Driving Down the Age, Driving Up the Risks?

Teen Driver

The Northern Ireland Environment Minister Alex Attwood this week made proposals that would impact young drivers:

  1. Reduce the age at which a learner can begin driving lessons, and possibly obtain a full license, to 16
  2. Allow learner drivers to practice on a motorway at speeds of 45 miles an hour
  3. Allow new drivers still sporting ‘R’ plates, to be able to drive at 75 miles an hour on motorways, rather than the current 45. 

The BBC comments that Mr Atwood believes these proposals could reduce insurance costs and improve road safety and driver capacity.

I’m not so sure. These proposals could have serious consequences for road safety. At Willis, we negotiate the reinsurance contracts for a number of motor insurers so we get to see the claims information for much of the market, and one of the most notable statistics is that young drivers have considerably more accidents than older drivers. For example, young male drivers (those under 25) have about three times as many accidents as the average. The differentials become even more pronounced when you examine the data in more detail; for example, 17-year-olds have considerably more accidents than 18-year-olds, who in turn have more than 19-year-olds, and so on.

Teen Driver Crash Statistics (chart)It all adds up to a picture where the younger the driver, the greater the likelihood of having a crash—so it’s difficult to understand the motivation behind reducing the age threshold and increasing the speed limit, even taking into account the Minister’s aim of more practice and experience for young drivers.

What’s Good Enough for Them

The example that is always held up by people who want to reduce the minimum driving age, is the USA. It’s a bit of a patchwork quilt of rules over there, but many states allow driving from the age of 16. However, this lower age threshold is often accompanied by much tighter restrictions in terms of curfews on driving at night, numbers of passengers and having a responsible adult in the car.

One Plus One Equals Uninsured Drivers

Another important factor is that insurance companies across the UK, being well aware of the data, have been effectively pricing young drivers out of the market. Fewer and fewer of them are prepared to offer insurance to the under 21s, and those that do are charging massive premiums. There are a lot of stories going around of teenagers spending considerably more on their annual insurance bill than on the car itself. So it’s logical to think that a reduction in the legal age, combined with the high cost of insurance, will lead to an increase in uninsured driving.

Gadgetry to the Rescue

One possible solution for the future is the development of telematics. This is the technology that allows a driver’s performance to be constantly monitored. It records things like speed, the forces generated by cornering and braking, and any other erratic driving. Telematics is being touted by the motor insurance industry as a potential salvation, especially for younger drivers. Effectively, if you agree to have a telematics package in your car, your insurance premium can be directly related to the quality of your driving. If you don’t speed, break heavily or drive erratically, then you’ll pay a lower premium. For many young drivers then, driving safely and having your driving monitored by a telematics system, may well be the only way to keep your premium down to an affordable level.

For all the potential beneficial impact of telematics technology though, it’s difficult to see the overall social benefit of reducing the driving age.


About Grange Turner

Grange joined Willis in 2011, several years after failing to secure a place on the graduate training programme. He …
Categories: Auto, Europe

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