02 December 1999
No speed please, we're British
The latest transport initiative is less concerned with transport than with
social engineering, argues Austin Williams
The Transport Select Committee's latest report, Young and Newly Qualified
Drivers: Standards and Training, appears to have the best of intentions.
Given that the casualty rates for young drivers is significantly higher than
for older drivers, the committee's purpose is to influence statutory
recommendations, to ensure a reduction in this trend.
Taking evidence from a variety of sources, the committee was invited to
consider three identifiable stages of driving:
1 The technical mastery of the controls
2 Road-sense and awareness
3 Driver attitude
It recognises that the first stage is an unavoidable feature of the learning
process. Mistakes will be made, almost by definition, during this phase,
although better training and testing procedures should improve technical
The second aspect is also one which necessitates familiarity and practice. A
novice driver's tunnel vision widens out to take in more roadside
information as he becomes more used to a variety of road conditions.
Effectively, practice makes perfect. To this end, the committee recommends a
statutory cooling-off period of one year between provisional and full
licenses. Currently the average learner has about 32 weekly driving lessons,
and then waits for a period of up to six weeks for the test, so this is not
far from what actually happens anyway. However, the committee wants
The final point is the most contentious - that of driver attitude. On first
hearing, the committee's desire to kill off recklessness and
irresponsibility seems like a laudable goal. But this is not really a
criticism that can be levelled legitimately at the accident statistics of
young people. Nobody, not even the most cavalier teenager, seeks wanton
recklessness. A charge of this nature applied to today's young drivers would
be very hard to prove and is insulting in the attempt. After all, fatalities
on the road are decreasing. The evidence presented to the committee was
based more on hearsay than fact.
As has been described in the previous two points, a combination of
inexperience and a lack of rounded perception are the main causes of
accidents involving young drivers. These are learned behaviours. They may be
exemplified or exacerbated by a tendency to take risks, but the freedom to
take risks is the very nature of youth, and to a certain extent it is a
fundamental aspect of driving itself.
The report states: 'If new drivers can be persuaded to view the car
responsibly, as simply a means of getting from one point to another, rather
than as a means of giving expression to their personalities, of showing off,
or of rebelling, the number of accidents they cause will inevitably decline.
The report doesn't go on to insist that all cars should be Volvo estates and
that a complimentary Trilby, pipe and slippers be presented to all
successful test drivers, but the principle is not far off. The
recommendations prioritise influencing the general social behaviour of
Britain's youth. This is the area of policy which the committee suggests is
the 'most fruitful way of imposing the safety standards' of young drivers.
Young drivers, it seems, will be assimilated.
The TV programme Top Gear, cited as a cause of the problem, has responded
defensively - pleading its responsible credentials. 'The programme is very
responsible in its attitude to speed, and only exceeds the national speed
limit in controlled test track conditions', said a spokeswoman. 'Safety
issues are regularly covered.'
They seem to be unaware how hollow this sounds in a discussion which
automatically implicates speed with recklessness. The recent decision by the
Advertising Standards Authority to come down against two Peugeot adverts
because of their 'promotion' of speed - and the company's acceptance of the
ruling and withdrawal of the adverts - is a sign of the times. Promoting or
even hinting at fast driving is, by definition, irresponsible. The committee
therefore wants controls on advertising and television and the 'macho
posturing' on acceleration and speed, regardless of the fact that there is
no proven link between advertising and action.
Unfortunately, we seem to have yet another transport initiative that has
less to do with transport than with a perception of a broader social
malaise. Youth, that eternal bugbear of the chattering classes, is wheeled
out so that we can all pontificate about what must be done.
The RAC concludes that 'driving is a life skill...[and] tackling the
attitude of young people is a process which must begin at school'. The
Select Committee recommends that statistics about stopping distances be
incorporated into physics lessons, explanations of traffic offence penalties
be taught in social science classes, and so on. The proposals for children
as young as three to be taught to recognise road signs so that they can
chastise their parents for driving too fast have already begun. (The
government obviously applauds 'socially responsible' pester-power.)
Welcome to the Brave New World.
Austin Williams is director of the Transport Research Group
Join a discussion on this commentary