Should we start driving in Ireland at 16?

European proposals could put 16-year-olds behind the wheel.
Neil Briscoe
Neil Briscoe

Published on May 3, 2023

Proposals by the European Union to allow 16-year-olds to drive speed-limited vehicles on the road are causing horror amongst safety campaigners and quite a stir in the Irish media, too.

The plans - which have grown out of earlier French and Finnish proposals - are in theory based around allowing 16-year-olds to drive vehicles limited to 60km/h and 1.5 tonnes. Clearly the original idea was that teens would be allowed to drive instant-rental vehicles, such as the Citroen Ami and Renault Twizy, but those original proposals seem to have been stretched to allow a maximum weight of 2.5 tonnes - a limit that would see some of the largest SUVs available for 16-year-olds to drive, albeit limited to a lower speed of 45km/h.

The European Transport Safety Council (ETSC), responding to reports of the proposals, has said that the EU should immediately scrap the idea, and that it is a "crazy idea."

Some have come out in support of the proposals, though. Notably, independent Kerry TD Michael Healy-Rae has said it could be a boon to rural dwellers. "There is nothing in the world wrong with it if it would help rural-dwellers to live where they are," was Healy-Rae's take on the matter.

At this point, it looks very unlikely that the proposals will get anywhere near the point of becoming legislation, not least because the EU's own research shows that there would be "an additional road safety risk, particularly for vulnerable road users."

"Does it really need to be said that putting children behind the wheel of an SUV is an absolutely dreadful idea? This proposal should be immediately consigned to the dustbin of history and effort should instead be put into making our roads safer for children to walk and ride a bike safely," said Antonia Avenoso, executive director of the ETSC.

The proposals are part of a general package of reforms and closer alignment between EU states when it comes to driver training and licensing. Also contained in the list of possible measures are common minimum standards for skills and road safety knowledge, as well as limits on drivers' physical and mental fitness to drive.

Of course, driving at 16 is common around the world, notably in America but even there, there is significant research that shows considerable differences between the potential safety of a 16-year-old and someone just a few years older.

A study by the influential American Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found that drivers aged between 16 and 19 are almost four times more likely per mile driven to have an accident than a driver aged 20 or more.

According to the IIHS: "Teenagers drive less than all but the oldest people, but their numbers of crashes and crash deaths are disproportionately high. The fatal crash rate per mile driven for 16-17-year-olds is about three times the rate for drivers 20 and older. Based on police-reported crashes of all severities, the crash rate for 16-19-year-olds is nearly four times the rate for drivers 20 and older. Risk is highest at age 16. Based on data from the 2016-17 National Household Travel Survey, the crash rate per mile driven is just over 1.5 times as high for 16-year-olds as it is for 18-19-year-olds."

There's more - a joint study carried out by the US National Research Council, US Institute of Medicine, and the Transportation Research Board found that: "Although adolescence is the healthiest period of the life span physically, a time when young people are close to their peak in strength, reaction time, immune function and other health assets, their overall morbidity and mortality rates increase 200 per cent from childhood to late adolescence. Many of the primary causes of death and disability in these years - which include crashes, suicide, substance abuse and other risky behaviours - are related to problems with control of behaviour and emotion.

"In the absence of stress and distraction, most teens function well, but this regulatory capacity can be easily overwhelmed by strong emotion, multitasking, sleep deprivation, or substance abuse. The particular risks posed to teen drivers by extra passengers, music, cell phones and other sources of stimulation or distraction begin to make sense when this aspect of teen development is understood."