The risks and rewards of driving with an ‘L’ plate

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In October 2007, 400,000 people in Ireland held their provisional (learner) driving license. More than 125,000 people who received their first license between 1984 and 2016 have never taken a driving test, meaning their learner permits are being renewed every year.

Early this year, there were claims that learner drivers are being treated unfairly, with eight cars being seized every day from learner drivers  who are not permitted to drive without a fully qualified driver with over 2 years experience on a full license, sitting beside them. Since the introduction of new laws for unaccompanied learners in December 2018, Garda figures showed 337 vehicles having been taken.

The new rules surrounding learner drivers are stricter, with one stand-out regulation being that car owner who allows a learner driver to use their vehicle while unaccompanied could face jail time. Learners who do not have a fully licensed driver beside them can be fined up to €1000. Gardaí were also given the power to seize a vehicle if a learner driver is discovered on the roads without a qualified driver beside them.

Prior to this, holders of a provisional license could drive unaccompanied after obtaining their second provisional license, a route which many chose rather than going through the full testing process.

However councillors in rural areas believe laws surrounding learner drivers are leaving young people struggling in areas with little to no public transport. Cork County Councillor Melissa Mullane has said that young people find it difficult to get to work or college as a result of the measures, saying Minister for Transport Mr Shane Ross “seems to think we all live in Dublin… in rural Cork, we don’t have the same kind of infrastructure.”

“There is little or no buses and trains in a lot of the areas in rural Cork so young people… are finding it very difficult to get to work because of the new regulations.” Mullane said.

Kerry TD Michael Healy-Rae also spoke out on young motorists in rural areas, telling Sean O’Rourke on RTE Radio One “Of course we don’t want to see any family lose a family member or a loved relative… but what our legislators did when they brought in this amendment, they criminalised the young people in rural areas particularly.”

He continued, “It’s not a culture, it’s a thing called bare, basic necessity… some of the TDs who voted for this legislation, they drove cars themselves unaccompanied because they had no choice either.”

A  RSA Advert came out around the same time as the new rules, with the advert focusing on a car accident involving an unaccompanied learner driver. A Lisselton man petitioned to remove the advert, which featured the voice of Noel Clancy.

The new rules were inspired by the death of Geraldine Clancy (58) and her daughter Louise Clancy (22) who died in 2015 when an unaccompanied learner lost control of a car at a junction. The driver was given a three-month suspended sentence for dangerous driving, after admitting she had failed to yield at a junction and struck the Clancy’s car. The car was overturned into a flooded ditch, where the Clancy’s drowned.

The husband of Geraldine, Noel Clancy, has campaigned for more restrictions on learner drivers since the incident, saying “I am doing this so that no other family will have to go through what we’ve been through.”

CEO of the RSA Moyagh Murdock has said that “Every year on average for the last three or four years, approximately 12 learner drivers have been involved in fatal collisions and 80% of those learners were unaccompanied so it’s a real risk out there… There has been a culture in this country of turning a blind eye on unaccompanied learner drivers,”

“They are a high risk road user, they are inexperienced, they don’t have the lessons to demonstrate that they have learned how to drive appropriately.” Murdock said.

Leigh Fitzell lead a campaign in Kerry, also focusing on the controversial RSA advert. “We don’t’ want safety abandoned, but young people also need to learn to drive,” he said.

“I had to drive. I was working and I live six miles from public transport, and that wouldn’t have got me to work anyway,” he said. “It is rural Ireland; what was I supposed to do? I wanted to work and not be on social welfare.”

The laws surrounding learner drivers are believed to be too restrictive, with Cllr John Francis Flynn saying the laws are targeting young people who are the most affected group learning to drive.

“It is typical of this Government to pick an easy target. Young people are an easy target. This is going to cause emigration. No-one can get their mother or father to drive to work with them,” he said.

In March 2019 more than 28,600 people were waiting to receive even a date for their driving test, figures obtained by Sinn Féin’s Imelda Munster have been branded “completely unacceptable” by the TD.

The RSA target to have a national average waiting time of no longer than ten weeks, however in many areas people are waiting up to seven months for a test date. If they fail a test they are put to the back of the queue once more.

With increasing difficulty in obtaining a full license, followed by the difficulty in finding any affordable insurance for young or learner drivers, it is a rocky future ahead for anyone who shows an ‘L’ plate on their vehicle.

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