My question is to do with the case Nettleship v Weston - I am having trouble agreeing with Denning's judgement in that a learner driver is required to drive the standard of a reasonably competent driver. Surely the learner driver is not up to the standard of a competent driver (and is still learning to drive), hence the term learner driver, and not qualified/competent driver. Why is this so?

Denning also mentions that the required standard of care is 'independent of the idiosyncrasies of the particular person whose act is in question'. If that particular characteristic of the person whose act is in question is the fact that they are a learner driver, surely this cannot be held against them?

Any help is appreciated! thank you!


The judgement actually gives reasons:

The criminal law insists that every person driving a car must attain an objective standard measured by a skilled, experienced and careful driver. That is shown by McCrone v Riding ... the

standard is an objective standard, impersonal and universal, fixed in relation to the safety of other users of the highway. It is in no way related to the degree of proficiency or degree of experience attained by the driver.

And the judgement goes on to quote R v Evans [1962] 3 All ER 1088:

if a man in fact adopts a manner of driving which the jury think was dangerous to other road users in all the circumstances, then on the issue of guilt it matters not whether he was deliberately reckless, careless, momentarily inattentive or even doing his incompetent best. [Such considerations are] highly relevant if it ever comes to sentence.

  • Primarily, it is to protect other road users.
  • It is only on the matter of guilt that skill and experience are irrelevant. When it comes to sentencing, it may be a factor.

And, if I might add my own interpretation, part of the reason that the skill of the driver is irrelevant is that the other users of the road cannot know whether a driver is skilled and experienced - they must therefore be able to expect this, and the law reflects this expectation. As much as we complain about other road users, we only complain because we expect them to meet a certain standard - we most likely would not complain if we truly expected them to be incompetent.

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Why is this so?

Because that is the law.

When you have a duty, the standard you are held to is that of a reasonable person in that circumstance. For a driver, that is a qualified, competent and prudent driver; if you don't behave as one then you have prima facie failed to discharge the duty.

Note that this standard applies equally regardless of experience or status, a learner driver must behave as well as an experienced driver; if this scares you, don't learn to drive. Similarly it applies to other duties: a doctor is held to the standard of a reasonable doctor irrespective of if they are an intern or a VMO. Likewise an engineer, plumber or tailor.

From the point of view of people to whom you owe the duty this is perfectly sensible. If you choose to get behind the wheel of a car why should I be put at greater risk just because you are inexperienced?

You can, voluntarily, have yourself held to a higher standard by, for example, holding yourself out to be an expert. An expert engineer is judged against expert engineers, not reasonable engineers, for example. Notwithstanding, you can't be held to a lesser standard.

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tl;dr: The courts have tended to sharply limit attempts to characterize the reasonable or ordinary person as having particular caveats (age and gender are notable exceptions).

As an example, drawn from provocation, consider:

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