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Testing times for young drivers

It would be tempting to welcome the news that the number of young people qualifying to drive in Scotland has fallen.

The accident rate for drivers aged between 17 and 25 is almost double that for older drivers and fewer young drivers will surely mean fewer accidents and fewer deaths.

However, it is not quite that simple. Firstly, the accident rate among young drivers has been falling for many years, as it has for all drivers. On the whole, driving is safer than it has ever been. And even if young drivers are more likely to end up in an accident, that should not automatically lead us to the assumption that a fall in the number of young people learning to drive is good news.

The figures, which are published today by The Herald, are dramatic - the number of young people qualifying to drive has fallen from 32,898 in 2003 to 26,431 last year - and the explanation would appear to be straightforward. Since the beginning of the recession, average disposable income has fallen at the same time as the cost of learning to drive, buying a car and insuring it, has risen.

This financial squeeze from two directions has been a particular problem for young people. Not only have many of them felt the worst effects of the economic crisis, such as the cost of mortgages and a high rate of unemployment, young people are also charged most to drive. On average, a young person will need to spend around £1000 to take lessons, although it can be much more. On top of this, there is the cost of the test itself and then there is the cost of buying a new car. Even worse is the insurance, which can start at around £2500 for a year and rise to as much as £4000.

This high cost of insurance is understandable - insurers know that new drivers are more likely to have an accident and want to protect themselves against that risk. But when the insurance bill is combined with the high cost of living, it creates a genuine crisis for many young people.

In some parts of Scotland, for example, particularly rural areas, young people need a car to get about and if they struggle to get a driving licence, they may also struggle to access employment or further education. Scotland as a whole cannot afford that, even if the unemployment rate among young people has been falling in recent months.

The question is: how can driving be made more affordable for young people? The cost of cars and lessons will not be coming down any time soon, which leaves only one option: to reduce the cost of insurance.

However, there is a division of opinion on how to achieve that. Some insurers and motoring organisations think the way forward is to impose tougher restrictions, such as curfews, to force young drivers to be safer and the Department of Transport is considering such measures. But there are serious issues of fairness and practicality with such ideas - why should all young drivers be punished for the boy racers? How would night-time curfews be policed?

A much better way forward would be to ensure the driving test is as good, and as tough as it can be. Driving in a more responsible and safer way could well bring the cost of driving down for young people. But the test that they sit needs to ensure that they are genuinely ready for the road.

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