Road safety: Youth is not the only issue

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Proposals are to be put out for discussion in the new year that would have the effect of raising the legal driving age from 17 to 18. Although a 17-year-old would be able to obtain a provisional licence, the training and testing process would generally take a full year, so ensuring that only 18-year-olds were legally permitted to drive alone.

The howls of frustration among today's 15 and 16-year-olds can well be imagined, especially those living in areas poorly served by public transport. Just as they are anticipating the freedom of the roads, there they are threatened with more rigorous tests and another wait.

On the face of it, though, there are compelling reasons for a change. The toll of death and injury among young, inexperienced drivers is little short of a national scandal. Young men are especially accident-prone, with 50 per cent of those under 21 involved in a crash in their first year on the road. The accident rate falls significantly among drivers with even a year's experience.

If it were calculated that such a de-facto increase in the permitted driving age would save young lives and make the roads safer for everyone else, we see no reason why it should not be embraced. But it would be important also to explore possible unintended consequences that might make matters worse.

Extending the tuition process and multiplying the formal tests will increase the already steep cost of a driving licence. Unless driving lessons can somehow be incorporated in the school curriculum, the cost of driving legally could become prohibitive for many. In an age when a driving licence is a prerequisite for many jobs, teenagers from poorer households could find themselves at an even greater disadvantage than they already are.

The cost of driving lessons, moreover, is only the first stage of a multiple outlay, of which one of the biggest expenses is insurance. The cost of insurance for inexperienced drivers under 21 those most likely to be involved in accidents may keep some off the roads, so preventing them from gaining the experience that would make them safer; far more just take to the roads illegally.

The linking of the official databases for driving licences, vehicle registration and insurance was intended to facilitate the tracking of drivers who broke the law. One result, however, is that those who might once have been tempted to dispense only with insurance, now drive entirely outside the law and the ubiquitous cameras are no help.

There are many different issues here that need to be tackled. Raising the legal driving age may address some of the safety problems on our roads, but it will be far from providing a panacea.

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