjoy the independence that driving brings. We need to help them to drive consistently and safely in all conditions-particularly, as has been discussed, at night, when driving conditions can be very different.

An overhaul of the driving test and learning system is long overdue, and the proposals in the Government's learning to drive consultation, which aims to change the way in which young people learn and are tested, is a good start. Let me say that very clearly: it is a firm step in the right direction, but my concern is that it is does not yet go far enough. I certainly welcome the Government's proposal to include a broader syllabus for the driving test, including a section on independent driving, but I remain concerned that, while the new syllabus includes driving at night and in unpleasant weather conditions, the consultation does not mention whether those skills will be tested in the new exam. It would be useful if the Minister clarified that point later.

Another proposed change that the consultation has not yet touched on is the student workbook, which is intended to track the progress of new drivers. It seems a good idea in theory, but the proposal is to make it entirely voluntary, so I wonder whether the Government have estimated the likelihood of students completing the book if it is introduced as a voluntary measure. If the idea is worth doing at all, we should probably regulate it and make it a compulsory part of the scheme, and again, if the Minister could refer to that in his response, I would be very interested in his answer. The workbook is a good idea. Students will have to complete certain tasks under supervision, including driving at night-a problem to which we have already referred. But should the workbook be entirely voluntary, and do we think that there will be sufficient take-up?

The available figures-many of which we have already heard about-prove that allowing drivers on the road with little or no experience of driving at night or in adverse weather conditions can be a fatal mistake, so I agree with the Transport Committee's report, which says that for all age groups, we need a much more carefully regulated and better organised system for learning to drive. The Government should look again at introducing a minimum learning period and a minimum number of lessons with a qualified instructor, including some lessons that would take place after the driving test had been passed.

The debate has highlighted across the piece that we are striving to reach a fine balance between ensuring that young adults, specifically, young males, can drive safely and that the costs, not just financially but generally, are not too onerous. On the financial considerations, young drivers can currently spend anything up to £1,500 to obtain a full driving licence. I should put that into context by pointing out, with some feeling, that if that person is a university student, the figure represents almost half the cost of one year's tuition. We must recognise that, for many people, the figure is prohibitively expensive, and we need to look for other ways of helping to ensure that young drivers have good driving tuition.

The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) mentioned the pass plus scheme, which I understand local authorities in Wales and Scotland subsidise, so will the Minister say whether there have been any discussions about extending it and encouraging local authorities in England to do the same? It would be a useful step forward in trying to combat the problem.

I agree with many comments today in favour of the graduated licence. Although I acknowledge that there are some concerns that it might create a punitive system for all young drivers, we must face the facts that the system would protect all drivers, including young and novice drivers. In particular, I support the Transport Committee's recommendation that novice drivers be classed as such, and the proposal that they indicate their status on their vehicle seems sensible. We already have a voluntary system, and giving surrounding drivers warning that a novice is driving the vehicle in front or behind would be helpful to everybody on the road. Have the advantages been considered of making the P-plate scheme compulsory for one year after a driving test? It is currently optional, but there is a lot of support for compulsion, and it would be a small step in the right direction, making other drivers aware that they were driving in proximity to a new or probationary driver.

We have heard that drink-driving is still a massive problem on Britain's roads, with the latest figures showing that 17 per cent. of all road deaths occur when someone has been driving under the influence of alcohol. We all know that it is a particular problem among young drivers, and the Department for Transport says that drivers aged 17 to 19 years old are 10 times as likely to have a drink-drive crash as all other ages, but I must say-this will not go down well with every Member who has contributed to the debate-that I am not yet convinced that it means that we should lower the alcohol limit to zero for young and novice drivers.

Although I appreciate the motivation behind that suggestion, it seems to me that there is a danger that we could criminalise young people who might have consumed just a little alcohol, perhaps with a meal, and it would be wrong for them to be criminalised or stigmatised, just as it would be wrong to criminalise or stigmatise anybody else for doing the same thing.

Our view would be that a better idea is to call for a reduction in the drink-drive limit for all drivers, to bring it into line with most of the rest of Europe. That would be a reduction from 80 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood to 50 mg.

My suggestion to reduce the drink-drive limit for everyone from 80 mg to 50 mg is backed up by independently collected statistics. Hon. Members may be aware that University college in London has done some detailed research on this issue and it estimates that the proposed reduction could prevent up to 65 deaths and 230 injuries each year. So I think that the facts speak for themselves in support of that reduction.

Finally, we should not forget the very important role that the insurance companies can play in incentivising and encouraging young drivers to get as much training and experience as possible, and rewarding them for doing so. It seems to me that, at the moment, the insurance companies charge young people, especially young male drivers, very substantial premiums; I speak with some knowledge on this subject. I would welcome details about the Government's work, which I know is going on, to encourage insurance companies to reduce premiums for those drivers who can demonstrate that they have had more training and more development. Again, I invite the Minister to comment further on how far the Government's discussions with insurance companies are progressing and to say when we might be likely to see such incentives come into place.

So I believe that the problem of young and novice drivers, particularly young male drivers, is a serious issue and it needs a serious solution. The consultation paper proposed by the Government is useful; it is certainly a step in the right direction and it will undoubtedly help. However, I am not entirely convinced that it goes far enough quickly enough. Frankly, we need action on this issue now, not in another five years' time.

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