Returning to the road a test for young drivers
There has been an alarming increase in young Victorian lives recently lost on our roads compared with the equivalent period last year: 300 per cent up for ages 16 and 17; 40 per cent for 18 to 25-yearolds and a 17 per cent increase in those in the 21-25 age group, according to TAC data.
These stats are even more concerning because – for much of this period – we have been in lockdown, barely allowed to walk 5km, let alone drive.
As we race towards a 70 per cent vaccination rate, with all the freedoms that we hope it brings, what can we expect to happen to the road toll when our young people, perhaps for the first time in a very long time, get behind the wheel of a car? A study recently published in the British Medical Journal Injury Prevention compared road accident data before and after stay-at-home orders were in place in Connecticut, revealing that single-vehicle crash rates significantly increased 2.29 times, and specifically single-vehicle fatal crash rates significantly increased 4.10 times when comparing the pre stay-at-home and post stay-at-home periods.
While this US data does not give an age breakdown, it would be likely that the increased accident and mortality stats affected young people as well as other demographics.
So what do we do with a group of people who probably haven’t driven much in the past 18 months or perhaps have been restricted in practising their L-plate driving, which is not allowed under current restrictions? What happens when, courtesy of vaccinations (likely to be timed to the end of the year, no exams, Christmas parties etc), this group of largely inexperienced drivers are able to get back on the road? What can we do to keep them safe? Victoria has always had a suite of programs focusing on young drivers, because they are at greatest risk of death and injury and if caught and taught early, benefit most from intervention programs.
Our program at Fit to Drive (F2D) has seen more than 130,000 year 11 students participate since 2014 and like others in Victoria, they relied on face-to-face interaction.
With the lockdowns of the past 18 months, we re-engineered our F2D workshops to online.
The F2D program was started by a group of high school principals on the Mornington Peninsula in 2002, after seven young people died in road crashes in a single year.
That year, across Victoria, 112 young lives were lost on the state’s roads and 1552 were admitted to hospital.
In 2020 the number of 15 to 24- year-olds who died was 31, and 1031 admitted to hospital – a reduction due to a range of factors centred around Victoria’s safe system approach which includes safe speeds, roads, vehicles and people.
The Victorian Road Safety Strategy specifically addresses risktaking behaviour aiming to halve road-related deaths by 2030, with zero fatalities by 2050.
At F2D we focus on the Safe People element of this approach, which has particular relevance as our young people prepare for driving with fewer restrictions.
It’s not just about teaching driving skills such as how to control the car in different weather conditions – it’s about how to tell a mate not to use his phone while driving, or to get an Uber if they’ve had a drink or used drugs.
In this way we complement the investment in better roads, vehicles and speed enforcement activities undertaken by VicRoads, the TAC, Victoria Police and Fire Rescue Victoria officers.
Importantly, we use students as peer educators because this age group only really listens to their own tribe, as any parent will tell you.
As noted recently by the chief executive of the TAC, Joe Calafiore, we need to be eternally vigilant across a broad range of interventions aimed at reducing the road toll.
This is especially the case with younger road users and is a timely reminder that, soon, young Melburnians and Victorians will be eagerly back on our roads.
In the same way we are preparing to return to our schools and workplaces, we need to make sure our young people are prepared to return to the roads.
BRAD CROFTS IS CHIEF EXECUTIVE OF NON-PROFIT, FIT TO DRIVE. HE WILL GIVE A PRESENTATION AT THE 2021 AUSTRALASIAN ROAD SAFETY CONFERENCE IN MELBOURNE STARTING ON SEPTEMBER 28. THE THREE-DAY VIRTUAL CONFERENCE WILL FEATURE MORE THAN 150 PRESENTATIONS.