Driving tests

Literacy and driving: how not being able to read affects your ability to drive

Literacy is a problem for over 40% of New Zealanders, with around 20% experiencing substantial literacy issues. At some point in New Zealand’s history, it was possible to get a New Zealand driver licence simply by taking a quick spin around the block with the local police officer. Nowadays, a theory test is required for new drivers and we have already outlined strategies for learner drivers with literacy issues. Other drivers can circumvent this, though: drivers from 24 countries, 19 of which drive on the right and 17 of which don’t speak English can simply swap their overseas full licence for a full New Zealand licence by presenting a form (which could be filled in by anyone).

Existing drivers fall into two categories:

  • Native New Zealanders who struggle reading English
  • Migrants who don’t read English (whether they can speak English or not)

16% of New Zealanders aged 25-65 and 23% aged 16-24 say that English is not their primary language and there are plenty of lower-paid jobs where literacy is not an absolute requirement (assuming the person has to work). Migrants who understand very little English but can read Roman characters (e.g. speakers of Western European languages) may be better placed to figure out what is on the sign than migrants whose language is written in other characters such as Cyrillic or kanji.

What are the dangers of low literacy when driving?

While most of our road signs have some form of pictorial representation, many don’t (including virtually all supplementary plates which describe the specific hazard or rule). A driver could theoretically drive past a ‘Road Closed’ sign, not understand it and end up in real danger. Similarly, a ‘flooding’ sign does not have a pictorial representation of the flood, just an exclamation mark. At nighttime, a driver may not understand the danger and could drive into deep standing water. Variable message signs tend to have longer messages, sometimes across multiple screens, warning of road closures, accidents, etc.

Drivers may be at greater risk of fines through not understanding local bylaws such as parking restrictions (time and area) and tow away signs.

Literacy can affect a driver’s ability to navigate if they can’t read the street names.

What should fleet managers do about driver literacy?

Care should be taken not to stigmatise your drivers. Literacy issues can be embarrassing for people and must be dealt with sensitively. Our Fleet Driver Plan and Learner Licence Plus courses both have full audio recordings of every question and drivers can use those questions to ensure that they know how to read road signs. Plenty of organisation can assist with literacy – search for a local one as they may have programs that are convenient and well-priced. Increased literacy among your drivers should lead to other efficiencies, too.

How is literacy measured?

Literacy is measured in 5 levels, 1 being the lowest.

Level 1 literacy is the ability to read simple documents, accomplish literal information-matching with no distractions, and perform simple one-step calculations. Drivers at the low end of level 1 literacy can struggle to read road signs (particularly variable signs with longer messages) given the added complication of speed as opposed to the message being able to be studied on a sheet of paper. Anything above level 1 should not present a problem for drivers.

Literacy varies depending on age. As we have better access to education now, younger people tend to have better levels of literacy than older people.

What can affect literacy levels?

Education is the primary influencer of literacy for native-born New Zealanders. It is easier to learn a language at a younger age, therefore, older migrants that don’t speak English are disadvantaged in that it takes much more effort to understand written and spoken English. Dyslexia can make it difficult for a driver to read a complex signage while driving at speed.

Is there any research on the influence of literacy on road safety?

We couldn’t find much. There is a study from Monash University which looked at Australian accidents. The authors stated that the main issue is lack of data. Police crash reports don’t store the ethnicity or literacy ability of road users involved in accidents. A study in Nigeria found that illiteracy was one of the major factors in commercial drivers not being exposed to safe driving campaigns.

Therefore we have to consider a commonsense approach: if a driver can’t read road signs or street signs, they are missing information that is placed on the road to be important to road users. If a driver hasn’t had to take a theory test in New Zealand they are unproven as to their understanding of the road rules.

driver training

Darren is a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists and the NZ Motoring Writers' Guild

Posted in Advice
When was the last time you checked your Road Code knowledge?

Try some tests for free!

Road Code car quiz

Road Code motorbike quiz

Road Code heavy vehicle quiz