How personal experience led to learner drivers being allowed onto the motorway

Road Safety Minister Mike Penning MP has made a big impact at the Department for Transport since he took over as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport following the May 2010 election.

He has outlawed non-qualified driving instructors being able to teach learner-drivers, announced a review of MoT requirements for historic vehicles and begun an investigation into motorway closures following serious incidents. He is a Minister who, by his own admission, is shaking things up in the department - by questioning why things are done in a particular way.

His latest move comes from personal experience as a worried parent, though. From next year, learner drivers will be allowed to take motorway training before they have passed their test, under the watch of a qualified driving instructor.

Currently, learner drivers are banned from motorways. They can only venture onto them once they have passed their test. Which, said the Minister last week, is an anomaly.

His daughter, he explained, passed her test in St Albans, Hertfordshire. He lives in Hemel Hempsted, on the other side of the busy M1 motorway. After passing her test, he explained, it was entirely feasible his daughter could have driven home on her own - and then, through inexperience of being alone in the car for the first time, accidentally driven onto the motorway.

This would have been legal, as she would have boasted a full licence, but would it have been safe? Not at all. Five minutes after passing her test, the Minister explained, his daughter could have been facing the high-speed drama of one of the country's business motorways, perhaps out of her depth, and probably scared and afraid too.

This would almost certainly not have been safe – yet it is something the law makes possible today. The changes planned for next year will, however, allow learner drivers, under the watch of their trained and qualified instructor, at least get some professional tuition and experience of motorways. It will not immediately turn them into expert motorway drivers but it will take away the risk explained by the Minister.

It is not obligatory, and will not form part of the test. But, where relevant, learner drivers will soon at least be able to experience motorway travel. And this, said the Minister, can only be a positive.

It is a view supported by the RAC too. As Technical Director, Dr. David Bizley, said, motorway driving is an important component of learning to drive. “Therefore we need something better than we have today to teach inexperienced drivers how to drive safely.”

However, although it is an initiative intended to improve road safety, the Government must also consider safety in practice. “Allowing learners onto motorways needs some safeguards because of the consequences of insufficiently skilled or supervised drivers going onto motorways and causing serious accidents.

“This could be achieved by allowing learners onto the motorway, but maybe only after a minimum amount of off-motorway training.” It is important, added Dr. Bizley, that learner drivers only experience motorways with a qualified instructor, as opposed to a friend or family member.

The changes planned to learner driver legislation, that will allow them to gain vital motorway experience, are welcome, but must be considered carefully. Thanks to the attention of Mike Penning MP, though, it seems likely they will be, with learner drivers hopefully becoming more experienced and safer as a result.