N-plates signal new regime for learner drivers

August 1st is D-day for latest measure aimed at reducing road fatalities

Learner drivers will have to swap L-plates for N-plates and display them for two years

Learner drivers will have to swap L-plates for N-plates and display them for two years


From August 1st, life for newly-qualified drivers will never be quite the same. Instead of just being able to tear-up the old L-plates, new drivers will have to start displaying N-plates – N for novice – which will have to stay on the car for two years.

As part of the new measures, N-plate drivers will be banned for six months if they rack up six penalty points, rather than the 12 for fully-qualified drivers. The application of penalty points for offences is also more draconian for N-plate drivers. Those caught speeding, using a mobile phone or not wearing a seatbelt will face double the penalty points incurred by regular motorists for such offences. N-plate drivers will also have a lower permitted blood alcohol limit – 20mg instead of 50mg for fully licenced drivers.

And if you just ignore the new system then be warned: failing to display your N-plate will also be a penalty point offence (two points) with a fine of up to €1,000.

Will such a heavy-handed system have the desired effect? “The purpose of the Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) system is to reduce the number of collisions, deaths and injuries among learner and novice drivers, particularly among the high-risk 17 to 24 year olds, during the learning to drive period and the period immediately after they pass their test,” said a spokesperson for the Road Safety Authority (RSA).

“Research tells us that novice drivers are most likely to be killed on our roads in the first two years after passing their test due to their inexperience. Therefore, these measures are designed to protect our most vulnerable road users so that they can become safe, competent and confident drivers, helping to ensure we have fewer collisions, fatalities and injuries on our roads.”

Stigmatising drivers Certainly there seems to be some efficacy in the move. In the North, the R-plate (R for restricted) system has been in use for some time, along with other high-profile road safety campaigns (including some especially lurid television ads), and the rate of deaths in road accidents has come down. At one point, that rate stood at 10 per 100,000 people.

According to the PSNI, although overall road accident injuries rose slightly in 2013 compared to 2012, the per-head-of-population figure has now fallen to six per 100,000 – a figure that is in line with the rest of the UK. It would seem then that, as part of a broader system, an N-plate could well be useful, albeit we are not following the North’s plan of restricting those drivers to a top speed of 45mph, or just under 80kmh.

However, other issues are being raised around the introduction of N-plates, and key among them is the potential problem of stigmatising those drivers carrying N-plates on their cars and the possibility that they may be subjected to increased insurance rates.

Dominic Finlay, head of corporate affairs and PR for Liberty Insurance, told The Irish Times that “initially we see no significant difference in insurance rates for those on N-plates as opposed to those passing their tests right now, who just go straight on to a full licence. In an actuarial sense, obviously, we will be looking at it, though, and if there is a need to raise rates then that will have to happen.”

Mr Finlay also pointed out that in the North and Britain, insurance rates for young drivers often increase after they pass their test. Insurers have found that learners who are driving with an experienced driver in the passenger seat are a lower risk than those freshly qualified and out on their own for the first time. Ireland’s tradition of a fall in insurance costs for those passing their tests can therefore be seen as something of a tacit admission that learner drivers here are often already doing significant mileage while unsupervised.

‘Bravado issue’ There is also the danger that an N-plate on the back of a car will too often be seen simply as a target for the ire of other drivers. “There is a risk of targeting,” said Mr Finlay. “You would hope that responsible drivers would be able to think back to the days when they themselves were learning, and give N-plate drivers appropriate space and time, but others may well show less patience. There is definitely a lot of intolerance out there.”

That view is echoed by Tony Toner, training director at the Institute of Advanced Drivers of Ireland. “Six months after you pass your test, that’s when you’re at the highest risk of an accident, there’s no doubt. You’re driving on your own for the first time, on motorways for the first time and there is a huge bravado issue, especially with the young male drivers. The sheer euphoria of passing the test puts them at risk.

“But identifying people with a plate? Whether it’s an N-plate or an ‘I support Manchester United’ sticker, I would preferably avoid anything that reinforces a stereotype. It will be far to easy for an N-plate to be seen as N for nuisance.

“The problem is that it’s so easy to bring in legislation like this and then it’s just left up to the front line to enforce it. And there’s a massive disconnect within the Government. At one end of the corridor, the Department of Education is saying that we have the brightest and best-educated kids in the world – and I’d say they’re right. Down the hall, the Departments of Transport is saying that the self-same youngsters are dangerous and uneducated when it comes to cars . . .”

Observant motorists will have noticed that since there was a crackdown on learner drivers out unaccompanied, the number of L-plated cars has dropped dramatically. Does that mean there are fewer learners or that more of them are reticent to draw attention to themselves with the plates? Might a similar situation arise with N-Plates? It seems that once more we are creating rules which, in the end, will be honoured more in the breach than the observance.

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