That’s when changes to the restricted and full driving tests were brought in by the New Zealand Transport Agency.
By mid-April, after almost 9000 attempts, more than half of those sitting the tests were failing, said Fairfax reporter Michael Forbes.
“The overall pass rate is 41 per cent, up slightly from 38 per cent after the first month of testing under the new regime, but well below the pass rate of about 80 per cent under the old system.”
That, he said, is almost 600 failed tests each week since the tougher tests were introduced.
What tends to be forgotten with the statistics is the human face behind the numbers.
My young friend James is one of the 600 struggling under the new regime. He’s just failed for the fourth time.
His name’s not really James, but he is a considerate, careful driver – I can say this, because I taught him.
For the last few months James, a family friend, has been boarding with us in Gordonton, 15km north of Hamilton.
There is no public transport into town. For our household, this has meant rising early to get him to work by 8am, battling rush-hour traffic. And then we repeat the process at day’s end.
On his third attempt James failed without even driving. I dropped him at the testing station, headed off on a walk – an hour is a long time to wait – and received a call saying he’d failed. A rear brake light wasn’t working; it was fine when he checked it in the morning. I offered to get another car, a friend lived just minutes away, and was told we were two minutes over time.
That will be another $86 please.
Standing outside the AA testing office, I talked with two other parents. One almost in tears, both distressed.
Marcella has only been in the country six years, and struggles with English. Her son was on his third attempt. She has to drive him in from near Cambridge to attend university and take his driving tests. He failed this attempt.
The other parent – let’s call him Bob – was articulately ropeable. Two sons in his family, five failed tries. Older son Matthew was out on his third attempt while I talked with him, and the younger son, Jim, had failed twice before passing.
That afternoon Bob emailed. Matthew was successful. Relief all around, he said.
But he’s still fuming.
The whole exercise has been hugely stressful, depressing and expensive. The week prior was particularly tough.
“Matthew’s work required two 5.30am starts… I had to get up at 4.50am to be his licensed passenger. Between the two of us we managed to wake the rest of the household.”
The younger son – we were calling him Jim remember – is studying at Wintec, with many 8am starts.
“Up until now, I would travel north at 7.40am with Matthew and my wife would go south to the city, with Jim. In our case the public transport system was inadequate.”
Living Streets Hamilton’s Judy McDonald is concerned at the consequences of the tougher new driving test. She has just made a submission to the Waikato Regional Council on the issue.
“Young people are sitting the test multiple times, failing multiple times; the failure rate is roughly 60% and until they gain their restricted licence, they are completely unable to transport themselves. This poses a huge burden to their families, both financially and in terms of time. It would not be an issue at all if alternative transport was available, as it is almost anywhere else in the world.”
Living Streets feel that the government has an obligation to the public to provide adequate funding for public transport services so people can still get to school, work and other essential services.
The changed test has impacted on his whole family, says Bob.
“I have lost work time in having to be ‘there’ as a licensed passenger, and the loss of work or study time for our sons as they need to take time off to do and redo the test.”
One of the times Matthew was so distressed at being ‘unjustly’ (his words, says his father) failed, he couldn’t face going to work the rest of the day – and didn’t want to tell his boss.
“Parent/son stress ensued as I told him to get a grip on himself and think about how this may affect his employment.
“The whole thing has created a sense of hopelessness, sadness, frustration and decreased self-esteem. This has been added on top of the young adult’s emotional roller coaster of life. It’s also created an increased dislike for ‘the system’ and caused unnecessary quarrels in our family on how unjust the test is now.”
Reporter Michael Forbes talked with a driving school director who said people were failing on what she considered minor criteria. “Some of the test failings are pretty pedantic. We had one lady, in her 60s or 70s, who said she was failed for not checking her mirror every two seconds. That seems far too often to be checking your mirror.”
The test now lasts an hour, 45 minutes of which is on the road. The number of errors an applicant can make has been reduced – the test is terminated if the driver commits at least two errors, regardless of severity, rather than one very bad error, as was the case before. It’s a bit confusing to get one’s head around, frankly.
Marcella was not sure why her son failed a third time. Possibly it was because he had a momentary lapse of concentration and didn’t indicate coming off a roundabout.
Bob talked with her while I retreated inside with James, where he handed over another $86 for another test.
He says her son is naturally gutted about it. “My understanding is these extra driving test costs have impacted on this family very badly. They haven’t very much money and I think the costs are coming from their food bill.”
The new driving tests are turning out to be very expensive, he says. “I can see a likely scenario where the lower socio-economic class will simply forgo their opportunity to become a licensed driver, thereby increasing their barriers to succeed in life. This has to be a negative factor for the long term New Zealand economy.”
In Bob’s case, Matthew had two non-critical errors. One was accidentally flicking the indicator while turning; the other hesitating too long at a Give Way.
On his recent test, his fourth time, James also made two errors; failure to indicate coming out of a parallel park and ‘poor gap judgement’ – not using a median strip when turning right from a T-junction during rush hour.
I haven’t been poring through the road code lately, but I’m sure there’s no rule requiring the latter. And isn’t this the kind of skill that comes with time?
The NZTA say the changes have been brought in to reduce needless road deaths and improve the standard of young and novice drivers.
Yes, yes, boy racers and bad driving abound – and not just among the young. But after my experience of what this has meant to James and those near him over the last few months, I think we’ve got it all wrong.
This, I am certain, is not the best way to educate our young people about the perils of the road, or how to be responsible, safe drivers.
James will get his licence. But at what cost?
By Annette Taylor
- If you’ve had a similar experience or have an opinion on this, discuss it in the comments section below.