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Where did our drive go?

Monday 28th August 2017

Why young New Zealanders aren’t getting driver licences.


car keys, driving

Photo: Caitlin Regan/Flickr

“Pull into the park on your right and turn the car off,” my tester says, giving me one final instruction after 40 tense minutes of driving. Tense for me, at least.

I park the car and turn my head to look at the tester - an older man named Keith - who’s sitting beside me tapping away on an iPad.

“You did okay, I’m going to pass you.”

“Oh, thank God,” I breathe. Being a 28-year-old queuing behind two 16-year-olds at the VTNZ office was enough embarrassment for one day.

In 2016, only a third of people aged 15-24 had a driver licence compared with nearly half in 1989.

“Don’t worry, my daughter had her learners for 20 years before she finally passed,” the Keith says.

My story and that of his daughter are not uncommon. Research shows fewer young New Zealanders are getting a driver licence. In 2016, only a third of people aged 15-24 had a driver licence compared with nearly half in 1989.

This is despite multiple government initiatives to increase the numbers of qualified young drivers.

One example is the New Zealand Qualifications Authority introduced National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) credits for obtaining a driver licence in April last year.

I first began driving lessons at the age of 15 (the driving age was lower then). I’d studied diligently for my learner licence theory test and passed with only one incorrect answer. At the time, I was determined to be a go-getter by applying for my restricted as soon as possible and even had intentions of doing a defensive driving course to shorten the stand-down period in between licences to six months.

Instead, it took me just over 11 years.


I had begun collecting level one NCEA credits when I was 13 through music lessons outside of school. In my mind, the credits were like coins in a video game, each one contributing to what would hopefully be a large sum I could cash in at the end of high school for a place at a good university, tokens to trade for success.

If I had the opportunity to gain credits for getting a driver licence while at high school, would I have sat my restricted test sooner? I believe so. NCEA seemed like a big deal to me in high school. I mean, it was the key to my future. The incentive of credits would probably have been enough to make getting a licence more meaningful to my teenage self.

It wasn’t that I decided that I didn’t want a full licence, it just never seemed to be a priority. Living mainly in Wellington meant that having a car would actually probably be more of a hindrance than anything else.

The only reason I finally sat the restricted test was because I now have a need for a licence - I won’t be able to get the job I want without one.

Another government initiative, aimed specifically at Māori youth, was announced in May this year. Four million dollars will be spent to assist Māori aged 15-24 to get their licences, as well as other official documents like birth certificates and passports.

Labour has also proposed a $50 million a year “school leaver toolkit”, with the aim of helping students learn to drive, budget and have a better understanding of our political system.

The only reason I finally sat the restricted test was because I now have a need for a licence - I won’t be able to get the job I want without one.

Danie Lupp of DL Driving School has been a driving instructor for about 14 years. He believes the education system needs to play a bigger role in encouraging students to drive.

Danie was a contractor with the Automobile Association a decade ago. He says the AA were keen to get driving instructors at the time, but no organisation followed through because it was too complicated.

“It’s not encouraged in schools because it’s not PC, because some of the kids can’t afford to get a licence.”

He is pleased there is talk of bringing driving into schools again; he thinks the focus on theoretical education has led to a lack of practical skills.

“I think younger people these days seem to think a licence is a right so they don’t do enough driving. If you do the time, you’ll get the licence,” he says.

“It’s far more important than knowing when Napoleon invaded Russia.”

Four schools in the past year requested driving instruction for students from Danie. He has never been approached by a school before now.

The responsibility for driver testing was shifted to VTNZ in 2015. It had been held by another private company, New Zealand Driver Licensing Limited, for 16 years before that.

Danie believes it’s a “power game” regardless of which company oversees driver testing and would prefer to see licensing undertaken by a state-owned organisation.

“How do they make extra money? Squeeze through more people or fail some people,” he says.

“I reckon it’d be much better if the police still did it, they had older guys who were quite keen on driver testing.”

My driving tester is a retired cop who used to conduct driving tests for the police. He says the test is a bit different now, but mostly the job is pretty much the same.


The initiatives to increase the number of young people driving show the government wants us to get behind the wheel. However, with rapidly changing technology in the automotive industry, it might not matter if we don’t.

Earlier this year a Swiss concept car, the Rinspeed Budii, was displayed at the MTA100 Car Show in Wellington - the first time one has been brought to Australasia, let alone New Zealand.

The self-driving car is designed to adapt to its user by taking information from its surroundings and learning from its own “experiences”, according to the promo material.

The Transport Ministry has also been looking at possible scenarios for the future of transport, including self-governing and self-driving cars, and transport subscriptions akin to a mobile phone plan and car-share services.

In fact, the ministry says research from the International Transport Forum estimates only 30 percent of today’s vehicle fleet may be required.

Although I now have my restricted licence, I don’t have a vehicle and have no plans of getting one in the near future. Back in the day, both of my parents each had a car and a full licence when they were my age.

I’m not convinced that these options will have an effect on young people in the near future, because technology costs money.

A transport subscription or some kind of car-sharing community would probably give a city-dweller like me more opportunity to drive, without having to worry about long-term parking spaces and permits.

A car that couldn’t drive above the speed limit and could drive itself might also give people who find driving too stressful more transport options. However, I’m not convinced that these options will have an effect on young people in the near future, because technology costs money.

In six months, I will be able sit the final test for my full licence. It remains to be seen if I’m going to be a fully qualified driver anytime soon, or whether I’ll continue to follow the New Zealand trend of just putting it off for a few more years.

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Soumya is a journalist, blogger and traveller. Her ideal job would be getting paid to eat.
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