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EU Council leaves mandatory driving licence medical tests up to member states

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EU countries agreed their position on new rules to make driving in the bloc safer on Monday (4 December), backing provisions that would allow member states to choose between mandatory medical checks and “self-assessment” to obtain a drivers licence.

The revision of the driving licence directive, put forward as part of the Commission’s road safety package, aims to reduce the number of serious accidents on EU roads.

Under the Council’s position, agreed at a meeting of Transport Ministers, prospective licensees must visit a doctor to certify their physical and mental fitness to drive – however, EU countries can seek a derogation under which they ask applicants “to fill in a self-assessment form” which would cover relevant medical conditions.

This self-assessment option is seen as less invasive than requiring a full examination, which some member states had objected to.

Another controversial provision which would have seen those over the age of 65 subject to more frequent driving licence renewals – such as every five years rather than every 10 or 15 – was also left to the discretion of member states.

The broad wording of the approach was necessary to win backing for the driving licence directive.

However, despite the compromise, German transport minister Volker Wissing said that Germany would be unable to support the file, framing the self-assessment requirement as an unnecessary imposition of bureaucracy from Brussels.

Germany and Austria had previously expressed outrage at moves to tighten testing requirements for older drivers, branding the measures “discriminatory” and arguing it would harm the mobility of pensioners.

Speaking to journalists following the meeting, EU transport commissioner Adina Vălean was positive towards the Council’s approach. 

“The challenging task of screening the physical and mental fitness of drivers was tackled in a way that can be satisfactory to most – not to everyone, but to most – and without decreasing the aspirations of our proposal,” she said.

Member states also agreed to provisions surrounding the rollout of a digital driving licence which can be easily displayed across borders, and to stricter conditions for novice drivers for the first two years.

Accompanied driving

Transport ministers additionally threw their support behind new rules that would allow 17-year-old drivers to get behind the wheel of heavy-duty vehicles if accompanied by a fully licensed driver who is at least 24 years of age.

The European Commission had included this provision partly as a means to boost the number of young people entering the road freight sector – a sector that has struggled to keep recruitment at pace with the number of retiring drivers.

Data from the International Road Transport Union (IRU),  a group representing the road freight industry, suggests that the continent faced a shortage of 600,000 drivers in 2022, with the figure expected to rise to almost 2 million by 2026.

The Council’s position was called “sweet and sour” by the IRU, which said EU countries had taken “small steps towards addressing driver shortages”.

Allowing accompanied driving for 17-year-olds will help “to capture young school graduates by setting a form of paid training under the scrutiny of experienced professional drivers,” said IRU Director of EU Advocacy Raluca Marian.

“The sour part is that the Council has made this good measure optional for member states,” she added, encouraging a level approach across the EU.

In the run-up to the Transport Council meeting, safety campaigners wrote to ministers encouraging them to reject the accompanied driving provisions, arguing it may encourage more countries to allow young people to begin solo driving lorries from the age of 18, despite the EU-wide recommendation being 21.

Cross-border traffic offences

In addition to securing their position on the driving licence directive, member states agreed on their approach to a law that would make it easier to fine drivers who commit road safety offences abroad, even after they return to their country of residence.

The Council went beyond the Commission’s proposal by adding provisions on hit-and-run offences, and drivers that fail to respect rules at a railway level crossing.

Member states also sought to include infractions for driving in vehicle-access restricted areas, such as limited traffic zones or low-emission zones.

Protecting citizens

Commissioner Vălean said that the Council reached a good balance “between flexibility and enforceability”.

“Safety and sustainability were the winners today,” she said. “The compromises have the required level of ambition to better protect our citizens.”

MEP Elżbieta Łukacijewska, the centre-right EPP group’s chief negotiator on the driving licence file, welcomed the Council’s “forward-thinking approach”.

“We are pleased to note Council’s endorsement of measures empowering young drivers responsibly, as well as rejection of mandatory medical tests,” she said, adding that this fits with the EPP vision “not to burden or discriminate against young drivers”.

The Council’s general approach will form member states’ negotiating position in discussions with the European Parliament to finalise the laws.

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]

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