LM Comment
  7:08 am GMT
Current Archive Subscribe
Comment Current LM Web review Mailing
lists Discuss Chat Events Search Archives Subject index Links Merchandise Overview FAQ Feedback Toolbar
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 knowledge.

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 enforceable action.

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



Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk