Learner drivers must make road safety a priority

Instructors urged to let learners take more responsibility while accruing 100 hours.

Driving instructors should focus more on road safety once learners have mastered the technical skills of driving, a leading researcher recommends. 

Professor at Queensland University of Technology’s Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety - Queensland (CARRS-Q) Teresa Senserrick said not enough attention was placed on road safety awareness when drivers were accruing the 100 hours needed before they could do their practical driving test.

She said this contributed to data which showed the first 12 months a red P-plater was on the road carried the highest amount of crash risk.

“When you look at risk curves it is very, very safe at the learner stage but that first six to 12 months, in particular, sees one of the highest spikes of crash rates that you'll see throughout a driver’s lifespan,” Professor Senserrick said.

“There's research that shows that parents and lay supervisors aren't necessarily good at being sure that the driver is taking on everything.”

Professor Senserrick said supervisors tended to share too much of the responsibility during instruction, which meant the learner was not gaining the safety skills needed when they were driving on their own.

“They keep managing things for them,” she said.

“Some early research from France talked about driving with two heads because the parent was still going `watch out for this’ or `you focus on the car and I'll do this’.

“By the end of those many hours of driving, the idea is you should be sitting back and you shouldn't have to say anything and the young person should be making all the decisions themselves.

“But that doesn't necessarily happen with all situations. 

“There's something that's just very fundamentally different when you first go out and you're driving without a supervisor.”

Professor Senserrick said the lack of practical experience and an inability to identify potentially dangerous situations contributed to the high number of accidents involving young drivers.

In 2020, 278 people died on Queensland roads, up 26.4% on the previous year and 15.3% on the five-year average from 2015.

Eighty of the fatal crashes in 2020 involved drivers or riders aged 16-24 years.

This was up 15.9% on the 2019 figure and 26.2% on the five-year average. Ten of those crashes involved learners compared with 34 involving P-platers.

Midway through 2021, Queensland’s overall road toll was tracking to be higher than 2020.


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“If you're judging whether your child is ready to go and do that driving test, you should be able to be sitting there and not be saying anything,” Professor Senserrick said.

“You should have transferred all the learning and the skills so that the young person is doing everything themselves.

“It really only takes on average up to about 15 hours to get the hang of the physical part of driving a car and manoeuvring in traffic.

“Parents get relaxed and think, `oh, they've got it now, they don't need me anymore’, but that's when you can start focusing on safety.”

Professor Senserrick has more than 20 years’ experience in road safety research in Australia and internationally. 

Her PhD in developmental psychology explored adolescent motivation and risk taking, and young drivers continue to be a focus of her research.

Professor Senserrick’s top advice for P-platers was to make sure they had plenty of space between them and the vehicle in front.

“New drivers of all ages are very much focused just immediately ahead because they're now suddenly intensely aware they haven't got somebody else looking around for them,” she said.

“They often focus just ahead rather than to the sides and the rear and very far ahead. 

“If you leave a longer gap to the vehicle you're following, you just open up your vision to see so much more.”

Professor Senserrick said while young drivers had very sharp reflexes and reacted well to dangerous situations, they identified them later than experienced drivers.

“Research and simulators would suggest they're not necessarily choosing the wrong manoeuvre to avoid an incident, they're just late seeing it in the first place,” she said.

“Experienced drivers develop an instinct that a car up ahead is probably going to stop and turn even though they don't have their brakes or their indicator on.

“These are instincts that you learn from driving. You can't teach that.”

Professor Senserrick said young drivers were also more easily distracted as their developing brains were “wired” to take everything in rather than concentrate on a single focal point.

“If things are going on, that young adolescent brain is wired to take everything in,” she said.

“One of the most basic experiments that I think really explains this is if you have a computer screen and you tell children and adolescents and adults to just look at the centre of the screen and don't look at the flashing light at the bottom of the screen, kids can do it and adults can do it, but the adolescent brain will always look at that flashing light.”

This natural trait increases the level of risk when a young adolescent is driving.

Professor Senserrick said it increased the potential for distraction as they wanted to stay attuned to everything going on around them rather than being fully focused on their driving, especially when others were in the vehicle.

“It's really hard unless they’re aware of it and train themselves not to do that,” she said.

Professor Senserrick said other contributing factors to the over-representation of under-24s in crash data was they normally drove older, less-safe cars and spent a lot more time on roads at night.

“They drive more at night than adults and we all have a higher risk of being in a crash at night,” she said.

Learner drivers and their supervisors can get a free lesson through Keys2drive