Inexperienced drivers are disproportionately more at risk from death or injury on the roads. What can be done to make young drivers safer?

At the beginning of October, the Association of British Insurers (ABI) called for a reform of the UK system for testing and licensing young drivers. Across the European Union, the safety record of young and inexperienced drivers is extremely costly - in human and financial terms - 30% of those killed on the roads are under 25, although this age group represents only 20% of the EU population.

Within this figure, a massive variation can be observed between countries, with 52 young drivers per million inhabitants killed in Sweden compared to more than 200 in Greece (average figures for 2008-10). The ABI’s figures show that despite Britain having comparatively few deaths among young drivers, 80% - or upwards of £500,000 (€618,399) - of catastrophic claims are made by drivers aged 17-24 with less than two years’ driving experience. Small wonder that insurers want something to be done.

They are not the only ones. Employers are only too aware of the risk posed by young people taking to the roads in the course of their work. Not only may they be asked to drive vehicles, such as vans, in which they have no experience, but in the course of completing an annual mileage of up to 80,000km, may face traffic conditions - such as motorway driving, night driving, driving in ice and snow - for which no official driving test has prepared them.

In 2009, the UK Royal Society for Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), carried out an interview-based survey of employers’ attitudes towards the training of young drivers for driving at work. This found that 60% of employers considered the current driving test to be inadequate for work purposes. Many fleet managers conducted their own assessments, provided additional training, or had introduced a mentoring system. Most were in favour of an additional, nationally accredited, qualification for work-related driving, although required flexibility in just what it entailed.

The ABI’s preferred solution is the formal introduction of graduated licensing, with restrictions on, for example, driving at night and carrying passengers until a young driver had gained experience. This was also suggested as a way forward by the OECD’s 2006 study, ‘Young Drivers, the Road to Safety’, although the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) warned that such a solution could work only with public acceptance and a suitable enforcement strategy.

Neither the OECD’s report, nor that of the ABI, mention the contribution that employers could make to a further training regime, nor the problems that their proposals could pose for organisations that rely extensively on young drivers. This is regrettable. Legislation to change licensing regimes may take time, and may not be a high priority for austerity-racked governments, whereas insurers and employers have an immediate mutual interest in reducing the cost of risk.

Currently, there seem to be as many solutions as there are fleet managers. Some firms, such as GM UK, now refuse to allow anyone under 22 behind the wheel, after realising that young drivers had been responsible for 30% of fleet accident insurance costs. Others use a variety of practical training courses, in-car ‘black box’ telematics and stringent risk-assessment measures, often in conjunction with their insurers. Smaller organisations may acknowledge the risk, but are unable to provide extra training to their young drivers.

One of the most interesting findings of the RoSPA report was that large organisations with the capacity to provide accredited driver training in-house could be established as national assessment centres and provide facilities for other, smaller firms.

Training schemes evolved in the workplace with the support and active involvement of fleet insurers, and backed by national accreditation, may yet provide the most useful model for reducing the risk posed by young drivers to society.