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by Tim Beissmann

Most of Australia’s P-platers are prevented from driving some of the safest cars on the road because transport departments have fundamental misunderstandings of automotive technology. Even more disturbingly, perhaps, bureaucratic ineptitude means probationary drivers remain allowed behind the wheel of some extreme high performance vehicles without any form of restriction whatsoever. Other fatal flaws in the system mean many older cars lacking critical safety features also remain on younger drivers’ shopping lists.

The Caterham Seven Roadsport SV 175 is powered by a 129kW/177Nm naturally aspirated (non-turbocharged or supercharged) four-cylinder engine. Because of its lightweight design, the Caterham accelerates from 0-100km/h in a blistering 4.9 seconds. The Roadsport has no airbags, no ABS and no electronic stability control (ESC). Any P-plater in the country is allowed to drive it.

Compare that with the Volkswagen Golf 77TSI. It is powered by a turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine that produces 77kW of power and 175Nm of torque. It has a 0-100km/h acceleration time of 10.6 seconds – more than double the Caterham. The Golf is equipped standard with seven airbags, ABS and ESC, making it one of the safest vehicles in its class, yet P-Plate drivers must apply for an exemption to drive this vehicle.

State government road regulators do not understand current automotive technology in this context. Turbocharging is no longer an extreme performance measure as it has been in the past. Today, many brands – especially Europeans including Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Peugeot and Volkswagen – equip their petrol engines with turbochargers, allowing them to downsize their engines, boosts efficiency, and leads to a significant reduction in both fuel consumption and emissions. These manufacturers also have a solid reputation for producing some of the safest vehicles on the road.

The transport authorities’ collective understanding of diesel technology is also well beyond its ‘use-by’ date and is dangerously uninformed. Diesel engines are no longer restricted to big, labouring four-wheel drives. Many European manufacturers produce sports-oriented turbo-diesel vehicles that easily outperform their petrol counterparts.

The BMW 535d has a 3.0-litre six-cylinder turbo-diesel engine with 220kW and a whopping 600Nm of torque, delivering 0-100km/h in 5.7 seconds. It has around three times more power and torque than the Golf, yet it’s approved for any P-plater, no questions asked.

Then there are the Jaguar XF and XJ models, which feature a 3.0-litre V6 diesel engine with not one, but two turbochargers. P-platers are not required to apply for an exemption to drive either of these vehicles.

Despite all of this, the government believes the system is working effectively to keep inexperienced drivers out of dangerous vehicles.

“Given that probationary drivers are significantly overrepresented in fatal road crashes and overall, the approach used since 2007 is considered to provide the best way of ensuring that higher performance vehicles are not driven by inexperienced drivers,” VicRoads said in response.

Admittedly, vehicles like the Caterham, BMW and Jaguars mentioned above all come with a high price tag. But the naïve generalisation that P-plate drivers cannot afford expensive cars is no justification for a flawed system – especially for one that is purportedly designed to improve road safety and save young lives.

Electric vehicles are also providing plenty of confusion for the authorities. Over the past month, the official status of the Tesla Roadster 2.5 Sport has changed three times – at least in relation to P-plate accessibility. The 215kW/400Nm electric supercar was ‘Under Review’ for a short time before being ‘Approved’ for an even shorter period. In the past few days, it has been removed completely from the online database with no explanation.

The anomalies don’t just exist among new vehicles. There are thousands of older vehicles that combine relatively high performance and few advanced safety features, and yet these are approved for P-plate use under the system.

For example, the 2007 Ford Falcon XR6 came standard with just two front airbags and ABS. Side airbags and ESC were optional, curtain airbags were not available at all. The Monash University Accident Research Centre has given the 190kW/383Nm Falcon a three-star Used Car Safety Rating. The Falcon is approved, while the 77kW/175Nm five-star ANCAP safety-rated Golf requires an exemption.

When presented with the examples above, VicRoads manager vehicle safety and policy, Ross McArthur, admitted, “every system always has its anomalies”. Even so, he said the list was developed on a “vehicle-by-vehicle basis” and that the government was “constantly reviewing the vehicles that are on the list”.

Disturbingly, however, he believes the policy makers have “got the balance about right”.

“We’re trying to help everybody in this process,” Mr McArthur said. “There’s a sweet spot in there and we think we’ve got the sweetest, as close to it as we can. Whether we’re right in the perfect position remains to be seen, but the systems are working better than they were.”

The current rules – consistent across Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland – prohibit P-Platers from driving vehicles that have:

  • An engine with eight or more cylinders
  • An engine that has been modified to increase its performance
  • A nominated high-performance six-cylinder engine
  • An engine that is turbocharged or supercharged (low-performance and diesel engines are exempt)

The definition of a low-performance turbocharged or supercharged vehicle is one that has a power-to-weight ratio of less than 100kW/tonne (or 125kW/tonne in the case of ‘family’ vehicles with four or more seats).

To drive a low-performance turbocharged or supercharged vehicle, a P1 or P2 driver must apply for an exemption. If the exemption is approved, the probationary driver must keep their exemption letter with them at all times while driving that vehicle.

In Victoria, the penalty for driving a prohibited vehicle without approval is a $329 fine and the loss of three demerit points.

The previous system worked on a simple power-to-weight ratio basis, although Mr McArthur said it was too difficult for police officers to enforce from the side of the road, leading to the introduction of the current ‘features-based definition’ system.

“You just couldn’t tell standing there looking at the vehicle what you had, whether it was the GTI or the stock standard one,” he said.

“People take badges off and they do all sorts of tricky things to make it hard to establish exactly what a particular vehicle is in terms of its performance and its power.

“We’ve had quite a bit of experience where the policeman just couldn’t determine just looking at the car on the road just what he was dealing with, and that’s why the exemption process seemed like the best way to go.”

Mr McArthur explained that if probationary drivers have a letter they can produce, it takes away the confusion for law enforcers and gets probationary drivers out of a potentially awkward situation.

And that’s fine. If the system makes it easier for law enforcers then it’s a good thing. But it is indefensible that turbocharged petrol vehicles offering high safety levels and mundane straight-line performance should be singled out while other naturally aspirated and high-performance diesel vehicles are completely overlooked. The various agencies’ outdated understanding of automotive technology is not a valid excuse for being “about right”.

Fortunately, Mr McArthur said “no regulations are set in stone”, and admitted there was the potential to perform a “nip and tuck” on the prohibited vehicles system in the future if required.

Prohibitive systems need to be based on completely robust criteria and incontrovertible evidence, not a collective bureaucratic ‘gut feeling’ about some purported “sweet spot”. Let’s hope the regulators get a wake-up call soon, and make urgently needed amendments to these rules before the current inherent three-way anomalies kick an ‘own goal’ and cause some probationary drivers to contribute even more disproportionately than ever to the road trauma statistics.

(CarAdvice’s Brett Davis contributed to this report.)






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