P is for prejudice: can P plates go mainstream?

P plate
A 'probationary' plate in action, yesterday
"We firmly believe that this education needs to start at an early age - long before they are old enough to even think about driving a car - with the inclusion of road safety on the national curriculum" Edmund King, the AA
  • | by Emily Bater

Despite passing my driving test six years ago, I still have P plates on my car.

No, I haven't had them for six years - until a couple of months ago I had barely driven since passing my test, which today is just a hazy memory.

Getting behind the wheel again, I found myself as nervous as a new driver and a lot rustier. When I got my very own Volkswagen Polo, I accessorised it with a classic tree air freshener and a set of bright green P plates.

P plates are a contentious subject for both new and experienced motorists. To many, they're a nuisance forced on you by your mum and something that can seriously damage your street cred.

But they can also give comfort and confidence while letting others know that you're still finding your wheels and could benefit from a few extra feet of space.

Do P plates prevent accidents?

Probationary ('P') plates are entirely voluntary as they're not required by the law, but there have been suggestions that they should be compulsory for all new drivers in their first 12 months.

In 2010 the Magistrates Association called for just this in a bid to reduce accidents involving new and young drivers, but it was dismissed by many as too difficult to police.

AA president Edmund King believes that while P plates give some drivers confidence, they're not widely used enough to impact on road safety.

Instead, he would rather see better educational initiatives targeting young drivers before they pass their test - not afterwards.

"We firmly believe that this education needs to start at an early age - long before they are old enough to even think about driving a car - with the inclusion of road safety on the national curriculum," says King.

He also thinks that changes to the learning to drive and driving test process could have an impact.

"Allowing learner drivers onto motorways with a qualified instructor would be beneficial," said King. "So would a mandatory logbook that ensured all learner drivers had experienced driving in a variety of different situations, such as night-time, rural and urban."

Making P plates cool

Ian McIntosh, CEO of RED Driving School, acknowledged that the first year of motoring is a critical time for new drivers as, although qualified, they have very little real experience. 

"Displaying a P plate is a very sensible idea as it's effectively asking other drivers to make allowances for the driver's inexperience," he said.

"Unfortunately, it is not an idea taken up by many new drivers and is potentially seen as an uncool thing to do.

"The challenge for road safety campaigners is to make it socially acceptable amongst newly qualified drivers… The use of a sign or label shouldn't say that the driver is nervous or uncool. It needs to say something celebratory - 'Hey, I passed and am now doing my best to be safe'.

"That is no easy task and RED Driving School is certainly not in favour of compulsion or legislation in this matter. It has to be socially acceptable."

McIntosh, who said that his organisation places a 'particular emphasis on safe driving', would like to see the P plate rebranded, citing the examples of motorbike and push-bike safety campaigns.

"Motorcyclists in the UK are increasingly adopting the use of high-visibility clothing which, although essentially uncool, is seen as a sensible option," he said.

"In addition, signs from the Bike Safe campaign are everywhere, making our roads intrinsically safer for bikers.

"It is unusual these days to see cyclists not wearing helmets but only a few years ago it would have been the opposite."

Do P plates affect insurance?

P plates are by no means required by law, and according to Gocompare.com's motoring expert Matt Oliver they make little difference to your car insurance either.

"P plates for 'probationary' drivers - whilst not compulsory - can give new drivers peace of mind and extra confidence whilst they make the transition from learner to fully qualified driver," said Oliver.

"They give other drivers fair warning of an inexperienced driver, particularly at danger points such as junctions or roundabouts and on the motorway.

"There's nothing to suggest that displaying P plates would be taken into account from a car insurance perspective, but many young drivers getting their first car insurance may find it beneficial to display them until they feel confident enough to drive without them.

"If you're a new driver and are looking for an affordable premium, aside from companies providing insurance for younger drivers you could think about getting a telematics (black box) insurance policy.

"This monitors your driving habits including where you drive, the speed you drive at and the time of day you travel, giving insurers peace of mind over the type of insurance risk you present."

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