25 April 2023

A ‘graduated driving license’ would be another step on the road to Peter Pan Britain


My first driving instructor was terrible. Not in the sense of outright incompetence or active malice, but because he appeared to lack any belief in my ability to drive.

Session after session, he would drive me to his favoured residential estate in the neighbouring town and then we would drive slowly round it. Next week, same thing. It did little for my confidence; the road beyond the turning must be a scary place indeed, if it took this long to prepare for it.

Eventually I hired a different instructor, who got in the passenger seat and told me to drive to the neighbouring town. And I did. When she taught my brother, he did so on his very first lesson.

I think about this often. It is a striking personal illustration of an important truth: that people cannot grow into responsibilities until they are given the chance to shoulder them. 

And that means taking risks. There is danger on the roads. But you can’t know you’re ready to fly before leaping from the nest. But if you never leap, you’ll never fly at all.

With that in mind, let’s talk about the abysmal proposal to ban drivers under the age of 25 from carrying young passengers, which the Government is apparently considering after pressure from road safety campaigners.

It is a useful heuristic that any law named after an individual – not a sponsoring legislator, but a victim – will be a bad law, born not out of a detached attempt to balance costs and competing claims of freedom and safety but an (often slightly hysterical) effort to ban the circumstances of an individual tragedy, by whatever means.

This proposal is not yet called ‘Caitlin’s Law’. But it has precisely such an unpromising genesis; the leading advocate for it is Sharon Huddleston, whose 18-year-old daughter was killed, along with a friend, in a traffic collision a few months after getting her licence. She told the Times:

‘There is nothing I can do to bring Caitlin back but I am determined, in her memory, to ensure that no other family goes through the pain and agony that we go through every day.’

In all of politics, there are probably few campaign assets more potent than a grieving mother. But it does not follow that grieving mothers make good policy. And this is not good policy.

Let’s deal with a couple of obvious problems. The first is simultaneously acknowledged and trivialised in the paper:

‘There is also concern that young drivers could see any restrictions as unfair because the age group is responsible for fewer collisions than the over-85s.’

Honestly, ‘could see any restrictions as unfair’. It isn’t the young whose eyesight is failing, is it? Such restrictions, with no parallel regime for senior citizens, would be grossly unfair.

It would also knock the legs completely from any suggestion that this was just about the safety statistics. But more on that in a moment.

The second obvious issue is: 25?! That’s an insane number. It means that somebody could take a gap year, complete an undergraduate degree, take that panic Masters, and still be two years into the world of work before they could give their friends a lift.

At a stroke, the (legal) worlds of Gen Z and all who follow them would shrink dramatically, especially those who don’t live in London or another large city. Another clutch of milestones on the road to adulthood – the thrill of not needing to beg your parents for lifts, the uni road trip – would be torn down.

It’s a recipe for a childhood, or at best a super-extended adolescence, that extends deep into what even recently was considered adult life. 

This isn’t a new phenomenon, by any means. Each generation seems less and less prepared to afford its children the freedoms it managed to navigate in its own youth.

Everyone probably has a moment when they realise they went to school in The Past. Mine was driving past my old high school to see it completely surrounded by forbidding black gates and fencing.

It does not suggest an institution which would tolerate sixth formers driving out to the nearby countryside during lunch and free periods, as we did. Such conduct, a relic of the fact that when the leaving age was 16 those taking A Levels were volunteers, seems as out of place in such a setting as the idea of making ashtrays in metalwork class (or indeed, the very idea of metalwork class) did in mine.

So people leave school less equipped for the freedoms of university than before, and so in turn higher education gradually stops treating students as independent adults and starts developing extensive duties of care.

Time marches on, of course. But as I recently argued with respect to the bullying allegations against Dominic Raab, the mere fact of an evolution in social attitudes doesn’t make that evolution good.

Nor should it blind us to the huge role the law, society, and institutions play in shaping that evolution. If the under-25s are treated as teenagers, then they will remain teenagers – and this, in turn, will justify their treatment in the patronising eyes of their elders.

Most importantly, this spans not just specific proposals such as this, or raising the smoking age, or whatever, but the entire economic order which consistently deprives younger people of the chance to acquire the foundations and rewards of an independent, adult life – a home, a family – as their parents did.

All that gets much easier to justify if society stops thinking of them as adults at all. ‘What does she want her own flat for? She can’t even drive passengers yet!’

Coming soon to Boomer Twitter, no doubt. That is why the fatality statistics for younger drivers seem to weigh more heavily than those of the aged, despite being lower.

What makes this trend truly monstrous, however, is that what society is taking away with one hand, the material universe is not giving with the other. The modern, super-extended adolescence is just encroaching deeper and deeper into a life that remains cruelly finite.

Perhaps life expectancy will tick up, a bit. And perhaps improved health will mean a few more years on the golf course rather than in the retirement home.

But female fertility still peaks in the 20s and starts to decline at about 30, just as it always has. In Sharon Huddleston’s world, the time between a woman gaining full recognition as an adult and the time when having a child becomes an increasingly more expensive and uncertain process would be just five years.

As Sam Dumitriu of Britain Remade has pointed out, the average age of a first-time mother in Britain is already over 29 and trending towards 30.

How much higher will it climb as future generations, each less equipped for adulthood than the last, come of age? When people who had neither permission nor means to have their fun when their parents did push back, for understandable reasons, the shouldering of the ultimate responsibility? 

And how many, as they find themselves growing old without having been given the opportunity to grow up, will miss out on families altogether?

Sharon Huddleston’s grief does not make her mission to ‘ensure that no other family goes through the pain and agony that we go through’ either laudable or even possible. Every freedom entails risk: the safest road is a closed road; the safest person is the one in a straitjacket.

The quest for perfect safety from harm and loss debilitates society just as it debilitates an individual; it stems from the same inability to see and fairly weigh the rewards of the futures we foreclose through excessive caution.

Not every death is a policy failure, and the undoubted pain of individual loss is not grounds for turning life into a soft-play area or asylum. A free society has its risks, and those include hairpin bends, black ice, and oncoming vans.

It is beyond the power of any law to prevent people dying, before their time or not. But it is well within the power of the state to stop people from living. That is precisely what this plan for a graduated driving licence would do. 

If this hugely misguided proposal does become law, we can only hope the youth of today have spirit enough to ignore it. At least when Peter Pan was trapped as a child, he and his friends could fly.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.