Alasdair Suttie: Why we should raise the minimum driving age to 21

Should the minimum legal age for driving be raised to 21? Young drivers are the most vulnerable, so would this protect them?

Picture: PA
Picture: PA

Improving driving standards is an ongoing problem for governments and road users. While educating young drivers is essential, should we be looking at a more radical approach and raise the age when a newly qualified driver can take to the road unaccompanied, to 21?

At present, a new driver can be on the road shortly after their 17th birthday if they have the aptitude to pass the theory and practical tests in the shortest possible timespan. They might not be allowed to vote, buy an alcoholic drink or get married, but they can drive a potentially lethal vehicle on any road.

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While lots of young drivers take this new responsibility seriously, the facts show that plenty do not. Men aged 17-21 years old account for only 3% of the driving population, but are responsible for a third of all convictions for dangerous driving. Add to that the fact this age group is 10 times more likely to be involved in a fatal collision and itโ€™s clear this demographic poses a huge risk to themselves and all other road users.

However, itโ€™s not just young men, as statistics show women in the same age bracket are also increasingly involved in bad driving and drink-driving is on the rise in this category.

By raising the legal minimum driving age to 21 years old, it gives the developing brains of teenagers a chance to gain more experience of driving and life in general. The outlook of a 21-year-old who has perhaps worked for three years or been to university is very different to one that has just left school.

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Itโ€™s also well known in scientific circles that the 17-year-old brain is still developing and not a fully formed adult mind. When driving is such a complex process that involves thousands of decisions every minute to make sure the car is in the right position, at the right speed and fully in control, it seems almost crazy to let such young and inexperienced people have sole influence over the vehicle.

A higher minimum age limit for new drivers also creates more opportunity to instil good habits and sound judgement in new drivers. A blanket ban on drivers until they are 21 is not the best solution. Instead, we should look at teaching the skills needed to make safe drivers from 17 years old so they have four whole years in which to gain the knowledge and ability to cope with such a difficult and diverse range of demands.

Critics of this idea will say new drivers pose a danger, regardless of what age they are, and this is true to some extent. However, in countries such as Finland where new drivers are not just let loose on the road immediately after passing the test, the numbers show there are far fewer collisions per capita involving young drivers.

Far from being a barrier to driving, raising the age limit for a fully-fledged and trained driver to 21 years old is a chance to educate this vulnerable age group. Treat them with respect and help them become good drivers and the rewards benefit everyone.