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2.23 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on securing a debate on a matter of such great importance to his constituents. I also congratulate him on the way in which he has conducted this debate, which has been a model of what Adjournment debates should be.

I fully appreciate that, for any parent, there can be no greater agony than the loss of a child, especially when that loss is needless and has come about in circumstances that should not have prevailed. I fully understand the profound concern that they feel and their desire for action.

Time allows me to put the matter into context and to give the detail of the nature and size of the problem. As the hon. Gentleman said, approximately nine people are killed on our roads each day. The equivalent of a medium-sized primary school of children is killed every year on our roads, either as pedestrians or in cars. Clearly, that is unacceptable.

It is also worth noting that road safety in this country is much better than that in many other European countries. In fact, the French rate of people killed and seriously injured on the roads is two and half times ours. However, our record for children and young people is not good, and even though our record is good on the whole, it is certainly not an excuse for complacency. We can see that the measures that we have been taking over many years have worked, and we must continue to reduce the casualty figures.

The hon. Gentleman will know that our 10-year plan is rigorous and sets high targets, including a 40 per cent. reduction in the total number of those killed and seriously

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injured, and a 50 per cent. reduction in child casualties. We are taking other measures, which I will not dwell on today, except to say that we are looking at vehicle construction and the engineering of roads. Those factors, as well as the quality of the person behind the wheel, contribute to road safety.

The hon. Gentleman may be interested to hear that the Swedes are taking a zero-tolerance approach to death and serious injury on the roads. Policies that stem from such an approach will provide different solutions to the problem. The Swedes are saying, "People will make errors, but we must ensure that those errors do not result in death or serious injury."

I hope that Mr. Baker and the other constituents whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned will contribute to our consultation on possible changes to the law.

I shall provide some background to convey the size of the problem and to give the hon. Gentleman an idea of the action that we have in mind and the measures on which we will be consulting. I assure him that we have an open mind. We want workable solutions that will be supported by ordinary people. We want measures that will contribute to road safety and benefit young people when they are first driving.

Driving is an acquired skill, and a demanding one. It is our intention to improve the safety of newly qualified drivers by making learning to drive more relevant to today's road conditions. The House should be in no doubt about the Government's commitment to reducing the tragic number of casualties that occur on our roads every year. We published our road safety strategy last year, and one of our key aims is to improve the way in which we train and test drivers. Our strategy recognises that better driving skills and behaviour would make an enormous difference to reducing the number of road casualties, particularly among newly qualified drivers.

Although we can be proud of the strides that have been made to improve our road safety record, there is more that we can do, and that is particularly true for newly qualified drivers. As the hon. Gentleman has so sadly shown us today, new drivers are over-represented in the casualty figures, and I shall add to the figures that he gave the House. During 2000, 19,618 drivers aged between 17 and 21 were killed or injured in road accidents. That age group accounts for 12 per cent. of the total number of injury accidents, but as the hon. Gentleman said, it accounts for only 7 per cent. of licence holders. Research tells us that very few of those accidents occurred before drivers had passed their test. It is when they have passed the test and feel competent that these tragic events happen.

Age, inexperience and, sometimes, poor attitudes all contribute to the high accident rates in the early post-test period. For 17 and 18-year-old drivers, accident propensity falls by at least 35 per cent. in the first year. The effect of age is weaker, but it is estimated that a driver starting at 18 would have about 9 per cent. less risk of having an accident than the same driver starting at 17.

It is clear that too many people are taking the test when they are ill-prepared. The pass rate for the practical driving test has fallen over the last 10 years to 44 per cent., and is even lower for those attempting the test for the first time. A survey by the Driving Standards Agency found that in around one in every 10 tests, driving examiners had to intervene physically on safety grounds, by grabbing the handbrake or steering wheel, or using

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dual controls. So candidates are taking the practical test when their driving performance is inconsistent and they run a high risk of making serious and dangerous errors.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

Mr. Jamieson: Many learner drivers require a good deal of instruction in lessons immediately before taking the test. Although some candidates manage to drive at the required standard for the test's duration, they are not able to do so consistently, especially when they are unaccompanied by an experienced person or an examiner.

We are tackling the problem on several fronts. We want to guide learner drivers to take a more structured approach to the learning process so that they prepare for their driving career, not just for passing their test. We plan to issue a consultation document in the coming months to consider ways in which we can achieve that. I hope that the hon. Gentleman feeds his remarks into that. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) also takes an interest in this subject, and I know that the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) has much to say on it. I assure the hon. Gentleman that all opinions will be weighed up and given careful consideration, especially those of his constituents who have such a close interest in this matter.

We need to get away from the culture that encourages people to do the minimum necessary to obtain a full driving licence. Research shows that test candidates who practise thoroughly gain more experience of varying types of road and traffic conditions. They make better test candidates and become safer drivers. We want to encourage people to get more driving experience in the relative safety of a supervised environment before they take the test. One such measure involves the use of training logbooks. Logbooks should enable learner drivers and riders to monitor their progress and development as they work through an agreed syllabus. Learners will also be better prepared for meeting the demands of driving on today's roads when they have passed their driving test.

We have introduced a voluntary logbook for learner car drivers. It provides driving instructors with a framework for training and gives trainees a checklist for monitoring their progress and a guide for practising. The hon. Gentleman will probably know that a great deal of learning in schools follows a similar pattern, so young people, especially those in vocational education, are used to working in that way. As well as car control skills and manoeuvres, the logbook covers driving at night and in adverse weather conditions. As stated in our strategy, we intend to make the use of logbooks mandatory and will consult on how to implement such a scheme.

