Should driving test embrace telematics?
December 2017 has seen the biggest changes to the UK driving test in decades as would-be drivers face up to an examination that is designed to better reflect the reality of driving in the second decade of the twenty first century.
As well as removing some of the less practical aspects of the previous system in favour of more commonly performed manoeuvres, the new driving test will ask candidates to negotiate some of the more technological challenges of driving, including the use of sat nav.
From the 4th of December, new drivers will have to demonstrate their ability to use a sat nav safely. This is surely a good idea; it is thought that at least 15 million drivers in the UK now use sat nav technologies and, importantly, as many as one in seven drivers admit making dangerous driving moves in order to correct sat nav mistakes.
This latter statistic, which was obtained by data from road safety charity Brake, should be viewed as particularly worrying. Apparently, sat nav mistakes are not only resulting in ill-advised u-turns, they are also causing dangerous distraction, with one in fourteen drivers confessing to a near-accident as a result of sat nav distraction.
So, it would seem the new test system is finally recognising that although sat navs are useful they can result in drivers becoming distracted or complacent, sometimes to the point that they fail to pay proper attention to the road or even drive at dangerous speeds. This is not to say that sat nav use is not safer than old-fashioned map reading; researchers at Royal Holloway University of London have found that although sat nav use can result in increased speeds and reduced observational skills, it is still safer than trying to read a map at the wheel.
It is nowadays a well-known fact among the road safety community that distracted driving can be just as dangerous as drunk driving. Brake has long called for drivers to leave their smartphones alone while driving, to only manually engage with sat nav systems at the outset of journeys and to resist the temptation to eat and drink while driving.
“The sat nav is there to help you keep focused on driving rather than worry about directions, but it’s not there to make all the decisions for you,” says Julie Townsend, deputy chief executive of Brake.
“Driving is an unpredictable activity, so you still need to look at signs, particularly those warning of hazards or speed limits, and watch for people and unexpected problems. For many drivers there is an increasing array of technological temptations that can pose a deadly distraction; it’s essential to resist to ensure you and others arrive safely.”
However, it is tempting to think that the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) missed a trick in failing to consider other ways in which technology might enhance the driving test experience. For example, telematics car insurance is nowadays a popular option for young, new and prudent drivers. Surely, the DVSA might have considered the benefits of introducing some form of black box or telematics technology into its driving test?
According to data released by the British Insurance Brokers Association (BIBA) in 2016, the popularity of telematics insurance policies increased by 40% over the preceding 12 months and, crucially, it also found that drivers who have telematics insurance boxes installed in their car reduce their crash risk by around 40%.
Bearing these startling statistics in mind, would it perhaps have been sensible for DVSA to have required the installation of a telematics device into the vehicle of every driving test candidate? That way it would have been possible for candidates to see where they went right, where they went wrong, what they could do to improve and how they compared to other test candidates in the area.
However, even without such a radical move, the driving test changes have not proved uncontroversial. Driving test examiners are set to go on strike for 48 hours in protest against the changes. They say that the test will require them to work extra hours without the compensation of any additional pay.
As such members of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union are picketing test centres across the UK on Monday and Tuesday, with 84% of its members voting in favour of the strikes.
“PCS members in the DVSA have tried to negotiate around their concerns but the door has been slammed shut in their face,” commented PCS general secretary, Mark Serwotka. “They now feel they have no alternative but to take industrial action to bring home to the public how damaging the DVSA proposals are.”
And although the test changes have been welcomed by road safety experts such as AA president Edmund King and Road Safety GB chair Sonya Hurt, as well as by the 860 instructors and 4,300 students who have undergone trial of the new system, it is tempting to wonder whether it has gone far enough in integrating the various in-car technologies available today.