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.