What’s the Problem with Britain’s Young Drivers?

Car Accident Hotspots

How the numbers don’t add up for younger motorists

Young drivers are often singled out for strong criticism. They’re accused of being irresponsible, reckless and dangerous. This has led to some lively debates about the UK’s younger motorists during the past 12 months, and a range of headline-grabbing ideas have been suggested to ‘deal’ with the issues surrounding them.

But is the reputation of younger drivers justified? If so, why are they a higher risk? And what are the solutions?

The Numbers Don’t Lie

When it comes to young drivers and road safety, the numbers don’t add up in their favour. The Association of British Insurers (ABI) says that only 12 per cent of drivers in the UK are under 25, but that this age group accounts for over 30 per cent of road fatalities; the ABI estimates that an 18-year-old is three times more likely to be involved in a crash than a driver 30 years older.

Sadly, the data on road accidents and fatalities clearly shows that drivers aged 17-24 are involved in a disproportionately high number of incidents. In 2011 a total of 5,419 people were killed or seriously injured in UK accidents involving a young driver.

It’s an imbalance that can seriously affect young drivers’ ability to find competitive premiums, and leaves them in desperate need of advice when looking for more specialist policies. But what’s the reason for this disparity? Why are so many younger drivers and passengers dying on the roads?

Driven to Distraction

One explanation is that young drivers are dangerously distracted. A recent YouGov poll of 2,500 young people found that 45 per cent were distracted by scenery, 44 per cent by the radio and 33 per cent by mobile phones.

Then there’s the distraction of carrying passengers; anecdotal evidence suggests that peer pressure to drive fast and take risks is a very real problem. Even when a young driver is alone they’re more likely to break the speed limit – the research by YouGov found a quarter (24 per cent) of young drivers said they would find it acceptable to speed at night.

Mind the Gap

Another explanation is the skill and knowledge ‘gap’ – younger motorists are less accomplished drivers than their older counterparts, and are more likely to make mistakes in marginal situations.

This certainly isn’t surprising. Driving is a skill, developed through years of practical application. Older drivers with decades of experience have logged thousands of hours behind the wheel, whereas young motorists are constantly encountering new situations – such as heavy rain, driving at night or using busy motorways – after they pass their test.

Research by Red Driving School supports the theory of a knowledge gap applying to younger drivers. It questioned 1,000 drivers aged 17-14 and found that 79 per cent didn’t know the legal drink driving limit in the UK (80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood).

The research also revealed that 20 per cent of respondents drink drive when “the unexpected happens”. Separate research has suggested that drivers aged 20-24 fail more breath tests than any other age group.

Care and Accountability

Finally, the higher risk of younger drivers can be partly explained by a lack of care, investment and responsibility towards servicing and insurance. The Society of Motor Maintenance and Traders (SMMT) found young drivers were not servicing their cars properly, and were unaware that software updates are available.

SMMT polled 2,000 drivers and found 10 per cent of drivers aged 18-24 never had their car serviced; 12 per cent of drivers 25-34 had never serviced their car. These figures are strikingly different to older drivers – only five per cent of drivers aged 35-54 – and only two per cent of drivers over 55 – fail to have their car properly maintained.

The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) has reported the number of 17-20 year-old drivers without insurance has fallen by half in three years. However, this age group still accounts for 10 per cent of the 1.2m uninsured drivers thought to be on the road – a disproportionately high figure.

Finding an Answer

It would appear that younger drivers genuinely are the highest risk group in the UK, owing to a lack of motoring knowledge, care, skill and experience, as well as the youthful predisposition to engage in risky behaviours.

So what’s the solution? What has been proposed to reduce their risk?

Many organisations have tended to focus on development, which includes educating young drivers with advice that might help reduce accidents. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) has run a young drivers campaign focusing on driving attitudes. It highlights the fact that younger drivers often have stronger vehicle control skills and fast reactions, but are weaker on actually identifying hazards and assessing risks.

RoSPA points out that young drivers tend to overestimate their ability to avoid hazards and accidents, but can take up to two seconds longer to react to dangerous situations compared to more experienced drivers – a potentially lethal combination.

Young drivers can also invest in practical development; the Pass Plus is a course covering theory and applied sessions that young drivers can take to build up their skills and experience. Successful completion of the course can contribute to lowering premiums with some insurers.

More ‘Radical’ Changes

But some have called for a more substantial overhaul of the system. The ABI has suggested a broad range of reforms, including a ban on intensive driving courses and a new ‘graduated’ licence for the first six months after passing a test.

The ABI has also suggested a restriction on the number of passengers a newly-qualified driver can carry, a ‘curfew’ for new drivers (i.e. being banned from using their car between 11pm – 4am, unless it’s necessary for work or college), and no blood alcohol allowed during the first six months after a driver passes their test.

The reaction to the considerable changes recommended by the ABI has been mixed. While many concur that more can be done to reduce accidents involving younger drivers, there has been significant resistance to the idea of restricting driving licences. In a poll by the Guardian only a third of respondents agreed there should be a night curfew for young drivers.

No Easy Solution

It seems everyone is in agreement that young drivers would benefit from more information, advice and practical development. But there seems to be real disagreement over how to achieve this.

There are several possible directions to take. First, authorities could make no changes to driving lessons, tests or licences, and just concentrate on providing new drivers with more advice.

Second, changes could be made to the learning and testing phase of development to make sure drivers have more experience and ‘real-world’ road skills before driving on their own.

Third, the system could be overhauled to effectively implement a ‘two-tier’ licence system, with new drivers initially using some form of limited ‘graduate’ licence while they build up their skills.

Lastly, the above suggestions could be mixed and matched to form a strategy to reduce the incidents involving young drivers.

There’s no simple solution to the issues surrounding young motorists. But whatever decisions are taken by authorities, it’s likely that unless new initiatives are taken drivers and passengers in the 17-24 age groups will continue to account for a disproportionately high number of road accidents and fatalities.