Yesterday the Department of Transport announced that, for the first time ever, learner drivers would be allowed on British motorways - with the idea being that they get some first-hand experience before they start to drive on their own.
As changes to the way people learn to drive go, this is actually pretty sensible. In the past we've heard lots of proposals designed to stop new drivers from having accidents, like banning them from carrying passengers for a six month period. I'm also pretty sure I heard someone suggest that young drivers shouldn't be allowed to drive alone, but I can't find any evidence of that. Driving on the motorway, however, is something that even the most experienced drivers (I use that term lightly) have problems with.
The new rules state that learner drivers can go on the motorway provided they're in a dual-control car (the ones with extra pedals on the passenger side) with an experienced driving instructor. To me, that's the most important part of the whole thing. While the Department of Transport confirmed that motorway lessons are not compulsory, and will not be part of the driving test in the foreseeable future, giving drivers the option of experiencing the motorway with someone who (theoretically) knows what they're doing is a very sensible step to take.
The first time I ever drove on the motorway was with my mum, with my brother in the backseat, and it was horrible. She's not a particularly good teacher to begin with, and in the car she had a tendency to freak the fuck out at the tiniest thing. A lot of people will probably have similar stories, with their first motorway trips involving friends or family along for the ride — and just because you passed your test doesn't mean you're prepared for that.
I have no doubt that there are large numbers of people outraged by the news: the kind of people who scream at learners just for being on the road, and don't want them mucking up the motorway with their lack of experience. I hate to break it to those people, but there are already plenty of inexperienced people on the motorway and if you can't see that, then you're probably part of the problem. I bet you drove home tonight bombimg it down the middle lane, regardless of what the traffic around you is doing.
It doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to realise that a lot of people driving on the motorway have no idea what they're doing. As I mentioned before, there's no compulsory preparation to ensure people actually know how to use the motorway. It's a very strange situation to be in; people have to (quite rightly) jump through a bunch of hoops before they're allowed to have independent control of a vehicle, but when it comes to the busiest and seemingly most dangerous stretches of road, they're simply expected to pick it up as they go along.
Source: Tejvan Pettinger/Flickr
Obviously there is Pass Plus, an extra training course that teaches people how to handle different driving conditions, including night driving, driving in bad weather, country roads, and, of course, the motorway. With Pass Plus you need to have a qualified driving instructor who has been approved to teach the course, and need to spend a minimum of six hours driving before the instructor can sign off. If I remember correctly, a decent chunk of that time needs to be on the motorway.
Pass Plus isn't without its problems, though. For starters, it's optional and costs more money, which new drivers might prefer to spend on a car or insurance. And while a number of insurance companies will offer a small discount for anyone with a Pass Plus certificate, not all of them do.
The passing criteria isn't nearly as strict either, since there's no formal test and you only need to have the instructor sign to say you're a safe and capable driver. If you have a good instructor that shouldn't be a problem, but like any profession there are plenty of bad ones out there as well. The driving test means there's a barrier between learners and the big bad road, so any dangerous habits they pick up from a crap instructor should get spotted. With a Pass Plus that's not the case, with no formal testing to ensure a driver isn't going to go straight out onto the motorway and immediately cause a pile-up during rush hour.
Though, to be honest, that's still a problem with the new learner rules. Despite being allowed on the motorway from next year, motorways will not be part of the driving test. There's still nothing preventing bad instructors from potentially passing bad habits onto their students. But, at the very least, they should be more competent teachers than mum or dad.
Now the fact that motorway driving isn't heading to the driving test does mean that there is a good chance that letting learners on the motorway doesn't change anything. It's optional, which means they don't have to go even think about the dreaded M word if they don't want to - and they won't be penalised for it when it comes to test day. But the Department of Transport told me that while it's optional now, the situation will be kept under review.
That means that while there are no concrete plans to make motorway driving part of the full test, it could happen in the future. I can only assume that the higher-ups want to test the concept first, rather than forcing all learner drivers onto the motorway in a proposal that's doomed to fail. This may seem like a big step now, but really it's a small push towards a future where people actually know what they're doing on the motorway - and that's something we can all look forward to.
Featured image: David Bolton/Flickr