Aotearoa sits at a junction in how we tackle road safety. And young drivers are key to the outcome.
In 1988, we shifted from a lax “congratulations on not hitting anything around the block, here’s your license” system, to a ‘graduated’ system with young Kiwis needing to get their Learners and Restricted licenses before being able to get their Full license.
The purpose of the system was to ensure that only once certain milestones have been met and particular skills acquired can a young person get their unrestricted full license. This in contrast to sitting one test, and then having virtually unrestrained access to our roads.
This sounds great in theory, but as a country we’re finding that the system is not doing its job: it’s expensive, time consuming, and clearly isn’t effective at ensuring we have lifelong safe drivers on our roads. Proof of this is our road death toll, the huge waitlists for license tests and the astonishing number of drivers who never progress from Learners or Restricted licenses, resulting in inevitable traffic offenses.
The balancing act of any driver licensing system is to ensure that drivers are skilled enough to safely use our roads, while not imposing overly stringent hoops that prevent those without the time or money from having the same access as others.
However, the first problem with our current system is the cost.
To sit your learner’s theory test it costs $94 dollars. After 6 months, you can sit your restricted – and you’ll be pinged another $135. After 18 months it’ll cost you another $110 dollars to get your full. Assuming you never fail a test (unlikely, given the restricted test has just a 57% pass rate), that comes to a grand total of $339. If you fail your restricted once, the re-sit fee will bring your total to $428.
So, with these costs, getting your license is simply unaffordable for many. The risk of an infringement by breaching license conditions or not having one at all is often worth the money saved by not sitting the necessary tests. That’s a dangerous position for us to be in as a country. The government must fund or significantly subsidize driver license tests or else it gambles with the safety of those on our roads.
Throw into the works the fact that Hastings only has a couple certified testers, and you begin to get a picture of what a difficult system this is. We also need to work on increasing testing capacity so that the wait to sit a test is within weeks, not months – particularly in the wake of lockdown backlog.
In addition, defensive driving courses which start from $229 (AA) can shave 6 months off the time before someone can get their full license. But what this essentially means is that those who have the money can get their license earlier, while those who simply can’t afford it must wait longer.
If the goal is to have better drivers on our roads, then making the defensive driving course free and even compulsory would be a step in the right direction. It would ensure that it isn’t just accessible for a portion of the population, and that every single Kiwi who we certify to drive on our roads has done some substantive training – not just passed some tests. Private driving lessons aren’t cheap, and – sorry mum and dad – proper training is needed so as to not pick up your bad habits! Defensive driving courses offer a middle ground of both theory and practical driver training that should be offered to all Kiwis.
In 2020, Associate Minister of Transport Julie Anne Genter stated: “We want safe, qualified drivers on our roads, and we know that when people are able to progress all the way through to their full license they’re less likely to be involved in a serious injury crash.” Why then, has the government recently doubled the license expiry periods for learners and restricted licenses to 10 years, drastically lowering the time imperative to progress to a full license – which the government admits makes you a safer driver?
We also have a system that gifts people their license back every 10 years without any certification that they’ve maintained the skills required to be a safe driver.
The answer isn’t to require people to completely re-sit their tests every time. Still, being a safe road user is a privilege not a right. We need some way of checking up on drivers whether that be a short online test with questions about the road code, taken from the safety of their own home, or answering some verbal questions at the local testing center. Perhaps this renewal test should be reserved for those who’ve received a traffic infringement over their 10-year license period – another incentive to avoid speeding fines!
Our driver license system needs a serious shakeup. The focus of driver safety seems to revolve around speed, whereas 90% of all fatal and serious injury crashes involve driver error. We need to seriously examine what training we provide to our road users to ensure they can be the safest drivers that our country needs them to be. Lives depend on it.
Keelan is Youth MP for Tukituki and has been Head Boy at Karamu and Chairperson of the Hastings Youth Council. He will be studying Public Policy & Management at Victoria this year.