Helping young drivers stay safe behind the wheel

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With a high rate of young drivers being involved in car crashesi,iii, are defensive driving courses the answer?

The first years of driving solo are the most dangerous. The Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development says the highest period for risk in Australia is shortly after licensure and continues up to the age of 24ii.

It's estimated that P-plate drivers are 33 times more likely to be involved in an accident than learner driversi. In the first year of driving, young Victorians are almost four times more likely to be involved in a fatal or serious injury crash than more experienced driversiii.

Drivers aged 18 to 25 years old are involved in 28 per cent of fatalities in Victoria while they make up only 14 per cent of all driversiv. In NSW, new P-platers are nine times more likely to be involved in a crash, with young drivers making up 24 per cent of all crashes, for just 16 per cent of all driversiv.

So what are the best ways to protect our young drivers? A graduated driving system - where drivers pass from an accompanied learner phase through a provisional license to driving alone - is in place in all Australian States and Territories but is it enough? Should P-Platers and drivers under 25 attend defensive driving courses?

The debate about the effectiveness of post-licence driver education programs has raged worldwide since the 1980s, and we are still waiting for answersvi.

Research has shown links between graduated driver licensing and the importance of parenting style.

An Australian Transport Safety Bureau review showed the main problems younger drivers have are lack of experience, limited ability and judgement, underestimation of risks, risk-taking behaviour and using alcohol and drugsiv.

Meanwhile, other research has shown links between graduated driver licensing and the importance of parenting style (for example being careful not to model risky behavior with your kids in the car) in minimising the chances of young drivers being involved in car accidentsvii.

The main difference between the graduated licensing system and a defensive driving course is that the latter is defined as being aimed at drivers who already have their licence, and need help assessing and avoiding critical situationsviii.

However, contemplating the likelihood of unexpected hazards has now become a tested section for a NSW driver's licenceix. A 2011 New Zealand study found that new drivers are most at risk of having a crash because they lack "higher order" skills, such as hazard perception, risk reduction, visual searching, situational awareness and they have over-confidence in their skills and underestimation of the complexity involved in drivingx.

In the first year of driving, young Victorians are almost four times more likely to be involved in a fatal or serious-injury crash than more experienced drivers.

Opposing views?

While the overall jury is still out, those who disagree with the benefits of defensive driving, say the evidence doesn't show it makes young drivers saferxi. The concern is that learning crash avoidance skills, with braking and swerving techniques is an "obsolete and dangerous practice". However, those in favour compare defensive driving courses with pilots' training, where hours are spent mastering possible emergency situations. They also stress that drivers are not taught racing techniques<sup>xvii</sup>.

We've included some of the options for safer driving for novices both before and after gaining a licence.

Keys 2 Drive: Supervisors and learners can get a free 60-minute lesson from an Australian Government-funded program which teaches how to avoid injury in the first six months of driving. It is based on the principle that learning through self-discovery is better than being told how to do something. It also focuses on teaching how to use "metacognition" skills so learners can manage themselves "from above" as though from an outside perspective. They have online games to assess your self-awareness ("Think like a Ninja"), practise judging the three-second gap space, and how to deal with your impulses ("Impulsinator").

Drive to survive: This is an eight-hour P-plater development course for those who already have their driver's licence, where you drive your own car while practising emergency braking, how to avoid accidents and low-risk driving strategies. Soft plastic safety cones are used in the place of potential real-life hazards.

Safer Drivers Course: This course is run by NSW Roads and Maritime Services for learners who are under 25 and have done 50 logged hours of on-road driving. It covers speed management, selecting gaps, being aware of hazards and safe following distances. It gives you 20 hours of logbook credit upon completion.

Safer P Platers: The Transport Accident Commission's Safer P Platers online course has videos and infographics of how to give relevant advice to your young driver.

Drive Smart: This site has several competitive interactive challenges for drivers of all ages and experience: scanning, concentration, urban and country driving. There are also challenges testing how to glance between various mirrors, while looking at numbers and making decisions, and how to quickly shift your concentration from one task to another.

i Monash University 2015, 'What is going solo?', Monash Injury Research Institute, 20 April, viewed 26 August 2015,

ii Australian Government Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development 2013 Young Adult Road Safety – A Statistical Picture,

iii Government of Victoria, 'Why is youth road trauma our focus?', Transport Accident Commission, viewed 26 August 2015,

iv Power, J. 2014, 'P-platers driving without a parent: double the risk, double the death rate',, 11 October, viewed 16 September 2015,

v Bates, L. J. et al. 2014, ‘Graduated Driver Licensing: An international review’ Sultan Quaboos University Medical Journal,

vi Watson, B. 1997, 'When common sense just won't do: Misconceptions about changing the behavior of road users', Queensland University of Technology, viewed 16 September 2015,

vii Scott-Parker, B. Watson, B., King, M.J. & Hyde, M. K. 2013 ‘”My mother would freak out”: Understanding the influence of parents on the risky behavior of their young novice drivers’, viewed 27 October 2015,

viii Christie, R. 2001, 'The effectiveness of driver training as a road safety measure: A review of literature', RCSC Services Pty Ltd, November, viewed 26 August 2015,

ix NSW Government 2014, Hazard perception handbook, Roads and Maritime Services, June, viewed 26 August 2015,

x Isler, R. & Isler, N. 2011, Free online training in situation awareness, hazard perception and risk management for learner drivers in New Zealand, viewed 16 September 2015,

xi Ottley, S. 2012, 'Defensive driving risks steering the young into danger',, 17 February, viewed 26 August 2015,