When I hear the term ‘learner driver’, I automatically imagine a 17-year-old racing along the road, music blaring from open windows, slapping on the brakes without slowing down in gears, the mobile phone attached to the ear.

I’m biased, of course. It’s the endless litany of tragic deaths of young drivers on our roads that have gone to my head. That and having a few terrifying experiences on the roads (a recent experience on the unsurfaced section of the Tramore Road springs to mind, when a L-plate adorned car attempted to overtake me despite the line of traffic cones in the centre of the road).

Before younger readers jump down my throat, I hasten to add that these experiences are not always the fault of young or L-Plate drivers. But when you see those shockingly effective adverts on RTE featuring the relatives of people who died behind the wheel, they’re invariably youngsters who have limited driving experience. As the Road Safety Authority says, though statistics do not reflect the depth of pain and suffering caused to families and communities by a death on our roads, they must nonetheless be used as a means of measurement. And the statistics state that the highest rate of road fatalities in Ireland is amongst young men in the 17-24 age group. The majority of learner drivers are in this age group.

The behaviours that cause collisions result mostly from the inexperience of the driver and the evidence suggests a heightened risk in the case of young males who are more likely to engage in risk taking behaviour. And when I cross the road holding my young child by the hand, I cannot help but imagine that the driver of the car with the L-plates in the distance fits that stereotype.

I’m sure if I was a teenage learner driver, I’d feel my civil liberties were being severely infringed upon by the Government’s proposed Graduated Driver Licensing System, which aims to address the high risks new drivers face by allowing them to get their initial driving experience under low-risk conditions. But while I’ve always liked to give voice to the views of young people in this newspaper (and, I admit, stir a few cauldrons while I’m at it), I have to offer my support to an initiative that is simply bound to save lives.

The introduction of zero alcohol limits for learner and newly-qualified drivers is amongst proposals the public has been asked to consider as part of the Road Safety Authority’s new licensing system. An eight-week consultation process was launched this week and the public have been offered the chance to voice their opinions on such proposed measures as night-time driving restrictions for learner and newly-qualified drivers. They also include restrictions on the number of passengers these drivers can carry and the power of the vehicle they can drive, along with increased penalty points, an upgraded driving test and hazard perception testing.

Such schemes have already been highly successful elsewhere in the world in reducing the number of road deaths amongst young and inexperienced drivers. In the US, where motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teens, research suggests that the most strict and comprehensive graduated driver licensing systems are associated with reductions of 38% and 40% in fatal and non-fatal injury crashes, respectively, of 16-year-old drivers.

The only independent evaluation of a graduated licensing system has been in New Zealand, where a sustained reduction in teen driver crash injuries was attributed to the programme. Four studies of either a general curfew or a nighttime driving restriction for teens, a key element of graduated licensing, found substantial crash reductions during restricted hours, with 23%-25% lower crash injury and fatality rates for curfews beginning prior to midnight. How can we argue with that?

Young drivers (and everyone else) can have their say on the proposed system. The closing date for receipt of submissions is Friday 13 March 2009. Comments can be emailed to gdlconsultation@rsa.ie or they can be posted to GDL Consultation, Road Safety Authority, Moy Valley Business Park, Primrose Hill, Ballina, Co. Mayo. Copies of the consultation paper can be found on the RSA’s website www.rsa.ie by requesting it from gdlconsultation@rsa.ie or by contacting the RSA on locall 1890 50 60 80.