ON THE ROAD

Our grandson has just got his restricted driver's licence. It's been in play for a couple of years while he's had lessons, practice, and gained confidence. Now he can drive solo with a few restrictions, the most important of which are zero alcohol and no passengers without a fully licensed driver on board.

He's off to university and the inter-generational conversation has been around what he needs to be wary of with his newly established independence and freedom. Lurking in the background, is the thought of his mate, who recently was out of an induced coma and faces six months' rehab, as the outcome of being the driver in a serious car crash.

But this is not a typical young school leaver. He will not need his licence yet for a job or even to get around. He has the next few years as a student mapped out and a student loan is available to cover living expenses.

The driver's licence though is more than just a licence to drive. It identifies you as a person in a universally recognised photo ID, with your age, the class of vehicle you can drive and your status as an organ donor. It's an item of value in the international black market as some international travellers find out.

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For many young people, gaining their restricted driver's licence is the first real qualification they might achieve. It signals an ability to set goals and a commitment to learning to achieve that goal. It is the one qualification that is universally important to helping young people to be employable.

An Auckland Chamber of Commerce study in South Auckland some four years ago, considered that a young person with a full or restricted driver's licence is three times more likely to secure employment than without.

In Mangere though, 83 per cent of 18-24-year-old job seekers were unable to apply for job vacancies in many industries because a driver's licence is a core competency.

The Mangere study also found at least half these job seekers either drove unlicensed, or in breach of their learner licence. Some of these kids are reluctant law breakers. They teach themselves to drive and then family circumstances may require them to take the wheel.

For many young people their first experience with the justice system is for driving unlicensed. Then if the fine is not paid, or the circumstances fixed early, their unemployability leads to a criminal spiral which is frighteningly intense.

Fixing the circumstances can be a huge hurdle for some. The cash cost of a full licence is about $350. Then there is the cost of the road code, access to a computer, access to driving lessons, mentoring to get experience and, finally, the ability to get a roadworthy car to the correct place for the test, which can be a real mission for those in the lower socio-economic group.

It makes sense that schools are part of gaining those employable skills and it is a Coalition Government commitment to "offer free driver training to all secondary students".

There's a tentative $1.7 million commitment to this promise in the current Budget and a pilot scheme at Napier's William Colenso College is showing some promise.

The pilot indicates that the cost of getting students to a full licence is about $1500 and it takes some real commitment from students and staff. One of the biggest challenges has been that about half of the parents of students in the scheme don't have full licences themselves.

Gaining a driver's licence is a valued rite of passage to adulthood and employment. It also helps to create a safer driving environment.

John Williamson is chairman of Roadsafe Northland and Northland Road Safety Trust, a former national councillor for NZ Automobile Association and former Whangārei District Council member.