How does the driver licensing system need to change to improve driving standards?

How can the licensing system improve driving standards?

How does the driver licensing system need to change to improve driving standards?

Cycling UK believes that the Government should consider regular re-testing and other interventions to ensure drivers maintain good habits and that bad and/or medically unfit drivers are removed from the road. This article explains why this is important and how Cycling UK believes it should be done.

With Britain a long way from ‘Vision Zero’ (i.e. zero road casualties), and the number of offenders convicted of bad driving still high, it is clear that many experienced drivers fall into bad and hazardous habits, make errors, forget The Highway Code, and/or neglect to update themselves on changes.

In other words, they fail to maintain the standards they had to meet for their test. Inevitably, this contributes to the hostile road conditions that many pedestrians, cyclists and would-be cyclists find so intimidating.

Typically, drivers may only ever be asked to take a re-test or remedial training if they commit an offence (by which time, of course, it is too late). Likewise, they will probably only be subjected to medical screening if: they ‘self-declare’ themselves as unfit as required by law; if the DVLA receives a ‘tip-off’ about their fitness; or, again, if they offend.

Cycling UK therefore believes that the Government should introduce stronger interventions and processes to remove bad and/or unfit drivers from the road, and not leave it largely to ‘self-regulation’.

Self-regulation

Self-regulation means that most drivers under 70 renew their licences every ten years without intervention from the authorities, even if they are failing to comply with the National Standard for Driving. 

This is a weak approach, especially in the case of older drivers (see below). Still, to maximise the current system's positive impact on road safety, the DVSA clearly needs to be proactive about supplying comprehensive information on: renewing; self-declaration; and the health problems than compromise the ability to drive safely.

Continuous learning and refresher training

In the interests of road safety, the Government would also be well-advised to invest in a more formalised system of continuous learning and refresher training, and to take a much more active role in encouraging all established drivers to undertake it regularly.

In particular, Cycling UK believes that the training professional drivers have to undergo to keep their Certificate of Professional Competence (CPC) should involve a compulsory cycle awareness course, or practical cycle training, with no exemptions for any drivers of HGVs, e.g. for those driving empty vehicles from site-to-site etc. 

Medical fitness to drive

Inevitably, doctors and eye care professionals come across people with conditions/medication that could make their driving unsafe. Cycling UK believes that they should never hesitate to report drivers who expose others to risk to the DVLA, and rigorously follow the relevant advice from the General Medical Council.

  • For further reading, see PACTS’ (Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety) report ‘Fit to Drive?’ (March 2016). This looks in detail at research evidence, risks and current practice. It covers: hearing, diabetes, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis, drugs, alcohol, fatigue, cognitive health, reduced physical strength and mobility, and personality.

Eyesight

The UK’s current eyesight test for drivers, carried out by a driving examiner who is not trained in optical health, is far too rudimentary and variable to assess a car driver’s vision adequately.

We know that ‘failing to look properly’ is the most commonly cited ‘contributory factor’ in reported collisions. While this is often caused by inattention rather than poor vision, estimates still suggest that it accounts for around 2,900 road casualties a year.  

Clearly, the current system is not robust enough to guarantee that people with poor eyesight are prohibited from driving (or from doing so without glasses / contact lenses etc.).

The test in several other EU countries covers both visual acuity and visual fields, and is conducted by a medical or optical professional. Cycling UK believes that this requirement should be introduced to the UK, and that motorists found to have serious, uncorrectable visual defects, particularly poor peripheral vision, should not be permitted to drive.

Additionally, neither existing nor future standards should be weakened with exemptions. This is especially crucial for lorry and bus drivers who need good all-round vision so that they can see cyclists and pedestrians outside the cab.

Cycling UK shares the view of several bodies representing eye health professionals in Europe, that an assessment of vision at set intervals conducted by qualified practitioners should be introduced in the UK. Up to the age of 50, this should be carried out every 10 years (i.e. timed to coincide with licence renewal); every five years after 50, and every three years after 70.

Also, a sight test should be compulsory after any road traffic collision, conducted initially by the police at the scene and followed up by a professional.  

Mobility support for people deemed unfit to drive

Cycling UK believes that the Government needs to support anyone of any age deemed unfit to drive by investment in and promoting alternatives to car travel (e.g. public transport, walking and cycling).

Older drivers (70+)

Great Britain’s ageing population and a significant increase in the number of older drivers has, quite rightly in Cycling UK’s view, attracted mounting concern over recent years. They are, as the Department for Transport says, a ‘notable set of road users’.

So far, the Government has resisted compulsory re-testing, favouring instead self-regulation and providing advice, a position that is most acutely problematic in the case of older drivers.

Although not as risky or as much at risk as younger drivers, drivers of this age are nevertheless a higher risk group and more likely to be at fault than middle-aged motorists. Collision analysis suggests that it is interacting with other road users, driving in complex environments and/or time pressure that lead to driving errors by older people. Sensory, motor and cognitive decline (which is often age-related) are the factors that are most likely to contribute to this.

Many conditions that impair cognitive health are age-related. PACTS suggests that more research needs to be done into which functions are relevant, and how to measure them reliably in relation to safe driving.

Interventions

The EU ‘ElderSafe’ study concludes that a package of interventions is needed. They relate, for instance, to education and training, licensing and enforcement, and infrastructure and technology.

Voluntary online self-assessment tools are useful too, along with advice on where to find in-class and practical refresher training, and alternatives to driving.

Of course, some drivers do reflect on their personal circumstances, change their habits and avoid certain scenarios as they grow older. There are those who are also happy to make use of self-assessment tools, read guides and book re-training courses etc., and, if necessary, ‘self-declare’ any problems. However, the effect of such voluntary schemes is seriously compromised by the ‘self-selection’ factor because they are more likely to attract drivers who are concerned about their ongoing competence than those who are not – i.e. the very people who keep driving regardless of their competence to do so unless, say, a medical professional reports them to the DVLA.

Consequently, the current system fails to filter out many thousands of substandard, older drivers in the UK - possibly as many as 50,000 according to estimates.  

We agree with PACTS who said in 2012: “Self-regulation should not be relied upon as a method to ensure older drivers are safer until there is sufficient research that will allow the provision of evidence-led guidance and information.” 

Formal and regular re-testing

Given the limits of self-regulation, Cycling UK supports the principle of formal and regular re-testing.

We believe that the first re-test should be required as soon as a driver reaches the age at which driving skills/alertness/hazard perception etc. typically start to decline. When this is, and the optimum frequency of subsequent re-tests, should be based on evidence. Research (2002) has already suggested that for manoeuvres, driving performance starts dropping off after 75 on average, and deteriorates more steeply from 80 onwards.[1]

An IAM survey (2015) of people aged 55-101 (average age 69.5, half under 70, half over) suggests that more tests for drivers after the age of 70 would not trigger public outcry:

  • Almost 60% of respondents said drivers should take a driving test again at around the age of 70;
  • 85% said that drivers should pass an eyesight test every five years after the age of 70;
  • Over half said that drivers aged around 70 should be required to have a medical examination.

Evaluation of safe driving skills

Researchers in America have developed a way of testing to see whether an individual meets the standard of vision, physical functioning and cognitive skills required for safe driving.

Offending drivers: re-tests, re-training and NDORS

Re-tests

Cycling UK believes that it should be mandatory for disqualified drivers (and for drivers who have accumulated 12 points) to undergo a special extended re-test linked to remedial training; and it should certainly be compulsory after any serious road traffic offence.

Analysis published in 2017 found that a substantial number of offenders who were ordered to take an extended test did not regain their licence. The report also suggested that awareness of such a test was low amongst members of the judiciary.

National Driver Offender Re-training Schemes (NDORS)

There is evidence to indicate that NDORS courses influence drivers’ attitudes for several weeks at least. 

Other research suggests Drink Drive Rehabilitation Scheme (DDRS) interventions have a marked impact on behaviour: offenders who did not attend a DDRS course were two to three times more likely to reoffend than those who had. This figure applied up to two years after the initial conviction. Also research commissioned by the DfT has demonstrated that the National Speed Awareness Course has some impact on behaviour too.   

In the interests of cycle safety specifically, Cycling UK is keen to see an awareness course tailored for drivers whose behaviour towards cyclists has been brought into question, and for this to be a requirement for those who have been convicted of an offence. Ideally, this should include practical, National Standard (‘Bikeability’) cycle training not only to improve driving behaviour, but also to encourage people to cycle for their transport needs during and after any disqualification period.

We also believe that NDORS should be a sanction available to the courts as well as the police, but never a substitute for prosecution. We share concerns, too, that the police may be overly keen on the scheme, no doubt because following up a prosecution instead may prove very labour-intensive.

Equally, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), who face serious workload pressures as well, may also decide not to prosecute in a case referred to them by the police, and send it back for NDORS treatment instead.

Costs, bureaucracy and impact on safety

We know that some people are concerned that a number of the changes we advocate above could make the system more costly to administer and use.

However:

While it is true that some measures could expand the work of the motoring agencies, the extra costs may well be offset by savings in terms of casualties. DfT figures suggest that preventing just one fatal road incident in 2016 could have saved over £2 million, and preventing just one serious injury incident over £237k.

In any case, unlicensed/uninsured driving is just one of several driving offences that should be tackled by more effective traffic law enforcement.

 

  • The above recommendations were among 80 we made in our 'Cycle safety: make it simple' response to the Department for Transport's Cycle Safety Review (June 2018).
 

[1] Rabbitt, P & Parker, D. The ageing driver: A programme of research. DfT Road Safety Research Report No. 29. 2002. (No longer online)

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