Just what do those stickers with a red L, N or R on them mean when Irish cars show them? Well, you have come across a L-driver, a N-driver, or a R-driver. When driving through Ireland, you will see cars marked with special "plates" (in reality a large sticker) - called L-plates, N-plates, or R-plates. These are (or at least should be) a warning to you. That the drivers are not quite to be trusted to adhere to the usual best practices.
A sign to other drivers that this car is handled by somebody not quite competent yet: expect the occasional erratic driving, even expect excruciating slowness. Because there is a newbie behind the steering wheel.
But what is the real, legal purpose of these plates? In a nutshell, they identify new drivers to the world, at the same time imposing on them (and reminding them of) special rules. They are not voluntary measures, but demanded by law. And they are better, not mis-used. So here's what you can expect when seeing vehicles marked with L-, N- or R-plates in Ireland:
L-Plates - Learner Driver
Any driver not yet in possession of a full driving license must display an L-plate prominently - attached to the vehicle or (in the case of motorcycles) on a yellow tabard. This denotes to other road users that the driver is not fully licensed and still learning to drive.
While motorcycle riders can be on the road alone, learner drivers in other vehicles must at all times be accompanied by a fully licensed driver (certain rules apply, newly qualified drivers don't qualify for this role).
And the L-plate has to be taken off the vehicle if it is not driven by a learner driver. So if you see a solitary driver in a car marked with an L-plate, he or she is breaking the law one way or the other.
L-drivers are, for instance, not allowed to drive on motorways. And in Northern Ireland, the general speed limit for vehicles displaying L-plates is 45 mph (72km/h).
The latter is well below the normal traffic speed on most larger roads outside towns, so learner drivers tend to hold up traffic - the L-plate is there to excuse this and other drivers should have enough brains not to harass the learner driver. Keep your distance, keep calm.
The L-plate is, indeed, mainly a sign for other drivers. A sign saying "expect slow, at times erratic, driving". A sign saying "don't crowd me". A sign saying "I'm really sorry, but I am still learning!"
If you have a car marked with L-plates in front of you, keep more distance and be prepared for some unusual maneuvers. Be a good driver yourself and give that person room to breathe. Don't provoke anything by tailgating, flashing your lights and so on.
A Historical Excursion
Let’s digress for a bit - up to a few years ago the licensing system in the Republic of Ireland was a shambles and the laughing stock of most of Europe. Basically, because it did not work and, at its extremes, rewarded drivers for failing the test.
In the old days, you could apply for a driver license once you were of a certain age and had access to a motorized vehicle. With these two requirements, and for a small fee, you then approached a local testing office and took your driver test.
If you passed, you were handed a driver license. If you failed, you were handed a provisional driver license. And off you went, once more onto the streets, to wreak havoc. Of course, the provisional license only lasted so long, so you had to re-attempt the driving test a few years later. And if you failed again ... they handed you another provisional license. And so on, and so forth.
To take the whole system to the outer limits of ridiculousness, the Irish government realized that this practice produced more and more attempts at getting a full license, in turn producing a backlog of test appointments, and slowing everything down in the licensing office. So in an inspired move, an "amnesty" was enacted. All drivers who had repeatedly proven (by failing a test) that they were not fit to drive, and who had, despite their best efforts, not yet managed to kill themselves (or somebody else) while driving on a provisional license ...
were granted a full license. Backlog cleared. What could go wrong?
Only to let the whole rotten system start again - until a sweeping reform in the early 21st century. Culminating in mandatory driving lessons from April 2011.
N-Plates - Novice Driver
This is a new thing - drivers granted the first license on or after August 1st, 2014, now have to display N-plates for a period of 2 years. These are denoting "novice drivers", who have shown enough talent to be awarded a license, but who are still on a steep learning curve.
Discrimination? Not really ... as research has repeatedly shown that novice drivers are most likely to be killed while driving during the first two years after passing their test, simply due to inexperience, and the accidents resulting thereof. Related research proves that one in any five newly qualified drivers will crash in the first six months after passing their test, luckily fender-benders are the main outcome. A driver generally is considered to be "inexperienced" until he or she has driven a whopping 100,000 kilometers (which, if you are only driving locally, might take a good decade or more).
Again, the N-plate denotes the novice status mainly to other drivers and should result in a more considered way these drivers are approached.
In contrast to learner drivers, there is no requirement for novice drivers to have an accompanying driver. But a novice driver may not act as an accompanying driver for someone who holds a learner permit (so no L- and N-plates on one vehicle, ever). And there is a legal difference in regard to road traffic offenses - a lower threshold of seven penalty points leading to automatic disqualification applies to novice drivers.
R-Plates - Restricted Driver
The R-plate has been in use for many years in Northern Ireland and is, basically, the equivalent of the new N-plate in the Republic of Ireland. There are moves under way to streamline the road traffic acts of both jurisdictions, under these the R-plate would be phased out and replaced by the N-plate.
Until this comes to pass, the R-plate is still in use and mandatory after passing the driving test for a motor car or a motorcycle, they must be displayed for a period of one year from the date of passing the test. Again, this is mainly a means to identify an inexperienced driver to other drivers.
There is, however, one major difference to N-plates: the maximum permitted speed for any vehicle displaying R-plates is 45 mph (72km/h), whether or not the vehicle is being driven by a restricted driver (plates should only be on the vehicle if it is driven by a restricted driver anyway). So, as in the case of a Northern Irish learner driver, the restricted driver is not allowed to go fast.
As a Tourist, Should I ...?
No ... it has for some time been a "clever idea" by visitors to Ireland to plop a L-plate on a vehicle driven by a tourist. The reasoning being that not being used to driving on the left and so on, tourists are basically learning. And that this will also serve as a warning to other drivers. And that all is well then.
But it isn't, the L-, N- and R-plates are legal requirements, and also have certain conditions imposed upon them, imposed upon drivers actually required to use them. We mentioned motorways. We mentioned speed restrictions. As a tourist, you can't have it both ways - expecting other drivers to look out for your well-being, then passing them doing 120 km/h on the motorway.
So no, it is not a clever idea. And it might actually get you on the wrong side of the law. Which means - don't do it.
More Information on Road Matters in Ireland
For more information on driving in Ireland from an official point of view, visit the National Driver License Service (Republic of Ireland), the Road Safety Authority (Republic of Ireland), or the government information website on Motoring in Northern Ireland.