A new approach to cut death toll of young people in road accidents

by Bridie Scott-Parker
A 20-year-old man died in this accident in WA earlier this month when his Ford Falcon utility a tree. Credit: AAP/WA Police

Too often in Australia we hear tragic stories of another young life cut short in a car accident and yet any attempts to dramatically reduce the death toll are not working.

Young male drivers are our hardest hit, with male drivers aged 17 to 24 making up just 12.7% of all licence holders in Queensland but accounting for 20.3% of driver fatalities.

Across Australia around 45% of all deaths of young people can be atrributed to a road accident with a 17-year-old P-plate driver four times more likely be involved in a fatal road accident than a 26 year old driver.

There has been some reduction in the the number of fatal accidents involving young people over the years, but the focus is mostly placed on young drivers with calls for more driver training and education. Clearly this is not enough. We need to do something else to reduce the death – and injury – toll.

The Australian experience is not unique. This global reality has prompted me to look at young driver road safety in a different way. Rather than attempting to fix only the drivers, we need to know more about their behaviours and their environment before we can intervene effectively.

What are the risks?

Recent research shows young drivers are placing themselves at greater risk of harm by:

  • What they drive – young drivers who share Mum and Dad's car are less risky on the road,
  • When they drive – driving in circumstances that are risky for all drivers, but especially new drivers (such as at night or when they are tired),
  • How they drive – that they, like drivers of all ages, may choose to speed, they may not wear their seat belts if it is just for a short trip and they are likely to still make driving errors even after they passed their driving test,
  • Why they drive – changing the way they drive depending on how they feel emotionally.

We often forget that young drivers are also mostly teenagers, and that being a teen can be tricky. Sensation seeking and impulsivity are normal parts of figuring out who we are. We know teens are likely to struggle with depression and anxiety so it makes sense these emotions will influence how they drive.

We have also learnt that young drivers are influenced by the behaviours and attitudes of others, including parents, peers and police. What may not be well known is that these important groups start to influence young driver behaviour long before the teen gets behind the wheel of a car, and their influence lasts long through independent driving.

So we have this essential foreground information - what we can easily see - about behaviour, environment and the young driver. But what about the background information, what we may not even suspect is there?

A roadside tribute to a 17-year-old school student killed when his station wagon crashed in Adelaide. Credit: Flickr/Michael Coghlan, CC BY-SA

A different approach to safety

Let's think big! Let's improve young driver road safety by targeting the "young driver road safety system". A young driver's approach to road safety is a result of a dynamic and interactive system which emerges from actions and interactions between social, organisational and technical factors. It is not simply a product of the driver and their immediate environment.

First we need to know a little about this system. Who is in it, what role do they play? When we know this, we can figure out where and how the system itself is not working, with young drivers (and their family, their friends, and the wider community) paying the price for system failures.

We can understand the system across six levels of influence, from 1 at the top down to 6.

  1. The government (where policies are made),
  2. Regulatory bodies (who inform policies),
  3. Local government (including parents),
  4. Other important organisations (such as schools, driving instructors, and vehicle manufacturers),
  5. The young drivers themselves, and others with whom they share the vehicle/road,
  6. The road and their vehicle.

As we can see from the examples at each level there are actors – who can be individuals, groups, departments or other stakeholders – who are important in young driver road safety. They fit somewhere within the system according to the role they play in this larger system.

For the system to protect young drivers, and everyone with whom they share their car and the road, we need actions and decisions to flow from the top levels down through to the lower levels.

This communication isn't one way, though, with actions and decisions from the lower levels needed to flow through the higher levels. This process is called vertical integration.

There is also horizontal integration, that is actions and decisions among the various actors at each level is essential.

So who is responsible for road safety?

Systems thinking is a radical approach in young driver road safety. Rather than laying the blame for most crashes on the young driver, crashes can be understood as a failure in the system which should actually protect young drivers.

For example, a crash leading to a young person's death can be related to factors at every level of the system, such as:

  • Driving an older vehicle (which has fewer crash-avoidance and crash-protection features) on poorly maintained roads,
  • Driving after drinking alcohol when the designated driver decided to drink even more (and then encourages the young driver to go even faster),
  • Driving at night (which is more risky for everyone),
  • Driving when parents are unaware of how they behave on the road now they have their own car and are licensed to drive independently,
  • Was there no public transport available.

Taking into account such factors, coupled with youthful exuberance and a complex web of physical, psychological and social development, perhaps we should be asking why do not crash more often?

Mapping the system shows how responsibility for young driver road safety is actually shared among many different actors, that it is not the sole responsibility of the young driver.

A systems analysis of young driver road safety in Queensland has already found that there is limited vertical, and some horizontal, integration. There is a general need for more information about who is out there, what they do, and how actors can work together – a research project currently underway here in Queensland.

This is good news, signalling a new age in which we can radically improve young driver .

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