As and from this week, new drivers will be under harsher scrutiny than ever before. With the introduction of the new Graduated Driver Licencing (GDL) system, anyone passing their driving test from August 1st will have to take off their L-plates and stick up a set of the new N-plates. N means Novice in this case, and those drivers will have to keep the N-plates up for two years. During that time they will have to keep strictly to the rules of the road – not only will they be banned from driving if they run up just six penalty points, they will also be hit with more points for each offence than a fully qualified driver.
It’s a particularly tough line for the Government to be taking and it has already seen criticism from the advanced driving community, with some saying that it’s pointless to have such a system in place with no allowance for on learner drivers who go on to improve their skills with an advanced driving course. Many commentators have also pointed out that impatient or aggressive motorists will all too likely see the N-plate as a target, not a reminder to give the driver more time and room.
Costs for new drivers
Above all that though, the new system is likely to lead to an increase in motoring costs for those who are displaying their N-plates. The first and most obvious cost is in insurance. At the moment, as soon as you pass your test, the cost of your insurance reduces significantly, but in fact the Irish system is something of an anomaly in this case. It was pointed out to us by one of the country’s leading insurers, Liberty Insurance, that in the UK for example, the reverse is true – newly qualified drivers actually see their premiums rise.
Why is that? Because newly qualified drivers are, theoretically at least, driving unaccompanied for the first time. They’re free to make their own, unsupervised decisions behind the wheel, they’re driving legally on motorways for the first time and it’s generally recognised that the mixture of euphoria at passing the test, continuing inexperience and youthful bravado and hormones makes the first six months after passing the test the most dangerous in any driver’s life.
The fact that premiums for insurance in Ireland actually fall after passing the test is possibly some sort of tacit admission that in fact many learner drivers have been driving unaccompanied or on motorways during their learning period, but poor enforcement of the rules has simply not caught up with them.
That could well change though. Liberty told us that although it doesn’t see any immediate rise in premium for N-plate drivers, the actuarial experts will be keeping a close eye on the situation and if there is any evidence that N-platers are showing signs of increased claims, then their premiums will go up significantly.
Starter car costs
Then there’s the thorny problem of the car itself. Starter cars are getting harder to come by for N-plate drivers. We’ve all known for some time about the increase in values of good used cars, following the drop-off in new car sales that accompanied the recession, but that hardening of values has seen the supply and price of small 1.0-litre engined cars (a crucial model for any new driver) get seriously difficult.
Glin Donnelly of Peugeot dealers Gowan Motors told us that “I think 1.0-litre cars are hard enough to come by at the moment. For a start, a lot of car makers shied away from 1.0-litre engines for a while, and made 1.1s or 1.2s. That’s starting to change now, but if your insurance company is insisting on a 1.0-litre model, it reduces the pool from which you can pick.
“Certainly the depreciation at that end of the market really is at its lowest, and it’s really down to affordability. What we’re seeing now is that the market is defined by necessity, not desire. You can put the nicest possible car on the forecourt but if it has high road tax or high running costs, it won’t sell.
“To be honest, a lot of younger drivers may now well find that buying second hand actually isn’t the best idea. With PCP plans and the rest, buying a new car with a 1.0-litre engine and getting affordable monthly repayments is often actually a better idea.”
Earlier this year, Motorcheck.ie undertook a survey of the hardening prices of second hand cars of up to ten years old. Prices had risen across the board, but the most significant increases were amongst the Nissan Micra and Toyota Yaris models we surveyed. Both cars are right in the wheelhouse for starter drivers - compact, reliable and with 1.0-litre engines to keep both he tax and insurance costs down. In 2010, a ten year old Micra would have set you back on average just over €1,900 and a Yaris €2,600. Fast forward to 2013, and a ten year old Micra is now costing just over €2,800 while the Yaris’ price has climbed to €3,600 – both increases of around €1,000 – a significant extra outlay for a young driver who is, presumably, working on a tight motoring budget.
So while the intentions of the new GDL system and the N-plates are laudable, there are further dangers lurking under the surface. Making the system one of enforcement and punishment, but with no provision for extra driving education, sends out precisely the wrong signal to new drivers. We need to be encouraging their development as drivers, not just coming down on them like a tonne of bricks when the inevitable mistakes occur.
Secondly, the increase in prices for exactly the cars that these younger drivers will need is concerning as it will push many of them into taking risks when buying. In order to get a car that falls within their budget, many young drivers will avoid the respectable forecourts of dealers and instead try and pickup a roadside or back-alley bargain. Many of these cars will be clocked, former write-offs or otherwise unfit for purpose. Far from making life on the roads safer for newly qualified drivers, we could just be making things much worse for them.