Road Toll and driving restrictions

Changes are being made in NSW to laws governing P plate drivers –people who have newly acquired their driver’s licence. These include novice drivers being able to carry no more than one young passenger late at night, and an automatic loss of licence with a single speeding offence.
This is an issue where the principle of individual freedom comes up against the principle of the wider public good. We should be reasonably sure that changes made are likely to have a positive effect, rather than just doing something so that something is being seen to be done. It is always easy to pick on young people and this is often done by relying on assumptions rather than facts and I am usually suspicious of media campaigns about young people doing ‘bad things’. It can also be an easy way for the rest of society to ignore our own failings while scapegoating young people. I’ve had a few speeding fines over the years, and I certainly don’t want to look like I’m lecturing others. However, in this case the facts seem pretty clear – that younger people and new drivers are disproportionally more likely to be involved in fatal or serious accidents.

I saw a very interesting statistic in this piece in the Sydney Morning Herald by Steve Biddulph:
A young person travelling alone in a car has a modest risk level, but if you add one passenger, the risk of fatality rises by 50 per cent. However, adding another passenger increases the risk by 160 per cent.
I’ve seen people say that this is because they have their mates in the back egging them on to go faster, which always struck me as a fairly shallow assumption. Biddulph’s article gives a rationale which sounds more scientifically based (assuming he is interpreting the science and evidence correctly, which I don’t have any reason to doubt)

Brain-scanning technology has overturned our previous understanding of the teenage brain. Long assumed to be essentially adult in shape, it is now clear that the teenage brain is markedly immature and not in full adult form until as late as 25. In particular, 17-year-olds may be far from ready to handle driving tasks, especially when distracted or excited by others being in the car.

The teenage brain is half-developed, it can function well while calm, but lacks the ability to make good decisions when overloaded by stimuli. It is still likely to revert back to emotional decision-making when conditions are not ideal…. Young children make decisions from part of the brain called the amygdala, which is primarily an emotional centre. By about 25 we use a completely different part of the brain – the prefrontal cortex, and are able to use reasoning, and hold to this reasoning under considerable emotional pressure.

When children are in groups, something changes in the dynamics of conversation, attitude, behaviour, and consequently in accident and fatality rates. Allowing just one passenger would be the optimal for amenity and freedom, while reducing the most deaths.

One of the possible unintended consequences of restricting the number of people allowed to travel in the one car is more drink driving. It is easier when a group of 4 or 5 people go for a night out to get one of them to be the designated driver and not drink that night. It is harder if it has to be one in every second person. That’s not to excuse drink driving of course, it’s just speculating about human nature. However, I understand where similar moves have been tried overseas, the accident rate has gone down, in which it is worth a try. According to Biddulph, “New Zealand has a complete curfew on young drivers after 10 at night, and this has significantly reduced deaths for many years.

Mind you, I am always wary of incomplete statistics. Biddulph’s article also states that “Five Australians die every day on the roads, but 40 per cent are under 25.” I’m not sure how meaningful this statistic is without further information. It doesn’t say how what proportion of the accidents had drivers under 25, as opposed to passengers. It doesn’t say how many of them were children (rather than teenagers). It also doesn’t say what proportion of the overall population are under 25 to let us know how disproportional the figure of 40 per cent is. According to these statistics, the median age in Australia is around 37 (that is, 50 per cent of people are aged 37 or less), so my guess would be the percentage of people under 25 would be less than 40%, but probably not by a lot – maybe around 35%. I’m not disputing there’s a serious issue here, just suggesting the single line statistics we often get in the newspapers don’t really paint as clear a picture as we often assume.

One of the other changes being made in NSW is that P-plate drivers will not be allowed to drive high powered cars. It does seem reasonable to assume that less experienced drivers are more likely to run into difficulty with such cars. From memory, in Queensland you can’t ride a more powerful motorbike until you’ve had a bike licence for a certain period of time. However, given there are now speed limits on all roads in Australia,

I do sometimes wonder why all cars don’t have speed limiters built into them, even if they were able to be over-ridden in an emergency. I’ve been told the technology to do this would be quite simple, and if the maximum speed limit in Australia is 130 kilometres per hour (as I gather it now is on the highways in the Northern Territory), then I don’t see why cars should be able to go over 200 km/h.

Restricting the freedoms of all of us in regards to driving is justified if it means fewer people killed, a reduction in the wider suffering caused and less flow on impacts to society in health expenditures and lost potential. The road toll has declined in proportional terms from where it used to be – the lowest in NSW since 1945 according to this article, despite a much higher total population. However, there are still thousands of people killed each year around the country in road accidents, many more seriously injured and families seriously and often permanently traumatized.