Our proposed consultation document on improving new driver safety will also consider introducing a compulsory probationary plate scheme. Existing usage is low and there is little evidence that such plates will reduce new driver accidents. However, I am aware that some people support the scheme and it is right that we should give it careful consideration. I look forward to reviewing any evidence we receive on the advantages of a P-plate scheme.

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The hon. Gentleman also referred to graduated licensing systems that operate in other countries. They aim to provide a staged progression from initial licensing to unrestricted solo driving. He suggested that, like learners, newly qualified divers should be accompanied by more experienced older drivers. I sympathise with that, but the hon. Gentleman alluded to the practical difficulties that it would involved. Again, we can consider that in the context of the consultation document.

However, we already operate one form of graduated licensing. The Road Traffic (New Drivers) Act 1995 places drivers on probation for the first two years after they have passed their driving test. It is intended to make new drivers consider their driving behaviour carefully before they commit offences or have an accident. If six or more penalty points are obtained, the licence is revoked and such drivers will be required to reapply for a provisional licence and retake both the theory and practical driving tests. Since the Act came into force in 1997, about 43,000 young drivers have had their licences revoked under the legislation and have been required to be retested.

We should not overlook the role of training for drivers after they have passed the test. Pass plus is one of the schemes that provides new drivers with post-test training in situations and conditions they may not have experienced during their lessons or when practising. The course was designed by the Driving Standards Agency and is provided by approved driving instructors for a fee. It costs about £100 and covers driving in towns, at night, on motorways and dual carriageways and in a variety of weather conditions. It is intended to build on the skills required to pass the practical test. More than 60 per cent. of UK motor insurers support the scheme and offer lower premiums to those drivers who successfully complete the course. In fact, it might be economic good sense for a young driver to take the course.

A number of other suggestions have been made for placing restrictions on newly qualified drivers. They include suggestions such as the introduction of a lower blood alcohol level, prohibiting the use of powerful cars, lower speed limits for younger drivers, prohibition on driving at night and limits on the numbers of passengers.

Inevitably, such restrictions would have advantages and disadvantages. It is right that such options should be considered carefully. The issues will therefore be covered in our forthcoming consultation on ways to improve new driver safety. However, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, such proposals must be workable and enforceable. That involves attacking the culture that he described and that exists among some young drivers—sadly, principally among young male drivers.

As I have already said, we should not consider new driver safety solely in terms of what happens after the driving test has been passed. We need to improve the training and testing of drivers, and a number of measures are already in hand to achieve that.

We want to raise the standard of tuition offered by driving instructors. The contribution that skilled and motivated professional driving instructors can make to delivering higher driving standards is vital. This extends beyond teaching learner drivers and includes developmental training for individuals and for companies, as well as remedial training for those who offend. Over the past four years a programme of reform has been in

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place, including changes to the qualifying tests that instructors must take to join the register. We shall also soon introduce changes to the arrangements for dealing with appeals against removal from the register.

We will continue to keep the driving test up to date. Setting higher standards encourages more thorough training and ensures that drivers are better prepared for the pressures of today's busy roads and fast-moving traffic. We will also ensure that there is an effective system for monitoring and cracking down on unlicensed and uninsured driving which is a major contributor to danger on our roads.

Following the introduction of the touch screen theory test last year, we are pressing ahead with plans to introduce hazard perception testing. Hazard awareness is the ability to identify situations that might require a driver to take some form of avoiding action, such as changing speed or direction. It involves techniques such as reading the road, planning well ahead and having good anticipation—skills that newly qualified drivers gain only with experience.

The main safety value to be gained from introducing hazard perception testing will be as a result of the training that it will encourage. This training should help candidates prepare for the driving test and should lead to safer driving and riding. The Driving Standards Agency will issue a discussion paper later this year about the detailed arrangements for introducing this new element into the theory test.

The Government recognise the appalling sense of loss suffered by those who lose loved ones in car accidents. At present in such circumstances, families and friends are usually excluded from the personal support that is offered under the charter for the victims of crime. We are

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considering currently whether to change this. In February this year, the then Home Secretary issued a public consultation paper to review the victims charter. One of the key questions on which he sought views was whether those who were seriously injured or bereaved following a death on the roads should be brought within the scope of the revised charter. We are currently considering the responses to the consultation paper as a whole, and expect to announce action that we propose to take within the next few months.

As I have said, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Southend, West for raising this subject. I am sure that our forthcoming consultation on the many issues raised this afternoon will attract a broad range of comments from specialist road safety organisations and a wider public. Inevitably, not everyone will share the same views. Like the hon. Gentleman, I remember debates back in the 1960s about whether drink-driving laws or laws on the wearing of seat belts constituted an infringement of civil liberties. I remember the ludicrous arguments that we heard at the time. Today, no one questions those things: we have experienced a change of culture and of attitude which is welcome. It will, however, be the Government's task to weigh up all the evidence, and to decide what action we need to take to ensure that our roads become safer, especially for newly qualified drivers.

Nothing that I can say today—nothing that can be said in the House today—will bring back a child lost in appalling and tragic circumstances; but I hope my comments demonstrate that the issue of safety, and particularly that of young drivers, is at the forefront of the Government's mind.

Question put and agreed to.

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