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What is a graduated driver licencing system?

In the UK we study the Highway Code theory while we are learning the practical skills of driving. We take the theory test before we take the practical test, then we’re qualified to drive.

In a graduated driver licencing system, you would take a theory test first, then two or more practical tests with time limits between them. Each stage has restrictions on when and with whom you can drive. It is proven to reduce accidents in new drivers; around 20% of new drivers have a crash in their first year behind the wheel in the UK.

How does this work overseas?

Graduated driver licencing systems are used in many other countries, such as Australia, South Africa, America, New Zealand and many countries in Europe. In some of these, you can start driving at age 15 or 16.

For example, in New Zealand (which introduced GDLS in 1987), you take a road code theory test as young as age 16 before you are permitted to drive a car. Then you become a learner driver. Learner drivers are only allowed to drive when there’s another person in the car who has had a full car licence for at least two years. They must stay on the learner licence for at least six months then take a practical test. If they pass, they become a restricted driver. A restricted driver can drive alone, but only between 5am and 10pm and not with passengers that aren’t directly related to them (spouse, children, etc). After 18 months (or 12 months if an advanced course is taken and passed) they can take the full licence test, after which they can drive with no restrictions (assuming they pass).

Australia is more strict. The theory is the same, but then you get your Ls (learner licence plates) and must drive accompanied by a supervisor. Then you take a test to get your P1 provisional plates which have a lot of restrictions including the speed you can drive at. Then you go to P2 which has fewer restrictions and finally your full licence.

What are the criticisms and disadvantages of GDL (graduated driver licensing)?

  • GDL costs more to administer because two tests are required – it would mean we would need potentially double the number of testing officers, plus more staff in testing centres.
  • GDL costs more for the driver as they have to do two tests. This might also mean more time off work to take those tests.
  • Restricted driving can especially impact drivers in rural areas who may not have access to public transport to get to and from work. If we take the example of New Zealand (which does have huge rural areas), young people that finish at shift at 11pm would not be able to drive home alone under a restricted licence as it’s outside the 5am-10pm window.
  • It takes longer to go through the driver licencing process; in the UK right now you could theoretically pass your driver’s licence on your 17th birthday.
  • The onus of compliance with the restrictions of graduated driver licencing often falls on the parents of the driver.

What are the advantages of GDL?

  • Some other countries start GDL at age 15 or 16. This may give younger people an opportunity to start driving at an earlier age if the UK adopted that rationale.
  • Restricting the types of passengers allowed in the vehicle reduces incidences of peer pressure to drive dangerously.
  • It prevents totally inexperienced drivers from getting behind the wheel alone.
  • Learner and restricted drivers can have sensible restrictions applied to allow them to develop good driving habits and skills such as lower speed limits, restrictions on technology use, lower (or zero) blood alcohol limits and more.
  • The display of L or P plates allows police to identify drivers that may be driving outside the limits of their licence and for the public to understand that those drivers are less experienced.
  • A reduction in crashes leads to better insurance outcomes for the driver, allowing them to develop a no-claims bonus more quickly and reducing the burden of high costs for new-driver insurance across the board.

Darren has owned several companies in the automotive, advertising and education industries. He has run driving theory educational websites since 2010.

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