Learner Drivers: Current and Proposed Legal Obligations

The stringent rules governing those who hold learner permits have featured frequently in news and media over the past number of years.  As part of the government’s campaign to increase road safety awareness, a plethora of changes have been introduced to our road traffic legislation, many of which affect learner drivers. The Road Traffic Bill 2012, if enacted, will see further and more severe restraints placed on those holding learner permits. This article will outline the legal rules which currently affect learner motorists as well as the proposed legal obligations with which learners must comply if the new Bill is passed into law.
For the past number of years, a learner motorist who drives a vehicle unaccompanied by a fully licensed driver is guilty of an offence. The accompanying driver must be in possession of a current driving licence for a continuous period of at least two years.  Although driving unaccompanied will not result in the learner incurring penalty points, the offence may attract a fine of up to €1,000.00.
“L” Plates:
Learner drivers must display “L” plates on their vehicles at all times. These plates are to be placed on the front and rear of the vehicle and must be clearly visible to other motorists. The letter “L” must be red in colour and appear on a white background. Failing to display L plates is a criminal offence and, like driving unaccompanied, attracts a fine of up to €1,000.00.
The above offences are perhaps those with which readers are most familiar. However, there are a number of other restrictions placed on learner motorists, which include the following:

  • Those holding learner permits are not permitted to driver a car drawing a trailer
  • Learner drivers are not permitted to drive on a motorway
  • Learner drivers may not carry other people for reward – i.e. operate a taxi-like service

In addition to the above, the drink driving limit for those holding learner permits is 20mg per 100ml of blood, which is considerably lower than the legal limit in place for fully licensed drivers.
“Operation Learner Driver” was carried out by An Garda Siochana in March 2012 and involved “spot-checks” on over 2,200 learner motorists. It was found that 43% of those stopped were not accompanied by a fully licensed driver and over 30% failed to display “L” plates.
The results of this operation were taken on board by the government, which resulted in the drafting of the Road Traffic Bill 2012. The Bill, which is expected to take effect in Summer 2013 is set to place further restrictions on learner drivers and will impose severe penalties on a learner who breaches his/her legal obligations.
The measures contained in the Bill will see learners incur two penalty points for driving unaccompanied. Failure to display “L” plates will also incur two penalty points.  As stated above, these offences do not attract penalty points under current legislation.
The Bill also proposes that penalty points incurred for speeding and using a mobile phone whilst driving will be increased from two to four respectively.
The Bill will reduce from twelve to six the number of penalty points a learner may accumulate before a suspension from driving is imposed. Therefore, under this proposed legislation, a learner motorist who incurs penalty points for both speeding and using a mobile phone whilst driving will have accumulated sufficient penalty points to result in a disqualification from driving.
As stated, the new Bill is expected to come into force in summer 2013 and it is worth noting that it will apply only to learner permits which are issued or renewed after the Bill is enacted.
Many are of the opinion that both current and proposed road traffic legislation places unduly harsh restrictions on learner motorists. Others feel that these restrictions are absolutely necessary to ensure a learner’s own safety and the safety of other road users. In any event, whether you agree with the latter or former,  if you are amongst the 270,000 persons in the State currently holding learner permits, it is essential that you familiarise yourself with your legal obligations as a learner motorist and  the consequences which follow as a result of flouting these obligations.
Thanks to Anne Keane, Apprentice Solicitor for researching this article.