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  1. some one whatever age who has just aquired there driving licence is well awere af the road rules than some one who has driven for some years .
    they also know the penaltys for breaking the rules too .
    its about time that they realised that the act of diving a vehicle on public roads is for real ( not a video game )one bad mistake will kill someone .
    i think the new rules are good its just a shame that western australia is too limp wristed to bring them in here to.
    simple answer is if you obay the rules you wont have a problem .
    so what is there to compane about?
    hears a tip on drink driving make it zero alcahol and a $5.000 fine then lets see how meany drink and drive.
    when i got my licence there was no points system if you got broke the rules you lost your licence instantly and walked home.
    there are a lot of ppl stil alive today because of that rule.
    the point system was introduced to raise revenue for respective govts not to save lives.

  2. What is always ignored is the improvements in motor cars. The road toll has fallen dramatically, but how do we know what is due to fines and restrictions and what is due to abs, crumple zones etc?

    As cars get better the road toll will fall, regardless of what revenue raising politicians come up with.

  3. Why does anyone who lives in a city need a high powered car?

    Why aren’t long-term drivers tested for accurate knowledge from time to time?

    Why are people not fined for doing 40 in an 80 zone?

  4. An issue overlooked is the lack of public transport to serve as an alternative.

    In most places there isn’t a late night alternative to driving even in a city such as Sydney unless you live within the 10km of the city. Over the last few years, late night train services were cut back so the last ones leave even earlier.

    Providing affordable transport alternatives are just as important if not more so than restrictions.

  5. An interesting additional change about to happen in NSW is that learner drivers will need to present logbooks showing 120 hours driving experience behind the wheel in order to sit the provisional test (up from 50 hours at present). This isn’t an awful lot of time spaced over a year: it’s a couple of hours a week.

    But if the learner is in the small minority of learners who do not have access to a free teacher with their own car (the usual form is a parent, less often it’s a spouse or friend), this will cost approximately $6000 in professional driving lessons. Again, it’s a trade-off. I can see arguments that $6000 is a miniscule sum of money for good teaching (not that all professional instructors are good teachers, my partner managed to do 30 hours on back streets because his professional instructor wanted to buy property somewhere off the aterial roads and was checking it out, great practice that), but at the same time… $6000 isn’t a miniscule amount of money.

  6. thanks for the comments. I think they all show why it’s important to have at least some evidence that particular measures will work, whlist accepting that it can be hard be to be definitive about this.

    I’m not sure if it can be clearly determined precisely what all the factors are that have helped drop the road toll – and I am no way implying I have extensive expertise on this.

    However, I think it is pretty clear that – for example – the introduction of compulsory seatbelts on cars has helped a lot (which is different to whether fining people for not wearing them works, although I expect overall it does a little bit by way of continually reminding people that it’s something we should do).

    I also think there is a reasonable amount of evidence that introducing laws against drink driving have helped, although in response to red crab’s comment (#1) I’m not sure that a zero alcohol tolerance limit would actually be an evidence based action. Fining people large amounts of money for dong something which is probably of minimal risk is both unfair and possibly also counter-productive (in the sense that it makes people wrongly feel something useful is being done, which stops people looking at whether we should do something that is actually useful). There’s no doubt that high levels of alcohol when driving inhibits reaction time, and also the judgement of some people – where that limit is varies from person to person, and we all have our individual freedom limited a bit to collectively protect us all a bit more. But my understanding is that the current limit of .05 is an average figure which is frankly pretty low, and I am fairly sure that in Qld (and probably other states) it is already something like .02 for P-platers (allowing a bit of leeway for medicines and the like).

  7. In response to Mary’s comment, I have wondered about the fairness (and thus the effectiveness) of that specific measure too.

    I have often thought that all drivers (not just young ones) would benefit from genuine training in defensive driving. While driving is in effect a necessity for many people (more so than it should be sometimes, as the comments about public transport point out), we need to be more aware that statistically it can also be a very dangerous activity, and a serious accident can easily destroy your life – even when you don’t get hurt yourself, if you’re the driver that causes a fatal accident ….

    I expect it would be cost-effective in the long-term for the government to pay for the cost of extensive, defensive driving lessons for all new learner drivers. The log-books that Mary speaks of sound easily rorted to me, and even if they’re not, there is more to gaining experience and ability at driving than number of hours at the wheel. Where the driving is happening and the tutoring one is receiving obvioulsy can vary enormously.

