Driving test changes to improve safety: Separate theory examination planned for summer of 1996

NEW drivers will have to pass a separate theory examination before taking their road test from July 1996 in an attempt to curb fatal accidents among young motorists.

The revamped test is one of four measures revealed yesterday by John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, who said young drivers caused a disproportionate amount of the annual toll of 4,200 road deaths.

The shape of the new theory test, which will be contracted out to a private company, has not yet been determined but Mr MacGregor said it was likely to include the use of technology such as videos as well as a questionnaire: 'It will not be like the questions on the Highway Code in the current test. It will be the most dramatic change in the driving test since it was first introduced in 1935.'

Mr MacGregor said that possibly the most important of the four measures was to make new drivers who were convicted of serious driving offences retake their tests. 'Drivers in the age group 17 to 21 represent 10 per cent of licence holders but are involved in 20 per cent of all accidents, accounting for 1,000 deaths per year,' he said. Although details have not yet been worked out, it is likely that it will apply to drivers who have passed their tests within the two years before committing an endorsable offence. However, there is a problem over fixed penalty tickets since legislation would be needed to ensure these were included in the scheme.

The two other measures are to encourage voluntary schemes in which insurers would offer discounts to newly qualified drivers who underwent extra training and to encourage shools to offer eduational programmes for pupils aged 16 or over.

Several suggestions mooted in the consultation paper published last August have been rejected including the suggestion that the age for driving should be increased to 18. This was considered to have too many disadvantages and the idea that drivers who had passed their test recently should have P plates is still being considered. Mr MacGregor said that a research project on the experience of Northern Ireland which has 'restricted' plates for new drivers was still being undertaken. New drivers there are also subject to a lower speed limit. Ministers rejected transferring this idea to the rest of the United Kingdom.

They also threw out the idea of compulsory professional training, of restrictions on the numbers of passengers carried by new drivers and of having lower alcohol limits for new drivers.

The Government's Health of the Nation White Paper has set a target of reducing the death rate among 15 to 24-year-olds by 25 per cent by 2005. Road accidents are the most common cause of death for this age group.

The RAC broadly welcomed the measures. Its campaigns manager, Edmund King, said: 'Our only worry is that we would prefer both parts of the test to be taken at the same time. We would also like to see the educational programmes as part of the National Curriculum. Road safety is a basic life skill which will be used by everyone, even those who never become drivers.'