Learning is for life

I sat through a presentation hosted by the IAM on a wide range of topics recently, including a discussion on the country’s road safety statistics and driver training policies.

As a country, the UK’s road safety statistics are held in high regard. Certainly, when compared to less developed European nations the UK’s record is impressive. Yet, after a detailed presentation including observations on the progress made by the previous and current government plus the current fragmentation of road safety policies, my overriding thought was that our ‘success’ has more to do with luck than any long-term plan.

With future road safety targets yet to be agreed, road safety policies handed over to local authorities and only token changes to the driving test attempting to challenge learner drivers, it’s frankly amazing that we routinely do so well among our European neighbours.

Consider this: the driving test has barely changed in decades, you can’t experience the motorway network until after you pass and there’s no obligation to participate in refresher courses. Save for regularly updating your driving licence photo, once you’ve ripped up those L-plates no one wants to know you until you’ve passed pension age.

Other countries take a more enlightened approach – night driving, skid control, refresher courses, probationary periods – and yet we still come out on top. See, it’s got to be luck.

Of course, the IAM will happily sell you a driving course including a number of different activities to help boost your skill level. Now I don’t wish to be seen as a sales person, but with a portfolio like that you would have thought someone in Whitehall would be interested.

Public-private partnerships have shaped the political landscape in recent years, so why not have private organisations – the IAM isn’t alone here – shouldering some of the burden of better educating learner drivers. Furthermore, the regular assessment of current drivers could also be rolled out across the nation. Anyone with a photocard licence will be familiar with the 10-year renewal window for that ghastly photograph – why not have 10-yearly assessments?

Of course, in these austere times cost is now cited as the reason for holding fire on any major new programme – even ones that aim to save lives. This is, of course, nonsense; even when the country was flush with cash the political will to improve act was borderline non-existent. Far better, it seems, to maintain the blunt stick status quo: draconian fines, automated speed policing and lowest common denominator education.

The road deaths statistics might be impressive, but thanks to a moderately challenging driving test framework in the real world we have the caliber of drivers we deserve: speed limit obsessed, lacking solid motorway experience and ill-equipped for hazardous conditions. It only takes a few snowflakes or torrential rain to appreciate the latter observation.

When those in power plead poverty when the subject of improved driver education is raised, you can be sure it’s little more than a red herring. The real story is one of a general reluctance to upset the majority who think possession of a driving licence is a right not something you earn. And, as long as those crash figures don’t rise, the perceived birthright of millions will go unchallenged in the name of votes.

I might not agree with everything the IAM stands for – shuffling a steering wheel through my hands is classic example – but I do understand its frustration on the subject of improving driving standards.

Like many other road safety organisations it’s passionate about improving skills and reducing road deaths and, crucially, has the tools to help make lasting improvements. It’s a shame that the shortsighted few in Westminster don’t have the courage to share this view.

By Iain Dooley

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