Driving licence changes to allow teenagers to drive HGVs criticised

White van driving down a cliff road

Plans to allow 17-year-olds to drive heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) under an accompanied driving scheme have been labelled “dangerous”.

The European Parliament’s transport committee has formally agreed to back proposals to reform driving licence rules in the European Union with a majority of one.

The European Transport Safety Council (ETSC) says the committee’s position would have devastating consequences for road safety if the amendments agreed make it into the final legislation.

MEPs backed the European Commission’s requirement that in future, all EU Member States must issue driving licences to 17-year-olds to drive heavy goods vehicles under an accompanied driving scheme.

ETSC says this has the potential to massively expand the number of teenagers driving lorries – and that would have very negative consequences for road safety.

Today, only five countries allow teenagers as young as 18 to drive a lorry: Finland, Germany, Ireland, Poland and Spain.

Data from Finland, Germany and Poland clearly show that the youngest lorry drivers (18-19 years) are much more likely to cause a crash, claims the road safety group.

It says that from a road safety perspective, the minimum age in the EU for lorry drivers should be 21 – that is today’s ‘recommended’ minimum.

The transport committee also supported the idea of allowing children aged 16 to drive speed-limited cars, an idea which originated in Finland.

The Commission’s own impact assessment on this idea said that “the measure may pose an additional road safety risk, notably for vulnerable road users”.

Ellen Townsend, policy director at ETSC, said: “This legislation was introduced under the banner of a ‘road safety package’ – but frankly if we end up encouraging large numbers of teenagers to drive lorries the consequences will be devastating.

“Ahead of the plenary vote in the European Parliament in January, we hope policymakers will take a step back and reconsider the consequences of these changes, before voting on plans that will make our roads more dangerous for everyone.”

The UK Government is separately considering its own changes to driving licence rules, with more than two thirds (69%) of respondents to a Government consultation saying drivers should be automatically entitled to drive vehicles up to 7.5 tonnes when they pass their driving test.

The Department for Transport (DfT) consultation, launched in August 2022, sought views on a series of changes to the driving licence regime, including allowing drivers to get behind the wheel of a vehicle weighing up to 7.5 tonnes, having only passed their car driving test.

In a snap Fleet News online poll, held at the time, fleets were divided over widening a car driver’s entitlement to heavy vans and trucks, with more than half (53.4%) of respondents against the idea.

However, in analysis of responses to the DfT consultation published in June, there appears to be support for the change, despite some safety concerns.

Currently, a category B (car) licence entitles holders to drive vehicles up to 3.5t and alternatively fuelled vehicles up to 4.25t (the latter with five hours of additional training) for commercial carriage of goods.

The C1 licence covers medium-sized vehicles from 3.5-7.5t, plus a trailer of a maximum authorised mass (MAM) of up to 750kg, which amounts to a combined total of 8.25t.

Drivers who passed their car test prior to January 1997, also gained entitlement to drive a light lorry or heavy van (C1) without the need for a separate test.

Those drivers retained the right to drive a vehicle up to 8.25t when, thanks to an EU directive, a separate test to obtain C1 entitlement was introduced.

DfT statistics suggest that following the introduction of the new testing regime, the number of C1 vehicles and their mileage has more than halved, down by 58%, from around 2.9 billion miles in 2000, to 1.2bn miles in 2019.

The distance lighter vans travelled over the same period increased by 71%, while HGV mileage has remained relatively flat.

The DfT consultation revealed that more than two-thirds (69%) of the 2,000-plus respondents support the entitlement change, while around a quarter (27%) said do not. A small number (3%) said they did not know.

Those who did not believe that C1 entitlement should be automatic upon passing a car test highlighted the size and weight difference of C1 vehicles to cars and the risk of having an accident could be increased.

The vast majority of respondents, however, did agree that there should be an age restriction to being granted the C1 entitlement upon passing a Category B driving test.

Of 1,900 consultees who answered the question, most (89%) agreed, including two-thirds (65%) who thought it should be 21 years and above, while around one in eight (12%) thought it should be from 18-plus.

A further one in eight consultees (13%) specified a different age which ranged from aged 19 to over 30 years of age.

Most (90%) also believed that there should be a minimum period of time that a driver should hold a car licence before being allowed to drive a C1 vehicle.

This included half (50%) who thought there should be a minimum period of time of two years and approaching one quarter (23%) thought it should be one year.

Just one in ten (10%) did not think that there should be a minimum period of time.

The DfT says it is considering responses to the consultation before deciding what changes may be taken forward.

In Europe, MEPs also backed the concept of an EU-wide zero-tolerance limit for alcohol for novice drivers.

This would see newly-qualified drivers subject to a low 0.2 g/l blood alcohol concentration limit across the European Union.

However, this change would only affect Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark and Finland, because all other EU Member States already set a limit of 0 or 0.2 for novice drivers. Spain’s limit for this group is 0.3.

Following a plenary vote in the European Parliament in January, the final shape of the revised EU Driving Licence Directive will need to be negotiated by MEPs, together with EU transport ministers and the European Commission.

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