New drivers will face new rules from next year. The Road Traffic Act that is currently in preparation will have a number of eye-catching provisions and the group most affected will be young people learning how to drive.
This has been an evolutionary process. Cast your mind back 10 years or so and the situation for learner drivers in Ireland was little short of farcical.
At that time the State effectively did not care about teaching people properly and took no interest in making drivers safe. You could get a ‘provisional’ licence by return of post and, although you were supposed to display L-plates, most people simply did not bother.
The system for conducting driving tests was chaotic. A huge backlog was allowed to build up which meant that if you applied for a driving test, you could easily wait for over a year before getting an appointment.
Drivers in their hundreds of thousands just did not bother and nobody cared. The rules about L-plates, motorways and being accompanied by a qualified driver were ignored by everyone; gardai, insurance companies, motorists. You could drive for years on a ‘provisional’ licence and it made no difference at all.
The establishment of the RSA in 2006 saw the start of a series of reforms. The system for teaching people became much more holistic. Now if you want to become a driver, you must first pass a theory test, then you must take lessons from a proper instructor before doing your test, for which the waiting time is down to less than six weeks.
From next year there will be an important new layer in the process. Once you pass your test, you will become a ‘novice’ driver for a period of two years. You will have to display a new ‘N’ plate and you will be subject to certain restrictions.
The permitted alcohol limit is only 20 milligrams compared with 50 for experienced drivers. That low limit is effectively the same as zero alcohol. We cannot have people getting driving bans for micro-amounts of alcohol that they got from a chocolate liqueur but even one drink will put you above that limit.
The most important provision is that newly qualified drivers will only have half the amount of penalty points available to them. Chalk up six points and they will face a driving ban. Only after they have been fully qualified for two years will they have earned the right to a 12-point licence.
The AA was very pleased to see this latter provision put in place because we had suggested it. I know there are young people out there who feel these measures appear to be targeting them and letting others off the hook. It feels unfair, even patronising, but I would say to people who are affected that it comes purely from the accident data.
Drivers are much more likely to make errors of judgement when they are inexperienced. It is worth pointing out that this is nothing to do with driving skill. A typical young person, especially a young male, is actually likely to be very skilled. Their reaction times and their hand-eye co-ordination are no doubt better than mine for example.
It is more about recognising hazards in the landscape and using experience to avoid danger before it arises. Like a pilot, you just will not have that until you have put in the time behind the wheel.
To my mind the bit that will be the most unpopular is actually the least important for road safety: the ‘N-Plate’. New drivers will hate them if the feedback that the AA has already received is anything to go by.
Not everyone agrees with me, but my view is that the plate itself makes no difference. I think the reduced penalty points is far more important. Overall I believe these new measures will have the effect of maximising the consequence of bad driving habits on the group of drivers who are statistically at the highest risk of having a crash.