Learning from Britain

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Too many new drivers are involved in road accidents and are not properly prepared for driving alone. It is time for a new approach to learning to drive.” -Ruth Kelly, secretary of state for transport, United Kingdom


Though roadway deaths and serious injuries dropped by 33% in the United Kingdom (England, Wales, and Scotland ... oh, all right, we‘ll throw Northern Ireland in there too for now, much as I‘d rather not) since the mid 1990s, the casualty rate for young drivers has not changed - and that‘s promulgating a new effort spearheaded by Ruth Kelly, the U.K.‘s transport secretary, to totally revamp driver training processes.


“The aim ... is to create safer drivers for life by strengthening the current learning and testing procedures and creating a culture of extended and advanced learning,” she said in a statement to the press kicking off this new program. And it‘s a program we in the U.S. should take a close look at ourselves, suffering as we do from some 43,000 highway deaths every year.


The problem in the U.K. is simple and brutal: One in five people get into an accident within six months of passing their driver‘s test, with another 70% reporting near-misses in the same period. Newly qualified drivers and their passengers also account for one in five of all car deaths in Britain as well.


Note some of these statistics: Two million people take a car driving test every year in the U.K. but only 750,000 end up qualifying for a license. That means the pass rate is 44%, meaning the average learner takes more than two tests before passing. Three quarters of those 750,000, by the way, are under the age of 25, according to the U.K.‘s department of transport.


“We must make sure that novice drivers are safe drivers when they have passed their test,” Kelly added. “We must also create an expectation of lifelong learning, so that people continue advanced learning after their test. That is why I am publishing proposals that offer new drivers more opportunities to learn both before and after the test, including at school.”


Her plan is to create a foundation course in safe road use for under 17 years olds to be piloted in schools and colleges in Scotland from this Autumn - leading to a qualification program available across Great Britain by 2009.


For the first time, Kelly said, there will be a syllabus to ensure more effective and comprehensive training is offered to learner drivers. This will set out more clearly the necessary steps to driving safely - beginning with the basics of car control, progressing to skills such as driving in difficult weather or at night and culminating in ensuring driver awareness is enhanced, to help novice drivers predict the intentions of other road users.


Here are some of the key points of her proposal:


* A more focused and thorough learning process before the driving test that focuses not just on vehicle control but also the wider skills needed to be a safe driver, from driving in difficult conditions (for example at night or in poor weather) to learning to predict and respond to other road users‘ intentions;

* A new training syllabus to ensure learners understand what is required of them to become a responsible driver, enable them to undertake structured and efficient learning and accurately assess when they are ready to pass their driving test;

* An improved driving test which requires the driver to demonstrate independent driving skills and clear understanding of different situations on the road, with the option of modular assessment;

* New opportunities to take extra training post test; working with the insurance industry and employers in the driving for work sector we will develop new courses and qualifications to be taken after the driving test that could lead to lower premiums and a better chance of securing a career in the driving for work sector;

* A star-rating system for driving instructors so that learners can make an informed choice based on pass rates and the level of training instructors have undergone;

* A review of driving instructor training and testing to ensure they provide a quality service and are focused on those areas of driving performance that are closely linked to safe driving.


What are the results that Kelly hopes to achieve with all of this? Pretty straightforward:


* A driving test that gives a more realistic and rounded assessment of whether someone is fit to drive alone;

* More focused and efficient learning, with greater clarity about what is required, so learners should not face any increase in costs;

* Better training and testing of driving instructors and better information for the public on instructors‘ qualifications and performance

* A wider range of opportunities for drivers to acquire skills and demonstrate that they have done so, both before and after they qualify, creating a culture of lifelong learning and driver development.

* Lower numbers of accidents;

* More opportunities and greater incentives for post-test learning, with this becoming increasingly common;

* Higher levels of employer confidence in the driving test and driving qualifications;

* Lower insurance costs for drivers who have taken advantage of a wider range of learning options, both pre and post test, to improve their competence.


It‘s bold stuff, what the U.K. is attempting to put in place here, as it will require a lot of time, effort, money, and above all patience. But if this program results in fewer highway deaths and better drivers for the long term, it will be well worth it - and may be something we need to look at copying here in the U.S.

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