Licensed to Kill

By Jim McVeagh 16/04/2010


Yesterday Steven Joyce finally announced he was raising the driving age. Unfortunately, he is only raising it to a timid 16 years. Still, at least we won’t have the lowest driving age in the developed world and one of the highest youth fatality rates. I find it hard to believe that there is so much heat in the debate about raising the driving age. The road statistics are quite clear. 15 to 16-year-olds have a crash fatality rate exceeded only by 80-year-olds. And that is only because 80-year-olds are killed by substantially lower-velocity collisions than 16-year-olds. Even controlling for experience, a 16-year-old who has held a license for a year is still three times more likely to die in a traffic accident than an 18-year-old with the same experience. In fact, the increased risk does not flatten out until about age 25; from where the risk remains flat until about age 70 and then starts to climb again.

This is in keeping with what we know about neurophysiology. The frontal lobe of the brain starts to develop at around 16 years of age and is only fully developed by about age 23 (age 20 in girls). This is the area of the brain in which we assess risk, so it is hardly surprising that a 16-year-old boy makes reckless decisions. Medically speaking we should probably be extending the driving age to around 25, but this is not particularly practical.

Most parts of Australia now have graduated licenses that start at age 17 or 18. It should come as no surprise that Australia has about 60% of our youth fatality rate per kilometer driven. That is more that a third less teenagers slaughtered on our roads. New Jersey has had a graduated license system since 2001 offering a restricted license from age 17 for a minimum of a year (full license from 18 years). The fatal accident rate for 16-year-olds has halved and there have been substantial reductions in 17 and 18-year -old fatalities. Clearly the system works.

Interestingly, the increase in the driving age, somewhat immobilising 16 and 17-year-olds, has also been shown to reduced drug and alcohol use in these age groups, as an added side benefit. So when you hear 15-year-olds arguing that their freedom is being trampled on by raising the driving age, just remember that the freedom they are talking about is the one that entitles them to get slammed out of their minds on a Friday night and then wrap their car around a tree at high speed.

My idea of fun does not encompass digging bark out of the skull of a teenager in the early hours of Saturday morning.

Mr. Joyce should have ignored the ill-informed twitterings of Federated Farmers and raised the driving age immediately to 17. He will now have to engage in the same battle in a couple of years time, when it becomes crystal clear that this is what he should have done the first time.

Some journal references (sorry, only links to abstracts)

Voas, Robert and Kelley-Baker, Tara(2008) ‘Licensing Teenagers: Nontraffic Risks and Benefits in the Transition to Driving Status’, Traffic Injury Prevention, 9: 2, 89 – 97

McCartt, Anne T. , Mayhew, Daniel R. , Braitman, Keli A. , Ferguson, Susan A. andSimpson, Herbert M.(2009) ‘Effects of Age and Experience on Young Driver Crashes: Review of Recent Literature’, Traffic Injury Prevention, 10: 3, 209 – 219

Williams, Allan F. , Chaudhary, Neil K. , Tefft, Brian C. andTison, Julie(2010) ‘Evaluation of New Jersey’s Graduated Driver Licensing Program’, Traffic Injury Prevention, 11: 1, 1 – 7

Williams, Allan F.(2009) ‘Licensing Age and Teenage Driver Crashes: A Review of the Evidence’, Traffic Injury Prevention, 10: 1, 9 – 15

Related posts:

  1. Too Young to Die
  2. Fit To Drive
  3. Pushing the Limit