Thursday, 10 May 2012

Young Driver Safety

Extract from NSW Legislative Assembly Hansard and Papers Thursday 10 May 2012

Mr ROB STOKES (Pittwater—Parliamentary Secretary) [5.05 p.m.]: Learner driver requirements are an important issue. It is a topic that is close to the hearts of many families and young people within my community and other communities across the State. Obtaining a drivers licence is somewhat of a rite of passage in a young person's life. It is an opportunity to gain freedom and independence and a chance to engage in new experiences and responsibilities. Anyone who lives in my town of Pittwater will know that a car is a necessity in order to get around because it is a long way from other parts of the metropolitan area. The tragic reality is, however, that young people are consistently overrepresented in road accidents and fatalities, and there is widespread concern that learner drivers are not developing the necessary skills and knowledge prior to taking to the road by themselves.

Over the past five years we have seen a number of changes to the State's learner driver system, the most significant of which was the increase in supervised driving hours from 50 to 120. Whilst this initiative has assisted in encouraging learner drivers to spend more time behind the wheel, it has unfortunately failed to quell the concern that learner drivers are not receiving appropriate guidance—particularly in relation to dangerous conditions and emergency situations. Almost three years ago today I stood in this place and echoed the comments being made by families throughout my community that we need a learner driver system "that incorporates programs to ensure that skills are learnt, instead of simply hoping that learners pick up skills in 120 hours of driving." This comment was made in recognition of the significant pressures families are under not only to ensure their children complete 120 hours of supervised driving, but also to ensure they are conveying the right information to their children on all aspects of driving in the most constructive and effective way. I have heard for many years that parents, grandparents, older siblings and friends simply are not confident about being able to provide this type of guidance.

Fortunately we now have a roads Minister in New South Wales who has listened to this feedback, understands the issues being faced and is introducing innovative changes to help ensure that learner drivers are better equipped with advanced driving knowledge prior to undertaking the provisional driving test. As part of reforms announced last month, learner drivers who undertake a specifically designed five-hour learner driver course will be eligible to have their logbook requirement reduced from 120 hours to 100 hours. The course will be designed by a board of independent road safety experts. It is anticipated to comprise a combination of classroom and in-vehicle activities aimed at providing learner drivers with advanced driving knowledge and experience that is not able to be learnt in normal driving conditions with family members, such as with a big brother in a car park.

This initiative is also significantly different from the previously announced "3 for l" Professional Driving Instructor Scheme, which allows learner drivers to record one hour of professional driver training as three hours in their logbook. I acknowledge Julie Hegarty who is one of my local councillors and a driving instructor in my community. She has provided me with a lot of advice on this issue. While the "3 for 1" scheme has proved to be beneficial, and is anticipated to continue, the new course will seek to counter the concerns that exist with the costs of professional lessons and focus on those skills unable to be taught under normal conditions. In 2010 I distributed a survey to all young drivers throughout Pittwater in which I asked them for their feedback on the effectiveness of the State's learner driver system and any areas where improvements could be made. I was delighted by the level of the response I received; however, I was not surprised by the feedback.

Only around 70 per cent of respondents who were required to complete 120 hours of supervised driving actually met this requirement, whilst over half believed the requirement was unreasonable. However, the most interesting feedback was that an overwhelming number of respondents believed learner drivers should be required to complete professional driver training before undertaking the provisional driving exam and that more opportunities should be available for learners to earn extra credit for undertaking professional tuition. Along with families throughout my community, I am delighted we are now seeing these suggestions put into policy and that a much higher value is being placed on professional tuition. It is too big a gamble simply to hope that our kids pick up essential skills just by completing the mandatory 120 hours of driving.

Obtaining a drivers licence must be achievable, but it is essential that we promote safety and ensure that learner drivers are prepared as best as possible before taking to the road by themselves. Importantly, we must also see a shift in attitude towards the learner driver system from simply being a task that has to be overcome as quickly as possible to an important and significant experience in a young person's life. The engagement of families in this experience is obvious as driving with family and friends will always make up the bulk of a learner driver's hours. However, the missing piece of the puzzle in learner driver training is clearly visible and it is great that through these important reforms we will ensure that young people have the skills necessary to drive not just in ordinary situations but also in emergency situations.