Tougher new licence tests may be deterring young people from driving, the New Zealand Transport Agency fears.
Half of those taking the restricted licence test are still being failed, a year after the tougher regime was introduced.
Speaking in front of a parliamentary select committee this week, chief executive Geoff Dangerfield said the agency was concerned that more people might be dropping out of driving altogether.
"What we are worried about is people that may opt out of the system entirely."
If younger people did not bother with a licence, it could severely limit their job opportunities.
"Because driving licences are a very important economic passage . . . it's really important we find a way around that."
Figures show that last month only 52 per cent of participants passed their restricted licence test. When the new regime was first introduced in February last year, only 38 per cent passed. Under the old regime, more than 80 per cent passed.
In the past year, more than 30,619 restricted tests have resulted in fails, while 27,153 have been passes. Some people may fail the test multiple times.
The tougher rules include more than doubling the amount of driving time to 45 minutes. Would-be drivers are also encouraged to have 120 hours' driving experience before sitting the test.
Peter Sheppard, a Wellington consultant who instructs driving instructors, said there was anecdotal evidence that fewer people were bothering to obtain a licence.
"I suspect there are a lot of people driving around without a licence, and even more now. There has been a downturn in people doing defensive driving courses."
However, he supported the tougher test, which he believed would ultimately lead to fewer crashes and deaths.
"It is about a change in society, where we take this [driver training] a little more seriously."
Other driving instructors who spoke to The Dominion Post were also supportive of the new tests. Most were not aware of an increase in dropouts but said more students were failing on their first attempt.
Automobile Association motoring affairs manager Mike Noon said one of the obvious but unintended consequences of a higher standard was that more people would struggle to pass.
While those people needed support, it was better to have people not driving than driving badly, he said. "We are not doing kids any favours by putting them out on the road before they are ready."
To combat a potential rise in dropout drivers, NZTA and the AA have set up two pilot "community mentor" programmes this year, with the first starting in Porirua next month.
The programme will take about 15 teenagers otherwise unable to get access to a car or supervision, and match them with a volunteer mentor.
The pair would clock up about 30 hours' driving together in one of the two cars provided by the agency. The AA would help train the mentors and provide an additional three free driving lessons for each student.
A similar pilot is planned in Waitomo later in the year. The programmes would last about three months before being assessed for wider use.
- The Dominion Post