Concerns over the safety record of newly qualified and young drivers has become a political issue across the United Kingdom over the past few years and the Northern Ireland Assembly has now taken the lead on addressing the issues. New provisions are contained within the Road Traffic Amendment)(Northern Ireland) Act 2016 which received Royal Assent on 23 March, although the new rules will not come into effect until 2018.
The provisions cover similar ground to those considered in England and Wales a few years ago although they are not quite a stringent as the proposals put forward then by the Department of Transport.
The most radical provision aims to reduce nighttime driving by young drivers with passengers. The new Act prohibits a young driver (under the age of 24), driving between 11pm and 6am, from having more than one young person aged between 14 and 21 in the car unless accompanied by a driver over 21 who has held a licence for more than three years. The restriction will apply for the first six months after qualification.
The rule will not apply when the passengers are a spouse or civil partner, brothers and sisters of the driver, or children of the family, although there are concerns that it may still prevent young people benefiting from the improved prospects which owning a car can bring.
- The Act also covers training and qualification and will :
- Require anyone taking the practical part of the driving test to have held a licence for six months, therefore ensuring that the minimum age of obtaining a licence is 17½;
- Lift the 45mph speed restriction on Restricted and Learner Drivers, allowing driving lessons on the motorways;
- Give powers to introduce regulations on the training received by learner drivers; and
- Introduce a requirement for a log-book to be produced with an application to take the practical driving test, recording driving lessons, practice and progress through the relevant approved programme of training.
The Westminster Government has undertaken research on young drivers and a Green Paper on the issue was expected in 2013. Measures being considered then in England and Wales would have banned young drivers with less than a year’s post-qualification experience from carrying passengers under 30 years of age and prohibited night-time driving unless accompanied by a passenger aged over 30.
A Graduated Driving Licensing Scheme would have stipulated a minimum training period of a year beginning at 17 at the earliest. A delay in the publication of the Green Paper was announced in December 2013 and since then the issue has dropped from the headlines, despite calls from the insurance industry for action.
The Northern Ireland Assembly says that the aim of the new provisions is to ensure that new drivers are better drivers, with the new training requirements allowing the acquisition of skills over a longer period, in lower risk environments. It hopes that the limits on night-time driving with passengers will reduce the risk create to other young people by novice drivers. At the same time the new Act introduces tough drink-driving laws and increased powers to require breathalyser tests.
It has been reported since 2013 that the Westminster Government may be favouring a different approach, placing more faith in telematics to address the high accident rate amongst young drivers, although no legislation has been proposed to date. It remains to be seen whether the tough provisions in Northern Ireland will achieve the stated aim of reducing the death rate on the roads, with 74 fatalities in 2015, and whether it will encourage Westminster to look again at a similar regime.