What is a graduated driving licence? Passenger limits and curfews explained, and are they coming to Britain?

The government reportedly looking into changes that could set new limits and minimum learning periods on young drivers

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New drivers under the age of 25 could face a ban on carrying passengers under a graduated licence scheme, according to reports.

The government is set to consider the idea in an effort to improve Britain’s road safety record, according to The Times

Roads minister Richard Holden will consider changes to driver training and licensing at a meeting in May, with restrictions on passengers under the age of 25 for the first six or 12 months among the ideas to be discussed as part of a wider examination of graduated licences. 

Any changes, which could also include compulsory lesson numbers and curfews, would be made by amending the Road Traffic (New Drivers) Act. This is the law which currently means newly qualified drivers automatically lose their licence if they accumulate six or more penalty points in their first two years of driving. 

The move comes after campaigning from a number of road safety groups and is said to have the backing of the Support for Victims of Road Crashes committee, which advises the Department for Transport (DfT). It is also thought to have the support of senior police officers.  

What is a graduated licensing scheme?

Graduating licensing uses a phased approach to learning to drive and can include tighter restrictions on newly qualified drivers.

In some countries, drivers have to complete a minimum number of instructed lessons or sit a second test after a set period of time before gaining a full licence. The idea of a learning “journey” where drivers have to complete set modules before sitting their test has previously been suggested for Britain, as has a probationary period where there are limits set on young drivers’ activities.

The rumoured plan could stop young drivers carrying passengers of a similar age (Photo: Shutterstock)The rumoured plan could stop young drivers carrying passengers of a similar age (Photo: Shutterstock)
The rumoured plan could stop young drivers carrying passengers of a similar age (Photo: Shutterstock)

These restrictions vary between countries but previous options explored in the UK include limits on carrying passengers - either limiting the number of people in the car, their minimum age or restricting giving lifts to certain times of day. A lower drink-drive limit or zero-tolerance approach has also been suggested in the past, as has a nighttime curfew, which would ban younger drivers from the roads at certain times.

Such systems are already in operation in several countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Germany and the US. In Ireland, newly qualified drivers must abide by lower drink-drive limits and, like the UK, have a lower penalty point threshold before they lose their licence. 

Why is the government considering graduated licences?

Graduated licences are seen as a potential way to tackle the disproportionate number of young people involved in crashes

According to road safety charity Brake, young and novice drivers aged 17-24 make up 7% of licence holders but are involved in a quarter of the injury collisions and 24% of fatal collisions on Britain’s roads. They are also four times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash when carrying passengers of a similar age than if they are driving alone.

Campaigners say that among the reasons for these disproportionate casualty numbers are an underestimation of how challenging it is to drive and overestimation of their abilities, which makes young motorists more likely to engage in dangerous driving behaviours, and more at risk of being distracted by passengers. 

They believe that more comprehensive instruction and restrictions on new young drivers could help address this and bring down injury and death among younger road users.

Are there drawbacks to graduated licences?

This isn’t the first time the government has considered graduated licensing. Most recently the idea was raised but abandoned in 2020 when Theresa May was Prime Minister. 

At the time, concerns were raised around how such a scheme could limit young drivers’ freedom of movement and access to work and education. There were fears that restrictions and curfews could affect younger people’s ability to get to and from jobs with late-night hours, such as in hospitality. It was also suggested that limiting passengers could affect young people who car share to get to work, university or college. 

Although proposals have previously faced problems, Holden said he was determined to improve road safety for young motorists and, according to the Times, the latest discussions have the backing of Chief Constable Jo Shiner, the road policing spokeswoman for the National Police Chiefs’ Council, who said: “I am very openly a supporter of the graduated driving licence.”

What have the DfT and experts said?

The DfT said: “Every death or serious injury on our roads is a tragedy and we continue to work tirelessly to improve road safety for all users. Our approach to improving safety for new and novice drivers is through new technology and improving education, while reinforcing vital road safety messages through our Think! campaign.”

RAC road safety spokesman Simon Williams said: “We’re very pleased to see that graduated driving licences are once again under consideration. Young people, and especially young men, continue to be massively over-represented in road collision statistics, so introducing restrictions that are gradually reduced over the first few years of driving may be one of the measures needed to bring the dreadful numbers down.

“It’s important any graduated driver licensing scheme doesn’t disadvantage young people who depend on their cars for work, so a balance needs to be struck between new drivers gaining the mobility they need while keeping them as safe as possible. Introducing a minimum learning period, or number of learning hours, should be the very least of what is put in place. We believe there could also be merits in restricting the number of people young drivers are allowed to carry at certain times – most importantly at night – as well as putting in place a stricter or even a zero drink-drive limit. Mandating ‘new driver’ plates could also help make others aware of who they’re sharing the road with and help make police enforcement easier. Technology could also be used beneficially as telematics-based insurance can monitor drivers’ behaviour behind the wheel.”

AA president Edmund King, said limiting young drivers’ rights to carry passengers was a “pragmatic” safety move. He said: “Passenger restrictions do not prevent young drivers from building their experience as drivers — but it does reduce the risk of multiple casualties should the worst happen.”

Seb Goldin, CEO of Red Driver Training said the high casualty rates among young drivers showed there was a “significant risk” that can’t be ignored. He commented: “We know that people of all ages rely on the freedom that driving provides, and graduated driving licencing risks placing restrictions on this. 

“However, data shows that in countries where graduated driving licencing is in effect, it is being received well and, in an environment where incidents on our roads are commonplace, taking steps to reduce the risks of death and serious injuries is a protocol we support. Road safety remains our ultimate concern, and this probationary period for drivers who are more likely to be involved in an incident allows us to prioritise this even further.”