Should supervised hours be mandated for Learners and as high as 120 hours?
All six Australian States (but neither Territory) have introduced a mandatory minimum number of supervised driving hours for Learners before they can apply for the Provisional licence tests. The number of hours varies, ranging from 25 to 120 hours, with some States specifying that up to 20 hours must be driven at night.
The minimum ages at which Learner and Provisional licences can be obtained also vary by jurisdiction, as well as the minimum time a driver must hold a Learner licence – between 6 to 12 months (with some exemptions for applicants over 20 years of age). For example, in New South Wales and Western Australia the minimum Learner age is 16 and Provisional age 17 and the Learner licence must be held for 12 months. A minimum Learner age of 16 also applies in Victoria, but the minimum Provisional age is 18 – therefore, a 24-month delay, despite only having a 12-month Learner requirement.
These differences contribute to variations in Learner driving experience. In Victoria, prior to introducing a minimum requirement, research found that Learners averaged about 83 hours, while a (non-representative) study of over 20,000 drivers in New South Wales found an average of 67 hours. The Victorian study also found that those getting their Learner’s licence at the minimum age of 16 reported more driving experience (108 hours) compared to those waiting until they turned 17 (49 hours).
Whether there is an optimal number of supervised driving hours and what that number might be are issues currently under debate, particularly since the recent trend towards mandating 100-120 hours (New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria). There is limited research evidence to inform this debate. In an early study in Sweden, which has the same minimum age and Learner period requirements as Victoria, drivers who gained their Learner licence at 16 years and averaged close to 120 hours of supervised driving had significantly fewer crashes when on their equivalent Provisional licence compared to those who waited until 17 years and averaged close to 50 hours. Norway changed it’s licensing requirements to be the same as those of Sweden (and Victoria), but found few young people chose to begin learning at the earlier age of 16 and subsequently did not find any crash differences. In other parts of Europe, countries such as Austria and France have alternatively introduced a minimum total distance of supervised driving (3000km) with mixed results – Austria reported crash reductions, while France did not.
Setting a minimum number of hours aims to ensure Learners have sufficient driving experience, but the number of hours does not necessarily indicate the quality of that driving experience. What is important is that the Learner drivers experience as wide a range of driving situations as possible while in the very low crash risk conditions of being supervised before they must face those experiences on their own. A quality Learner experience should include driving in a wide range of conditions as possible:
- At different times of day, particularly at night.
- On weekdays and weekends.
- In different weather conditions.
- In different traffic volumes.
- On different types of roads.
- At different speeds.
- For different trip durations.
- Eventually including other passengers.
This variety in experience is only likely with a parent or other “lay” supervisor over many driving trips and hours, and typically might be complemented by but not replaced by professional driving instruction, short courses or in driving simulators.
Requiring a large number of driving hours can extend the Learner period for those who might otherwise rush through it, and can increase the range of experience the young driver obtains. Preliminary research in Victoria since the introduction of a minimum of 120 hours suggests the more complex driving situations may not be experienced until the Learner has had considerable on-road time; typically not until 90 hours or more.
While a minimum requirement of 50 hours of supervised driving for Learners is common nationally and internationally, three Australian States have set the requirement at 100-120 hours. This raises issues for many young drivers who are disadvantaged by lack of ready access to either a supervisor or vehicle or both, those in small and remote communities, those financially disadvantaged and also those in families with more than one child of Learner age, or where the only available vehicle is a parent’s company car that the young driver is not eligible to drive.
Preferred alternatives are to seek incentives to encourage a greater number of driving hours during the Learner period; for example, reduced fees for the Provisional licence or reduced insurance premiums.
Learner driver assistance schemes are also needed where volunteer supervisory drivers can help provide the supervised practice needed without great cost to the young driver.
A greater amount of supervised practice increases exposure to a variety of driving conditions and therefore it is recommended that Learners get as much and as varied supervised practice driving as possible. Mandating a high number of supervised driving hours can help increase the quality of the experience gained and be protective of crashes, but can also unfairly disadvantage certain youth and therefore strong support systems are needed before mandating as high as 100-120 hours.
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