Periodically an argument surfaces in the media that we should raise the minimum driving age (currently 16) to 17 or 18 like in the UK or Europe.
We have a graduated driver licensing system or GDLS. This means that you progress through several levels of privileges before you can drive alone. New Zealand’s is learner, restricted, full for car drivers. This is to allow drivers to improve their skills while being supervised.
As a learner, the driver cannot drive without a supervisor (a person who has had a full licence for the same class of vehicle for at least two years). To become a learner driver, you have to pass the learner driver test.
Under a restricted licence, the driver can’t drive in certain circumstances or at certain times. A practical test is required to get a restricted licence and a full licence.
Why is 16 a sensible age to start driving in New Zealand?
16 is a compromise that allows people that live in rural areas where there’s no bus services a certain amount of mobility for employment purposes. In theory, a teen can access a restricted licence as young as 16 years 6 months, so for someone living and working in a rural area, this facilitates them travelling to a job and taking advantage of other opportunities.
For some families who have special needs (e.g. disabled caregiver) the ability for a 16-year-old to drive can have a massive positive impact on how they can assist the family.
Having a driver licence improves employability. If we delayed it until 18, then many children would be at university where it’s often more difficult to learn to drive because they have more debt, they often live in places where having a car is difficult (e.g. the central city), and they have less time. Then, when they leave university, they don’t have a driver’s licence, and that makes them less employable. Or, they go overseas and then don’t have the opportunity to get a New Zealand driver’s licence until they come back.
If the licence age is raised today, what happens to all those who already have a licence who are in the affected age bracket? There will be a level of confusion, plus a massive rush for teens to get in before the cut-off date (this happened when it changed from 15 to 16). This could create a pool of drivers who get through the test by luck rather than skill because they haven’t had enough time to practice.
The government and various agencies have huge amounts of marketing materials, brochures, information packs, websites and posters with the current ages and restrictions on them. Redoing this will cost in design and reprinting costs, not to mention that onerous cost of changing legislation and legal documents.
As New Zealand has a massive shortage of truck drivers, getting drivers into a class 1 licence as soon as possible so that they can progress to a class 2, 4 or 5 licence before they get entrenched in another career option helps feed candidates into the transport industry.
Would it be good to change the driving age?
There are potential benefits. It could possibly increase uptake of public transport which may have flow-on effects such as improving traffic and reducing vehicle emissions. It could allow some people to save more money before committing to a vehicle using finance and getting into debt. As there are fewer people driving, it could lead to fewer accidents and injuries (although, this may be offset by people who choose to bike or use another form of personal transport rather than drive).
The human brain doesn’t finish maturing until well into your 20s. Leaving driving until later may result in less impulsive behaviour.