Young drivers: young lives not young votes - ABI party conference fringe events

Speech by Julie Townsend, deputy chief executive, Brake

Good evening. I'd like to start by telling you about Hayley Porter. In December 2009, Hayley was an incredibly happy 21 year-old, excited about the future, thrilled about the prospect of finishing her degree and starting a life with her long-term boyfriend Joe. They had recently returned from the holiday of a lifetime to the US, and were planning to move in together and start a family as soon as Hayley finished her degree. Like many young couples they had exciting plans of how they would spend the rest of their lives together.

Those dreams were cruelly snatched away when Joe was killed in a road crash, a few weeks before Christmas. He was a passenger with his 19 year-old friend. They were on their way to go and do their Christmas shopping, when the driver lost control. The weather was bad and he was driving too fast for the conditions. The judge later said the driver had 'a cavalier attitude to road safety.' It is impossible to describe the devastation inflicted on Hayley, Joe's parents, and the young couple's friends and loved ones.

Hayley and Joe's family went on to back our campaign on young drivers. They feel passionately that more must be done to address young driver safety. They are by no means alone. Brake comes across stories of devastation and young lives lost, with great regularity. When we coordinated Road Safety Week last November on the theme of young people's road safety, we had no shortage of families coming forward in support, courageously wanting to speak out, hoping it might help prevent other families going through what they've been through.

We often hear Britain's roads are among the safest in the world, but the extent of carnage involving young drivers is shocking. On a daily basis, young drivers are causing, through inexperience and risk-taking, horrific crashes that kill and maim. One in four road deaths and serious injuries take place in crashes involving a young driver, despite this age group accounting for just one in eight licence holders.

More often than not, it is young people themselves who are losing their lives and suffering life-changing injuries. Worldwide, road crashes are the single biggest killer of young people, and, shockingly, the same is true here in the UK. To put it another way, what results in more young people being killed than anything else is something that is preventable - something we have within our powers to address.

Every day 18 young people are killed or seriously injured on Britain's roads. Each one is a life lost too soon, or changed forever, and each one sends out a shock wave of pain and devastation to scores of friends and loved ones. And each one costs our economy dearly, because of the burden on health and emergency services, criminal justice costs, insurance payouts, and human costs, as much as they are quantifiable. In fact, the value to society of preventing each road death is estimated at £1.6million.

Last year, deaths and serious injuries went up on Britain's roads for the first time in 17 years. We believe this should act as a wake-up call to government that more must be done to bring casualties down and reduce the price society pays. And we believe action on young driver safety must be at the heart of this.

As has been referenced already, we are just over a year in to the UN's Global Decade of Action on Road Safety. Brake and the ABI held an event in parliament last year to mark the start of the Decade, calling for government action on young driver safety. We argued that helping young people drive safely, to protect their own lives, and the lives of others, was one of the most important things we must do in the UK during this Decade. We argued if we could achieve this, we would not only address a factor in a quarter of serious road casualties, but also help create a safer, more responsible road user culture for the future. And we pointed out that graduated driver licensing offered an evidenced method for doing this.

We have a lot of evidence on the nature of young driver crashes. We know young drivers are more likely to crash at night, and with young passengers in the car. We know that because of their immaturity, they are more likely to take risks like speeding, overtaking, blind and driving on drugs. And we know the more experience a young driver gains, or the older they are when they get their licence, the lower their crash risk.

We can also learn a great deal from what´s been done around the world on this issue. We can learn from countries like New Zealand, Australia and the United States, where, to improve young driver safety, they have reformed their driver licensing systems, introducing graduated driver licensing.

GDL allows new drivers to develop skills and experience gradually, while limiting exposure to risk. It includes a minimum learning to drive period, followed by a test, followed by a novice driving period. During the novice period, there are restrictions – such as a night time driving curfew, zero drink-drive limit, and limitations on passengers – to help protect the novice and other road users. This staged approach allows drivers to build experience over time before attaining a full licence. And arguably, it helps create a greater respect for the privilege and responsibility of driving. After all, a driving licence is not, we believe, something that should be easily attainable, within a matter of weeks after turning 17, following a handful of lessons.

We believe graduated driver licensing offers a balance between safety and mobility, because young people can still drive independently at the end of their learner period. We can include exceptions to the restrictions so we're not restricting young drivers from getting to work, or carrying dependents. But we should also, we believe, alongside GDL, be improving alternative options for young people, such as improving affordability and access to public transport, and putting in place safe cycling routes to colleges and workplaces, so fewer young people feel there is no other option than to learn to drive as soon as they turn 17.

Graduated driver licensing has had great success in cutting casualties in other countries. And we have evidence the same would be true in the UK. A Cardiff University study predicted 200 lives would be saved annually. That´s 200 families each year, like Joe's family, who could be spared a heart-breaking visit from a police officer, come to tell them their loved one is never coming home, because they have been violently killed in a road crash. Thousands more would be spared a devastating, life-altering serious injury.

That graduated driver licensing constitutes best practice has now been recognised by the World Health Organisation. It's promoting GDL as part of its work to spur action for safer roads during the Decade of Action. We believe the UK must be on the list of countries that have signed up to this important step.

If we are to tackle road deaths and injuries, which inflict such terrible pain and trauma on so many, and cost society so dearly, we must take action on young driver crashes. We have a course of action open to us that is evidenced to work, and we have an opportunity during the Decade of Action to make this vital step. We call on the government to act, and I appeal to all of you to work with us to push for change on this crucial issue.

Tags: young drivers