B.C. VIEWS: In defence of younger drivers

Some questioned my suggestion that today’s new drivers are worse because they spend their formative years staring at screens.

A recent column on the B.C. government’s decision to raise speed limits on portions of rural highways excited numerous comments from readers.

Some questioned my suggestion that today’s new drivers are worse because they spend their formative years staring at screens in the back seat instead of looking out the window and grasping the grim physics of the real world.

There is no doubt that B.C.’s graduated licensing system for new drivers is more difficult than what my generation faced.

Those vehicle stickers with the “L” (for learner, or as teens prefer “loser”) and “N” (for novice, or in teen-speak “nerd”) have been around since 1998.

The two steps make getting a full driver’s licence a longer, more difficult and expensive process. Statistics provided by ICBC show what new drivers are up against.

First there is the written “knowledge test” to obtain a learner’s permit.

From 2004 to 2008, more than half of applicants failed in their first attempt.

Things improved in subsequent years, with a 46 per cent failure rate in 2009 declining to 42 per cent by 2013.

The first road test is required to go from “L” to “N” and it seems sufficiently harsh.

The failure rate has been consistently around 47 per cent in the past six years.

More practice and another $35 are required to try again.

Students fare better on the second road test, where the failure rate has consistently been 21-22 per cent for the past decade.

ICBC reports that in the first three years of the graduated licence program, the new driver crash rate dropped by 16 per cent.

In 2003 the required learner and novice period were extended, and restrictions on the novice stage were increased. New driver crashes fell by another 28 per cent.

Those restrictions include the number of passengers and a “zero tolerance” for alcohol.

Impaired crash and injury statistics aren’t available for drivers in the graduated licence program, only fatalities.

They grew as more new drivers were enrolled in the new system, to a high of 24 in 2007, but that declined to 14 by 2012.

There will always be young people who drive impaired, speed or make other fatal errors. But it’s difficult to argue that today’s system in B.C. is lenient.

A couple of readers were concerned about the effect of higher rural speed limits on older drivers.

One suggested that higher limits on rural highways are a poor mix with vacationing seniors hauling around oversized motorhomes, trailers and boats.

Another cited the coming wave of retired baby boomers and added a likely increase in marijuana-impaired drivers, all emboldened by the invitation to drive faster.

B.C.’s medical health officers issued a letter denouncing the decision by Transportation Minister Todd Stone to raise speed limits.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall said the research is clear that higher speeds increase the risk and severity of incidents.

Then there is the government’s own position, articulated in a road safety strategy released last year by Attorney General Suzanne Anton.

“Research is conclusive that at higher speeds, more people are killed and injured in the traffic system,” it states. “At lower speeds, fewer are killed and injured as a direct result of the safety buffer that lowered speeds create.”

The strategy notes that new technologies such as adaptive cruise control are becoming available. B.C. is also testing electronic highway speed limit signs that change with weather and traffic conditions.

Next comes self-driving vehicle systems, so drivers will be able to check their phones again.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Twitter: @tomfletcherbc Email: tfletcher@blackpress.ca.

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