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What is the graduated driving licence?

Carlton Boyce / 02 November 2018

You might have heard talk recently of the introduction of a Graduated Driving Licence and wondered what on earth it is and whether it will affect you.

A young woman and a driving instructor in a car to represent the graduated driving licence

The good news is that it probably won’t, at least not directly. The bad news is that it might affect your children and grandchildren, who may well have a good moan about how unfair life is.

Now, life probably is unfair but the introduction of graduated driving licences probably isn’t an example of that. Here are the facts so you can try and reassure them that it’s a positive move that’ll help keep them and their friends safer than they might otherwise have been.

(As if facts ever persuaded a teenager of anything…)

What is a graduated driving licence?

A graduated driving licence, or a GDL, is a driving licence that authorises the holder to drive a specific class of motor vehicle under a variety of different conditions following a structured programme of instruction. Or, a GDL might impose restrictions on when, where and at what speed they can drive a vehicle.

As an example, a newly qualified young driver might only be allowed to drive on single-carriageway roads until they’ve received instruction in driving on dual-carriageways and motorways. They might also be limited to driving during daylight hours until they’ve been taught how to drive at night, or limited to a top speed of 50mph.

In all these cases, they will usually have to demonstrate their proficiency in their newly learned skills, generally by way of a theoretical and practical test before the restriction is lifted.

They might also face restrictions based solely on their age; research shows that drivers aged 24 and under are in the highest risk category and so are in the greatest need of rescuing from themselves and the consequences of their actions and inexperience.

In fact, we have something along these lines already; while you and I can tow a trailer or caravan without ever having been trained or tested on the subject, newly qualified drivers have to pay for extra training and a separate driving test before they can.

New drivers are also treated more harshly when it comes to some motoring offences as they lose their licence if they gain six points or more in the first two years of driving, while the rest of us have to incur twelve. The introduction of a graduated driving licence will, if it comes about, be an extension of this kind of thinking.

The updated driving test

Is the graduated driving licence a good thing?

Yes. While younger drivers will understandably complain about the extra cost and inconvenience of having to undergo additional training, the benefits are clear. A study commissioned by the Department for Transport in 2013 found “indisputable” evidence that a GDL scheme would help cut accident rates, especially for young drivers. It estimated that a GDL system for drivers aged 17-19 years old would “result in annual savings of 4,471 casualties and £224million”.

The trial prompted the RAC’s road safety spokesman Pete Williams recently commented that:

‘The RAC has been calling for a reform of driving education for young people and the introduction of graduated driving licences with a minimum supervised learning period and restrictions on the number of passengers permitted in the car, so this is a very positive step towards preventing the loss of young lives on our roads.’

Neil Greig, the Director of Policy and Research for IAM RoadSmart broadly supports the introduction of a GDL but warns that while he supports extra training and limitations on the number of passengers that can be carried, a night-time curfew might restrict the opportunities for newly qualified and young drivers to gain valuable experience after dark.

Even some new drivers think they’re ill-equipped to deal with the demands of modern driving, with a recent RAC survey showing that 35% of them don’t feel that the current level of tuition they receive is sufficient.

The UK's most dangerous driving

Do other countries have a graduated driving licence scheme?

Yes they do. The United States of America, Canada, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa all have a version of a GDL albeit with differing caveats; some base their restrictions on age, some on driving experience, and some on both.

The results since the introduction of the GDLs has been startling. Brake, the road safety charity, reports that car crash injuries for 15-19 year olds fell by almost a quarter in New Zealand after their introduction, while 16-year-old drivers in the USA who have a GDL have 37% fewer accidents per year than those that don’t.

Closer to home, Ireland has its own GDL, with newly qualified drivers having to display an ‘N’ plate (for ‘Novice’) for the first two years. They are also have lower drink/drive limits.

The basics of driving abroad

Why is the graduated driving licence in the news now?

The Prime Minister has been consulting widely on the matter since she asked the Department for Transport (DfT) to look into the matter in February 2018.

In April 2018 she announced that a pilot scheme would be introduced in Northern Ireland in 2019/20, with Jesse Norman, the roads safety minister, briefing that the pilot scheme in Northern Ireland would be used to gauge whether GDLs should be introduced across the rest of the UK.

Interestingly, new drivers in Northern Ireland already have to display an ‘R’ plate (for ‘restricted’) on their cars for the first year of driving and are limited to a 45mph top speed.

Tips for driving at night

What sort of other things might be restricted?

We’re in the realms of guesswork here but it’s probably fair to assume that the following might be restricted in addition to the top speed newly qualified and young drivers can drive at:

• Ministers are said to be considering insisting on a minimum of six months training before a learner driver can take their driving test. At the moment there is nothing to stop a 17-year-old taking their test on their birthday after zero hours on the road.

• A curfew on the time of day they can drive is almost certainly going to form part of the changes. Younger drivers are disproportionately more likely to have an accident during the hours of darkness than more experienced motorists.

• The number of passengers they can have in the car is also likely to be restricted. Again, there is a clear, causal link between the number of passengers and the likelihood of having an accident, with the likelihood of crashing rising in direct proportion to the number of people in the car. The restrictions might be as draconian as restricting drivers under the age of 25 to being able to carry only one young passenger during the night-time. (Close family members are likely to be excluded from these restrictions, though.)

• Young drivers might face restrictions on the power and engine size of the cars they can drive. This is something that motorcyclists will be familiar with.

• A lower alcohol limit is likely, too as will be the mandatory display of ‘P’ (for ‘provisional’) plates on their cars.

Tips for letting your newly qualified kids drive

Are there any problems on the horizon?

Yes, there are and probably not from those most directly affected by it. The biggest problem I can foresee is that austerity cuts have hit traffic policing especially hard, and they’re the very folk that would be needed to enforce such a scheme. Without anyone patrolling and checking, especially at night, younger drivers will be free to do whatever they like without fear of censure.

And for those of you out there suggesting the use of black boxes and telemetry to monitor and moderate the GDL scheme, I have to point out that such systems are currently so inaccurate as to render them almost useless; a friend of mine told me recently that his daughter’s black box, provided by her insurance company as a condition of its cover, showed her reaching 87mph from a standstill in just 200 metres in a one-litre hatchback. Oh, and coming to a halt within that distance too.

And his story is not unusual, so technology won’t be monitoring and moderating driver behaviour at a forensic level for a long time yet. Which means we need more bobbies on the beat if the scheme isn’t to be horribly abused and rendered ineffective.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.