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Is it fair for learner drivers to get points on their licence?

By Samantha Noble & Liam Barnes
BBC News

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionLearner drivers are liable for any offences committed on lessons

It is safe to say that when learning to drive, you want your journey from beginner to expert to be as smooth a ride as possible. But what happens when things go wrong?

On 3 November, Joseph Bell went through a nerve-racking rite of passage.

After a safe and assured performance the 18-year-old, from Mapperley, in Nottingham, passed his driving test at the first time of asking, allowing him to gain a full licence and help out his mother with family trips.

However, the experience of learning to drive was a more hair-raising one than it otherwise might have been, thanks to a mistake he made during a driving lesson with his former instructor.

image copyrightGaynor Bell
image captionJoseph Bell passed his driving test on his first attempt with only one fault mark

In December 2019, Joseph was with his instructor in a dual-control car when he was caught stopping over the line at traffic lights by an automatic camera.

The incident lasted seconds and there were no oncoming cars or pedestrians present.

However, Joseph was sent a letter from Nottinghamshire Police about the infraction.

Despite writing to the force to highlight the circumstances he was handed a fixed-term penalty of £100, as well as being given three points on a licence that was still only provisional.

Joseph - backed by his mother Gaynor - decided to fight the case and, with the help of barrister Bruce Stuart, took it to court where he was granted an absolute discharge.

Following the hearing, Mr Stuart said the police had shown "a complete lack of judgement" in bringing the prosecution.

But many learners would have been surprised to find that mistakes made during lessons with an instructor can count against them.

How many learners are affected by points?

image copyrightOther
image captionAn automatic camera caught the car driven by Joseph Bell (left) waiting past a red light at a junction on Colwick Loop Road

According to statistics from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA), more than 65,000 learner drivers in Britain have points on their provisional licence before passing their test.

Out of that total, 1,803 have more than 10 points - 1,588 males and 215 females.

If a driver is given six points within two years of passing, their licence will be taken away from them and they will be forced to retake the test under the New Drivers Act.

Any penalty points on a provisional licence will be carried over to a full licence after passing, so the stakes are high when learners slip up when behind the wheel.

Joseph said taking the points would have left him "driving on a knife edge", desperately worrying about committing another minor offence and having his licence revoked.

The cost of insurance for young drivers is, many feel, already unnecessarily prohibitive and points only exacerbate that.

Joseph said the points would also have added "at least £1,000" to his insurance.

His absolute discharge, "has made it a lot more feasible and realistic to get a car. It does not look like such a pipe dream any more," he said.

Why are learner drivers penalised if they are in a dual-control car?

image copyrightBruce Stuart
image captionBruce Stuart has called for more leniency when dealing with minor road and traffic offences by learners, particularly when on lessons with professionals

Practical driving lessons are typically done alongside experienced instructors in dual-control cars.

Ms Bell - Joseph's mother - said punishing learner drivers when on lessons "does not seem fair in any capacity".

"When you are in a dual-control vehicle, I cannot see the logic behind police treating them in the same way," she said.

Mr Stuart said the legal situation is clear: instructors can only be prosecuted for aiding and abetting the driver.

In Joseph's case, he said the fact the offence was recorded on an automatic camera affected the police response to the incident.

"They become intransigent when there is a camera involved," he said.

"If it had been a policeman in a car, he would have pulled them over and that would have been it."

He called for more leniency when dealing with minor road and traffic offences by learners, particularly when on lessons with professionals.

"The consequences are huge," he said. "I don't know what they are expecting of a learner."

Should driving instructors be prosecuted for learners' mistakes?

image copyrightRichard Martin
image captionRichard Martin said there is an "inherent danger" in taking the responsibility away from the learner

Mr Stuart, who runs a driving law website, said: "In my view if you're on a lesson with an instructor, there should not be a prosecution - if anyone should be prosecuted it is the driving instructor."

However Richard Martin, 56, who has been a driving instructor for six years, said if the instructor were made fully culpable, problems would arise when students did not listen.

"There is an inherent danger in saying it should be the ADI's [approved driving instructor's] responsibility as you are then taking the responsibility away from the learner," he said.

Mr Martin, a retired police officer from Ripley, Derbyshire, said if instructors got six points on their licence they had to be reviewed, so if they were forced to take points for learners' mistakes it could put their careers on the line.

"Instructors would say, 'I am not going to take that risk,'" he said. "We all have an image of learners going at 5mph but mostly they very quickly come up to speed and are being taught to be responsible for their own actions."

Rebecca Ashton, from road safety charity IAM Road Smart, said provisional licence holders should be able to get points on their licence.

"Driving a vehicle, even as a learner, includes taking responsibility to drive to the best of your ability and within the law," she said.

"When it comes to prosecution each case should be looked at on an individual basis."

She added she was not aware of a high number of cases involving learner drivers on lessons but added: "If there are high numbers, maybe we need to look at making driving instructors equally responsible".

Matt French, Joseph's former driving instructor who was with the teenager when he crossed the line, said: "There are plenty of situations where learners should not receive points but I don't think the answer is to put the responsibility on the instructor."

He said the system was "very black and white" but when somebody was learning to drive, there were grey areas.

"Sometimes, yes, it is the learner's fault, but you can't hold them responsible because they are a learner," he said.

In Joseph's case, Mr French said he had not stepped in with the dual controls as it appeared the car was stopping.

"He had been slowing down for 100-150 yards so, from my perspective, he was stopping for this red light," he said.

"He just did not do the final bit of braking. It is a tiny, tiny mistake that you would expect from a learner."

He added he was "ecstatic" Joseph was given an absolute discharge and he, "thought it was incredibly unfair it was followed through to any court situation".

What do the police say?

image copyrightPress association
image captionThe police say learner drivers must follow the rules of the road

Following Joseph's case, Nottinghamshire Police were criticised for pursuing the prosecution but the force has defended its decision.

Insp Simon Allen said there is "no mitigation for learner drivers when committing a traffic offence" and it was the job of officers "to uphold the law".

"The safety of all road users is paramount, which is why the law holds learner drivers equally accountable and they must ensure that they follow the rules of the road," he said.

Was it worth going to court?

image captionJoseph and Gaynor Bell said they were "frustrated" by the decision to prosecute but relieved at the absolute discharge

Although Joseph was fortunate to find pro bono representation, Mr Stuart said being granted an absolute discharge was extremely rare - in fact, this was only the fourth such ruling he had seen in 40 years of practising.

He called for better access to legal representation for young drivers.

"Because there is no legal aid for this sort of offence, it forces people to accept punishment... they can't afford to do anything else," he said.

Joseph's mother, a single parent, said appealing the points was "stressful", given that it occurred around the time of her son's year 12 exams.

Had the court case been unsuccessful in quashing the points she said it could have affected his confidence.

She has another son who requires 24-hour care and she said Joseph being able to drive will help ease pressure on family life.

As for Joseph himself, he said it was a "great relief" to pass and he was saving for a car.

He said: "I've thought about driving for ages and when you finally pass... it is an amazing feeling."

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Related Topics

  • Motoring
  • UK driving licence
  • Road safety

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