    I had to do a driving test 3 times before I first got my licence. The first time I deserved to fail, but I still feel pissed off at the jerk that failed me on my second test – I am still convinced he failed me just because I had long hair and though I was a hoon. However, from my perspective now as a 42 year old, as opposed to an impatient 17 year old, not being able to drive for a few more months isn’t exactly the worst thing (the fact that 25 years later I still recall the burning injustice of a driving tester just making things up to stop me getting a licence doesn’t bother me at all, no sirree)

  8. Low trick is the analysis of Biddolph,wish he would shut up about brain scans adults and teenagers..there is little reason to believe that emotions cannot correct driving.  If following and accepting the road rules is some trite psychological test that says road driving skills are some other part of the brain,this isnt going to be always the case..a taxi driver pointed that out about a street yesterday concerning a judge.  If the taxi drivers are on full alert then there is a emotion behind it.. Maybe taxi drivers should be part of city training and testing and teaching of skills on the road, if they were given status by their records and experiences..same with truckies.  When CB radio was popular what was happening to statistics re fatalities then!.  If some sort of breather was showing up, it was because the truckers may have been also listened to. Re blackspots, there are school bus drivers who may have been watching these kids grow up for years, but not consulted intelligently by government to assist people who are young to cross the danger period.  But Biddoph the expert on how to grow up boys always gets promoted, and where the general youth grow up isnt with all the realities of his analysis,and relying on someone like that is nonsense Senator. Emotion training Senator,tapping into all of them,and knowing what they are,until you dont have to.  Versus what,a statistical reality and others in a pursuit that says exactly what!?

  9. Being failed for no good reason still happens Andrew, only now a fail is more expensive.

    Kids pay out for the instructor’s time as well as the other costs of doing the test every time they do it.

    At our local DMP, or whatever it’s called these days, there’s one guy with a particularly bad reputation. There are many stories of other testers letting kids pass just because they’ve failed so often with the meany.

    Does humiliating young people make them better drivers?

  10. Does owning a car and running it,on a low budget sound intelligent?I have been penalised as a fully grown adult for not having a drivers licence,or,a bloody car..the contempt I feel about this is immeasurable..job requirements today,almost invariably suggest both..a contempt by an uncaring work ethic..and a desperation dressed up as care.

  11. The penalty is not, a legal one,re my last post,and I have heard stories enough around that one too.There is simply something failing here in terms of law,and, how Australians see themselves and others,not only on the road ..but generally.It is also possible that extra lights,including.during the day, could be displayed ,per passenger for all licence holders,and particular lights for restricted licences.We festoon Christmas trees,but,we wont mount a car the same,with all the precious cargo on board,from babies to pets to retired, could be signaled,and electronics could record both on board and outside behaviour,sent into a authority when required..with appropiate legal safeguards.Lets makes some work for Australians by finding techno…ways that dont penalise as cost either.

  12. The argument often raised against advanced driver training is that, while it may improve driver skills, it also has the side effect of raising confidence levels, so overall risk doesn’t go down that much.

    There are other strange statistical observations about road crashes; for instance, anti-lock brakes don’t tend to reduce crash levels much because (excuse prejudice here) idiot drivers who don’t bother to read the manual don’t use the brakes to the fullest extent because they think the pulsing of the pedal when the anti-lock is working indicates a problem.

    Furthermore, I do have to wonder whether the case for banning P-platers from high-powered cars is a case of confusing correlation with causation. It seems equally plausible to me that the P-platers who drive such vehicles are just as dangerous (and possibly more so) in standard vehicles.

    I’d like to conclude this rant with a positive suggestion. If you’re looking for a way to cut crashes, there are better technologies than speed limiters. As this speech by the boss of the American NTSB indicates, electronic stability control reduces the risk of crashes, particularly fatal crashes, by a massive amount. While it’s not clear that the technology is quite mature enough to make compulsory immediately, it’s getting pretty close.

    Oh, and one final, final point of interest: accidents are not the most lethal aspect of contemporary motor vehicles. Pollution is (and, no, I’m not referring to the prospect of massive environmental carnage through global warming). Have a look at this NSW Parliamentary Committee report. Air pollution kills somewhere between 600 and 1400 people every year in greater Sydney alone.

