Novice drivers could soon face tough new laws after the Department for Transport (DfT) said it is to investigate introducing graduated driving licences (GDL).

The proposals would limit the number of passengers new, young drivers could carry, set a minimum learning period of six months before a driving test could be taken and mandate the displaying of ‘P’ plates for the first two years after the passing of driving tests.

•Could you pass the new driving test?

The news comes as a letter written by roads safety minister, Jesse Norman, says a proposed graduated driving licence system in Northern Ireland will be used as a “pilot” scheme to gauge whether GDLs should be introduced across the UK.

In the letter, sent to Scottish SMP David Stewart, Norman writes: “The Department for Transport has decided to use the introduction of GDL [graduated driving licence] in Northern Ireland as a pilot to gather evidence on the potential for GDL in Great Britain”.

Northern Irish authorities are currently in the second stage of a public consultation, which proposes limiting the number of passengers new drivers aged 24 and under can carry for the first six months after passing their driving tests.

Under the plans, young drivers would only be allowed to carry one passenger aged between 14 to 20, between the hours of 11pm and 6am, for the first six months after passing their test – though immediate family members would be exempt from this rule.

The GDL would also mandate a minimum learning period of six months before a driving test can be taken, while new drivers would also have to display ‘R’ plates (short for ‘restricted’) for two years after passing the test – though any UK GDL scheme outside of Northern Ireland would most likely use the more familiar ‘P’ plates.

Novice drivers in Northern Ireland already face post-test restrictions, which mandate the carrying of ‘R’ plates for the first year of driving, and set a maximum speed limit of 45mph – though the proposed GDL system would see an end to that limit.

• The history of the driving test

Jesse Norman’s letter follows comments from Theresa May that the Government would “look at” the idea of a GDL system. Responding to a parliamentary question back in February, the Prime Minister said: “Too many people suffer loss and tragedy at the hands of learner drivers…and we will certainly look at that [a graduated licensing system].”

Back in 2013, the DfT commissioned a study on graduated licences, which found “indisputable” evidence that tiered systems, especially for young drivers, help cut accident rates.

The study estimated if all 17-19-year-old drivers in Great Britain faced driving restrictions, it would “result in annual savings of 4,471 casualties and £224million”. The researchers concluded: “Based on the evidence, it is recommended that licensing in GB be based on a full GDL [graduated licensing] system.”

Driving restrictions in other countries

Comparable schemes operate in other countries. Drivers in New Zealand, for example, face some of the toughest restrictions in the world, and new drivers must go through a three-stage graduated system.

The first stage comprises of a learner licence, and novice drivers must score 32 out of 35 in a theory test before being allowed to drive with a supervisor and L plates.

Then, after holding their learner licence for at least six months, New Zealand learners must sit a 45-minute ‘restricted’ driving test. Once this is passed, drivers are only allowed to drive on their own between the hours of 5am and 10pm, though they can drive outside those hours provided they have supervisor with them. Restricted licence holders are also prohibited from driving with any alcohol in their system if they are under 20 years old.

To get a full New Zealand driving licence, motorists must then sit another practical test, which lasts for 30 minutes. This can only be taken by drivers who have held a restricted licence for between three and 18 months, depending on age, and whether they have sat an advanced driver-training course.

Drivers in Northern Ireland face similar but less stringent rules: they must display amber ‘R’ plates (short for ‘restricted’) for the first year after passing their tests, and are not allowed to drive over 45mph.

Drivers in Ireland must show ‘N’ plates (short for ‘novice’) on their cars for two years after passing their tests, and are subject to lower drink drive limits than more established motorists.

Finland, meanwhile, requires newly-qualified motorists to take ‘in-depth’ driver training that includes night-time courses after passing their test.

Expert views

Neil Greig,Director of Policy and Research, IAM RoadSmart

In any graduated driver licensing (GDL) scheme, the key is building experience. We support a ‘minimum learning period’ with a list of driving skills you must complete – such as urban/rural, day/night, wet/dry. Too many young drivers pass the practical test unprepared for the road and this approach would help them survive the high-risk early months on their own.

Peer passenger bans are worth exploring, but night-time curfews might restrict experience after dark.

Promoting the positive safety benefits of GDL to teens and their parents leads to self-enforcement, while costs need not be prohibitive.

GDL shouldn’t stop at the practical test and we support post-test check-ups to embed learning and help new drivers negotiate our stressful roads.

Edmund King,President, AA

We support graduated learning before the test as a better way of educating new drivers.

The topic of graduated licences post-test has been raised a number of times in the last few years. We’d be supportive of any move that aims to improve the safety of newly-qualified drivers, but would be wary of anything that is too restrictive.

Draconian measures to restrict new drivers would be difficult to enforce as we are already have experienced a 20 per cent drop in traffic police.

Instead of greater restrictions post-test we would rather improve education before the test; measures such as including road safety on the national curriculum would improve young people’s attitudes before they even get behind the wheel.

Nicholas Lyes,Head of Roads Policy, RAC

The RAC has been calling for reform of driving education for young people and the introduction of graduated driving licences with a minimum supervised learning period, as well as restrictions on the number of passengers permitted in the car.

This is a very positive step towards preventing the loss of young lives on our roads. The RAC’s Report on Motoring showed that 35 per cent of young drivers felt the standard driving test does not cover all the skills required to cope with the demands of driving today, so clearly we should be exploring how to improve the learning experience.

Graduated licensing may also have a positive impact on insurance premiums and should reduce the cost of driving for new motorists.


Graduated driving licences for new drivers on the horizon

John McIlroy,Deputy editor, Auto Express

I grew up in Northern Ireland, so I went through the process of R-plates – restricting my speed during my first year of motoring, just as my youthful excitement was at its peak.

More than 25 years later, I think it was a good thing. There was always the feeling that the police were keeping a closer eye on you because of those plates in the front and rear glass – but then, that meant that I did spend most of that first year getting up to speed before I was, er, up to speed.

The idea only works if there are enough police to enforce it, though. For lots of reasons, they weren’t in short supply in Northern Ireland in the early nineties. We’d need a few more traffic officers if it was to work across the wider UK today.

Read our practical tips for passing the driving test…