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Should novice drivers carry P plates?

by Flash Wilson, January 13th 2004

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The UK Government thinks that forcing newly qualified drivers to display P plates is a good idea. On its website, it states "We believe that using P-plates would have a salutary effect on new drivers to remind them and other road users that although they have passed the driving test, they are still novices." My Approved Driving Instructor agrees that in due course we will all be required to carry P plates.

I think this is a bad idea.

We already have a probation period in which if we get six points we are disqualified and have to retake theory and practical tests to regain the license. This would be enough of a deterrent to me to drive carefully, not speeding and not taking risks.

At online forums, learner drivers compare notes. All of us agreed that we see terrible examples of driving around L plated cars. For example while I was stopped at red traffic lights, a BMW driver mounted the pavement and drove along it to pass me! More often drivers will undertake, or overtake where there is little room to do so. You have to have your wits about you! Admittedly being stuck behind a very new learner can be frustrating, and it's easy to forget that we all learnt at some time. Yet no matter how well the car is driven, there seems to be a mentality among other drivers that we must be overtaken as soon as possible, even if they have to take a risk to do so. I belive that wearing P plates would also attract this kind of driving "to get past the probationer at any cost", and therefore plunge the novice driver into dangerous situations when they are the least able to handle it and the safety net of an experienced driver supervising has been taken away. The use of P plates is ostensively about safety, and I don't see how it could help in this way.

In other countries P drivers can be restricted in speed, for example in Australia they mustn't exceed 100kph, or 62mph. I have heard that in other countries, the limit is 45mph. This is slower than I have driven down the A3 in my L plates. (I had to stop when one of my magnetic L plates flew off as I approached 70mph!) I don't believe a speed restriction would work in the UK.

Firstly, my car would be turned into - as Murray Walker calls slow drivers - a "mobile chicane". The left lane of motorways would now crawl at 45mph or whatever the speed restriction was, which would mean that there was more of a discrepancy between the speeds of different lanes while the fast lane continued to flow at 85mph or above (yes, I know that's illegal but it seems to be how people behave on a clear road) and so more acceleration and deceleration would be needed when moving from one lane to another, to fit in with the flow of traffic. I can imagine this might add to an increase in accidents. Secondly, you would be dicing with lorries who are limited to 60mph and the two leftmost lanes, but would have to keep pulling out into the middle to pass the P plate holder going at 45mph, thus congesting the traffic more - or if limited to 62mph, it would take a long time for the novice to pass the lorry, with only 2mph between them. And I don't think I'd like to be driving in the "slow" lane, trapped between lorries. It would get claustrophobic, and if there was an accident I, in the smaller vehicle, would be likely to come off worst. Finally if I was limited in my speed it would take ages to get anywhere!

In addition to this, drivers need to learn to handle speed - exactly the reason why I have driven at 70mph down the A3, while I was under supervision. If novice drivers were restricted, they would have to learn to handle the increase in speed a few years after they pass their test and again at a time when there is no safetynet of an accompanying experienced driver. Use of a speed restriction would be delaying the time when people learn to handle the speed; you cannot presume that they will have been driving regularly and turned into a very good driver by the time the P plates come off! I don't see any benefit here. So if mandatory P plates are introduced, I hope there is no accompanying speed restriction.

There are a couple of other issues associated with the mandatory display of P plates. Firstly, the stigma. It's bad enough being a learner driver, but once you've passed the test you can go out and get a job which requires a driving license, even if driving is only a minor part of the role. It's unlikely that companies would like to display P plates on company vehicles, which might cause discrimination against novice drivers and make it harder for them to get a job in certain roles.

Finally, how would P plate use be enforced? The government has already said that they don't think novice drivers should have a special code on their license for the probationary period as this causes extra overheads as well as expense to the driver when they need to renew their license after probation. Nor do they believe there would be any benefit in requiring a second driving test at the end of probation - a driver should have acquired and demonstrated appropriate skills before being allowed on the road unsupervised, so the existing test must be a fair test of driving skill - an extra test would bring no benefit.

All this suggests to me that novice drivers would be required to display P plates for sometime after gaining their license, but people failing to do so are unlikely to be caught unless they have been stopped for some other offence. If there is a speed restriction as well, novice drivers might even be less likely to display P plates as it marks them out as someone who shouldn't go fast, when chances are they will want to!

In my opinion there are far better ways to spend money addressing "safety" issues on the roads. How about the regular retesting of OAP drivers? Even if only eyesight is tested I think it would be a bonus; I used to know someone who drove (very slowly and carefully) into her nineties, and someone else who drove after an illness and was only forced by her doctor to stop driving after she caused an accident.

In summary, although it's true that driver inexperience causes many accidents, branding recently qualified drivers with P plates will not prevent this - rather, it might throw novice drivers into difficult situations as people try to pass them at all cost, or if they are restricted in speed and forced to fit between lorries on motorways. Plus there seems to be no easy way to enforce their use. Let's end the talk of mandatory display of P plates and encourage focus on the real road safety issues in order to make the UK's roads safer.

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