The Department of Transport has been considering a test devised by researchers at the University of Reading which tests people's 'hazard perception skills', a particularly weak aspect of novice drivers. Dr Frank McKenna, the psychologist heading the pounds 200,000 research project, says: 'Young people, contrary to popular belief and, particularly, their own estimation of their driving, do not have faster reaction times than older drivers. Although they may be marginally quicker once they notice something dangerous, they are much slower at spotting the hazards.'
Dr McKenna says that the video is a much better tool for training and testing than written questionnaires, which were an alternative suggestion put forward in a consultation paper by the department last August: 'Questionnaires may be cheaper, though they are quite expensive to process, but there is no correlation between being good at answering the questions and being good at avoiding accidents.'
Rather than developing a complicated programme involving high technology, Dr McKenna has concentrated on a scheme that could be implemented quickly and cheaply. 'There will be no excuse for not implementing this test.'
He is keen to see the number of road deaths reduced: 'The lack of attention paid to road deaths is remarkable. Over 4,000 people die each year and we know already that about the same number will die this year. It's appalling that so little attention is paid to this slaughter.
'Young people are disproportionately involved in accidents because they are bad at hazard perception. This test will do much to improve it,' he said. The test is relatively simple. People being assessed watch a 10-minute video of routine driving situations and push a button as soon as they see a hazard, such as a car braking or an oncoming car moving into the centre of the road.
While some of the hazardous situations on the video were stage- managed by the research team, several were not, including a dangerously wobbly cyclist who cuts across the traffic to go along the white line in the middle of the road, and a woman stepping out into the traffic from a bus stop. Those who press the button all the time to beat the system are spotted by the computer, which fails them.
Attempting the test, I missed an oncoming car hurtling at me until very late and was a bit slow to avoid the lady at the bus stop, ending up with a score of 3.9 seconds, about right for a relatively experienced driver but poor for one who has driven for 27 years and a salutary lesson given my perception of my skills.
An Independent photographer who has been driving for only four years scored 4.3, about the level expected for a relatively inexperienced motorist. Experts who train police drivers usually score 2.5.
Dr McKenna said the optimum age, before failing senses offset greater experience, is about 50, making it the safest driving age. He is working on research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council on how drivers perceive their driving skills.
'Our preliminary work suggests that people invariably think that their skills are above average which, of course, is a nonsense statistically. Indeed, in one similar survey in the US not one respondent from a large sample thought their skills were below average.'
He believes that one way of reducing road deaths is to get people to realise that they are not as good as they think. He gets them to think of an accident they have caused and then to imagine the consequences. This training is successful at making drivers more careful and Dr McKenna hopes it may become a routine part of driver instruction.