Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Minister on the right road to cut crash tragedies

Alex Attwood's shake-up of driver licensing is welcome but more still needs to be done, says Julie Townsend

Road casualties are sudden, violent and devastating and they disproportionately affect the young. Worldwide, road crashes are the single biggest killer of young people and, shockingly, the same is true across the UK.

Young people are often the victims of road crashes, but they are also often the perpetrators. One in four road deaths and serious injuries in the UK involves a young driver.

Research shows that young drivers are more likely to take a host of deadly risks on roads compared to their older counterparts and their lack of experience means they are even less able than older drivers to handle these risks.

On a daily basis, young drivers cause, through this combination of inexperience and risk-taking, horrific crashes that kill and maim themselves, their young passengers and other, innocent road-users.

For this reason, taking action on young drivers' safety is one of the most important things we must do to make our roads and communities safer for everyone - hence it is a major focus for Brake, as a charity campaigning on road safety and supporting families devastated by road death and injury.

Environment Minister Alex Attwood's announcement yesterday on reform of the system of learning to drive in Northern Ireland contains some very welcome steps in the right direction.

A zero-tolerance limit on alcohol for novice drivers, alongside an initial six-month ban on carrying young passengers and a minimum 12-month learning-to-drive period are firsts for the UK.

They show a clear commitment to tackling young driver crashes in Northern Ireland and we believe they will help to prevent needless casualties and suffering.

These are all typical elements of graduated driver-licensing: an approach that allows learner and novice drivers to develop skills and experience gradually, while limiting their exposure to risk.

It's an approach that has been adopted very successfully in numerous other countries, which breaks the process down into stages.

It usually includes a minimum learning-to-drive period, as proposed for Northern Ireland, plus a novice driving period, when you can drive independently, but with restrictions to help keep you safe as you become more experienced and more mature.

These restrictions tend to be geared at limiting novice drivers' exposure to the situations of greatest risk, as evidenced by research.

For example, we know that young drivers are involved in more drink-drive crashes than older drivers and we know they are more likely to crash when carrying their young friends as passengers.

But while these newly-announced measures are radical by UK standards, there are some typical elements of graduated driver-licensing that are excluded from these proposals.

For example, a restriction on travelling late at night is another key way to reduce young driver risk that has not been included.

At the same time, plans to lower the minimum age for learning to drive is a disappointing inclusion, which will weaken the safety benefits of the minimum-learning period.

Research shows the younger you are when you get your licence, the more likely you are to crash.

We can learn a great deal from what's been done on young driver safety around the world. Countries such as New Zealand, Australia and the United States have well-established systems of graduated driver-licensing, which are evidenced as effective in cutting deaths and injuries.

And we have evidence that graduated driver-licensing will work wonders for young driver safety here, too.

A study by the University of Cardiff predicted that no fewer than 200 lives would be saved annually if this approach was implemented across the UK.

That's 200 families each year who could be spared a heart-breaking visit from a police officer to tell them that their loved-one will never be coming home, because they have been unexpectedly and violently killed in a road crash.

Thousands more would be spared a devastating, life-altering serious injury.

Preventing casualties on our roads saves families from needless suffering, it stops lives being cut short and ruined and it delivers significant economic benefit, too, due to relieving emergency and health services.

The fact that graduated driver-licensing constitutes best practice has now been recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The WHO will be monitoring the number of countries with such a system in place, as part of their work to track progress towards safer roads during the Decade of Action for Road Safety, launched last year.

Brake believes the whole of the UK should be on that list - and that Northern Ireland has taken a substantial leap towards graduated driver-licensing is a good sign that we may yet reach it.

Brake will continue to campaign for graduated driver-licensing across the UK and hopes the progressive steps being taken by the Northern Ireland government will serve as a positive influence on Westminster. We believe that governments must act to help young people use roads safely and responsibly, to protect their own lives and the lives of others.

If we can achieve this, we not only address a factor in a quarter of serious casualties on our roads; we also help to create a safer, more responsible road-user culture for the future.

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