  13. Oz and Lynette got closest for me. And the later comment that alluded to the elephant in the room; environmental change.
    As for the rest, these sorts of laws are dreamed up by impotent legislators no longer able to impact on real problems.
    Brainwashed with neolib “growth” paradigms and neo liberalism in general, they are forced to hunt for a quick sound bite elsewhere. Civil liberties infringements provide the one area they are still encouraged to “visit” by the real powers that be.
    Insurance premium hikes due to unrestrained “market forces” have also contributed- if people don’t use public facilities there are less insurance payouts for governments, etc. Hence, we have all sorts of alternative nonsense, from media censorship and ridiculous “sedition” and citizen laws, to sweating on pensioners watering a little bit of flower garden. And, of course, the one being discussed here: Draconian driver’s licence provisions. Anything to avoid facing up to real problems
    As with radar traps, road licences provide a new revenue stream for states denied a fair slice of the national revenue pie, by taxdodging corporations and a federal government intent on squandering its surplus on defence rorts and the Pacific solution. Things are then worsened further, with states encouraged to get mixed up with the PPP rorts scam and the inevitable debts problems that follow ( as if they needed any encouraging!).
    BTW; the housing thing. Adelaide local media has just run a story on the vagabonds camped out in the parklands, who are using horse trial obstacle frames to string up their tents. The city council reckons it is powerless to move them, but while eco rat government continues to sell off public housing stock, where can they go, any way?

  14. Thanks, Andrew, for looking at the big picture again.

    Having had 3 teenage sons, I’d agree with most of what Steve Biddulph has said.

    One of my male cousins died in a motor vehicle containing 6 drunken teenagers travelling at high speed.

    Another male cousin died as a pedestrian, having been hit by a truck on the road at night.

    Another young man I knew died driving home alone after a movie marathon. He fell asleep at the wheel and hit an electricity pole.

    Sometime around Christmas this year, there was a pile-up of about 800 cars in France. I’m for placing speed-limiters in vehicles.

    I can vouch for the fact that if my former husband hadn’t done a defensive driving course at the age of 19, all of our family would have been dead soon after.

    I might also add that people in mid-life crisis and those on certain psychotherapeutic drugs are just as dangerous on the roads as any teenager.

    I would also like to suggest that drivers do courses in Anger Management, to reduce the incidence of road rage.

    The issues of drug and alcohol abuse need to be addressed concurrently, with magistrates upholding the law.

  15. Better still Coral, why not educate people to use a rebuilt public transport system. Energy prices are set to stay high and global climate change and Greenhouse is now a fact of life, except for menopausal denialists.
    The expenses involved with freeways, tunnels, hospitals to treat acident victims, policing, etc are getting out of control( let alone all the money stolen through rorting ).
    It’s only consumerism gone mad, after all.
    Get people to do more practical things with their time and money, like educating themselves to think for themselves, instead of mindlessly trying to Keep up with the Jones’. There is nothing more futile than the debt-inducing ploy of new Poser-mobile purchases. Advertising encourages it and the masses have become dislocated from reality that they can no longer resist.
    One of these days, future generations may need what we are destroying, during this most empty and profligate of eras.

  16. Paul Walter:

    Yes, your ideas are good, but trying to get people out of their motor vehicles and into buses and trains will continue to be an uphill battle.

    Also, you’re battling Me Syndrome all the way when it comes to greed and poser status.

    The government’s deregulation of banks has contributed in a big way.

    I’m not sure what you meant by “menopausal denialists”. Perhaps you could explain.

  17. It would be difficult to come to a conclusion about what works. One would think a mixture works.

    By the way, if you’re not speeding you won’t get a fine (the old revenue raising line is really dull).

    Does Biddulph mean teenagers in general or teenage boys?

    My family has felt the impact of the road toll as it results to young people driving home late at night in a group etc.

    A curfew sounds feasible or perhaps an extension of the P Plate period or perhaps young people not getting their licence until they are 21.

    This is a good idea:

    “I do sometimes wonder why all cars don’t have speed limiters built into them, even if they were able to be over-ridden in an emergency. I’ve been told the technology to do this would be quite simple, and if the maximum speed limit in Australia is 130 kilometres per hour (as I gather it now is on the highways in the Northern Territory), then I don’t see why cars should be able to go over 200 km/h.”

  18. andrew, wanted to offer a reply to previous posters, but you blog wiped out my comments before I had finished editing. A lousy feature and enough is enough!

  19. Compare the speeds of four young people in one car, and four young people in two cars next to each other at a set of lights. All this legislation will do is increase the death rate for young drivers and their passengers, and win votes at the election in March.

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