As driving lessons become compulsory for first-time learners, Sarah Doran asks if we have become better behind the wheel in recent years
In June 2010, Ireland was awarded the 2010 Road Safety PIN Award in recognition of the rapid improvements in road safety nationwide. Between 2001 and 2010 Ireland experienced a 47 per cent decrease in road deaths. This achievement is significant considering the number of people now driving on Irish roads. As many Dublin taxi drivers will regularly complain to you during your journey home, ‘there are just so many cars on the road these days’.
According to the most recent accessible figures obtained from the Road Safety Authority (RSA), as of December 31st 2010 there are around 2.6 million people currently holding Irish driving licences, at both the full level and learner permit level. This marks an increase of around 40 to 50 per cent in comparison with figures recorded in the early 90s.
In 1993 for example, there were around 1.5 million licence holders. Therefore, it would appear that the number of road deaths have decreased by around the same percentage as the number of licence holders has increased. This considered have we as a nation become better drivers? Or have other factors contributed to national success in developing a reputation for safety-conscious and successful use of Irish roads?
In order to assess the capabilities of Irish drivers, it is essential to examine the process through which a full driving licence is obtained. The RSA’s Director of Driver Testing and Licensing, Declan Naughton, states that “the driver test follows a standard model, in other words there are certain things that it checks and we’ve agreed on those across Europe”.
Despite the broad similarities in testing across Europe, it has recently been claimed that the Irish driving test has become more difficult. “What has happened internally in Driver Testing Services is we’ve looked at and we’ve reviewed the way we mark an individual if they come in for testing,” explains Naughton. “We’ve tweaked that to focus on those typical issues that are life and death issues.” He is all too aware of the common complaints of those who have failed the test, those dejected drivers who “got done for mirrors”.
Naughton explains that whilst some may feel unfairly treated should they fail the test based on something as simple as mirrors, these small issues are often of paramount importance when driving. “What research tells us is that observation is a critical competency to have for somebody driving,” he says.
The Irish driver test is also designed to examine the ability to identify and react to hazards, which Naughton believes is another critical competency that good drivers must possess. “It’s one of those things that you can only learn gradually,” he explains.
“It takes a little while before you become comfortable at that and then being able to look at your broader surroundings. You see that child up ahead playing with a ball on the side of the road and you say: ‘well, it’s possible that the ball could come out and the child could chase it out and then you have an accident,’ those things you develop as you get more practice and experience.
“That’s why, for example, we might nowadays have a greater emphasis on those kinds of features like observation, like hazard identification, like how people set themselves up when they’re turning right on the road because they are accident causers.”
Despite claims that the test has become more difficult, the RSA maintains that pass and failure rates have not been affected. “The pass rate is broadly similar to what it was five to ten years ago,” Naughton says. “I think what’s happened is, for example, parents are now more engaged in the driving, they’re conscious of safety, they’re telling their kids to become engaged with an approved driving instructor, they’re taking them themselves for lessons.
“I’d like to think that even though the test has become more focused, people are adjusting to that by training, learning and practicing those things that we’re looking for.”
He believes that the internal focus on hazard identification and observation has ultimately been beneficial in the long term: “There have been huge strides in the last five to six years and some of that is attributed to a more focused driving test.”
Others such as third-year History and Politics student John Simpson are less optimistic. “I think people learn how to drive and do what it takes to pass the test, but then ultimately revert to their old habits afterwards,” he states. “I’m mainly a cyclist and I can tell you that there are many bad drivers out there, so I don’t think people are any better. There is an attempt to regulate, but once people pass the test, they just slip into old habits and do what they want to do.”
Final-year BA International student Aodhán Taylor, like many well-intentioned students before him, has some experience of the driver testing system. “I started driving, got my provisional, was driving for a few years and then stopped because I was in Dublin and it wasn’t worth my time having a car here,” he explains. “It seems a lot harder now for people to actually get a full licence. You would hope that the time it takes people to get a licence would actually make them better drivers.”
Of course, one of the key issues for students (and indeed for the wider population) is the cost associated with learning to drive. From April 2012, lessons for first-time learners will be mandatory. This new rule may ultimately prove a deterrent to those who simply cannot afford professional lessons. Indeed, Simpson cites “the expense of insurance and stuff like that” as a major obstacle and one of the reasons he has put off learning to drive.
Taylor also admits that “it would be quite a challenge because of the cost; you have to take so many driving lessons now. They’re not cheap, so it would definitely put me off [learning again].”
It has been asserted that increased regulation on Irish roads has also proven pivotal to the improvement of driving standards. In 2006 mandatory alcohol testing was introduced in an attempt to clamp down on individuals who were driving under the influence. In 2007 this policy was further strengthened with the introduction of tougher penalties for drink-driving offences. Most recently in 2010, new legislation was passed, lowering the legal maximum blood alcohol concentration limit from 0.8g/l to 0.2 for learner, novice and professional drivers and to 0.5 for all other drivers.
Perhaps one of the most famous policies with regard to road safety regulation came in 2002 with the introduction of penalty points. The system initially proved successful and as Naughton states, “it had an impact; there’s absolutely no doubt about it”. In 2001, before the introduction of penalty points, there were 411 deaths on Irish roads. In 2003, when penalty points had been in place for a full year, road deaths dropped to 335. Yet in 2004, the figure had risen once again to 374.
Naughton provides an explanation behind this trend saying that “their effect tapered out somewhat by the end of 2003 and unfortunately numbers increased again. That was also an experience in the North when they introduced penalty points,” adding that this “would give some credence to the belief that they became a fact of life, people factored them in to their behaviour and then they lost their impact after about 18 months or so and people came back to old habits again.”
However, Naughton believes that speed cameras have proven incredibly significant in reducing road deaths and increasing driver awareness. In October 2010, a greater number of safety cameras were deployed nationwide in order to combat careless driving and speeding, which had proven directly responsible for at least 80 Irish road deaths in 2009.
Naughton states his belief that “in the years since 2005 particularly, there has been an increased awareness of road safety from the driver’s point of view, the walker on the road, the vehicle, maintaining our vehicles and all aspects of road usage. We [the RSA] feel that there’s a much higher awareness now. We think that safety cameras will have a positive impact and that that will be maintained.” Improvements in road conditions must also be considered: those who drive through country lanes on a regular basis will perhaps have a greater appreciation of this problem.
Has a combination of more focused testing and greater regulation ensured that Irish drivers are better drivers now than they have been in previous decades? Statistics indicate that road deaths have decreased and so would suggest that Irish drivers are now more safety conscious.
From experience, Simpson remains somewhat sceptical that drivers have improved. “I’ve been hit by three cars and a taxi over about two-and-a-half years of cycling to college,” he explains. Taylor takes a slightly different approach to the issue. “I don’t reckon that they are better drivers,” he says, “but I think people are more aware of the penalty of not being better drivers.”