Dr Bridie Scott-Parker is a leader at the Adolescent Risk Research Unit (ARRU) in Brisbane, Australia. She is passionate about understanding the nature of adolescent risk and improving the health and wellbeing of all adolescents.
For over ten years Bridie has carried out extensive research into young drivers, not only in Queensland, Australia but also in New Zealand, America and Germany. She currently has a research project taking place in Columbia, Russia, Nigeria and Malaysia.
Here, Bridie speaks exclusively to One More Second about the risks facing teen drivers and what parents can do to help.
Despite numerous types of intervention, young drivers continue to be overrepresented in road crashes. Why is this?
The first factor is driving inexperience. Here in Australia we have a graduated licensing programme where young drivers are required to undergo at least 100 hours of supervised driving practice during a 12 month minimum learner period. Unfortunately, one of the messages that comes out of this is that 100 hours is all that you need to be a safe driver. Of course, a safe driver doesn’t equal an experienced driver for many different reasons but 100 hours of driving experience is really just the tip of the iceberg of what drivers need.
How do young drivers become safer drivers?
We become safer drivers simply by learning to drive by ourselves, being able to read the environment, being able to predict hazards and hopefully being able to regulate our own driving behaviour. There is a reduction in crashes after three to five years of independent driving experience. So we find here in Australia that our youngest drivers, our provisional drivers, are the ones who are most represented in car crashes per se, in car crash fatalities and injuries.
So we know young drivers are inexperienced. Are there other age-related factors?
We know from numerous psychological studies that the human brain doesn’t finish developing until around 22 years of age for females and around 29 years of age for males. One of the last areas to develop is in our frontal region, in which we can process decisions and think through what the consequences are going to be.
Friends are another important age-related factor. Our research shows that friends simply being in the car is a risk factor; they don’t even have to say anything but the young driver thinks they should show off to them.
Young people are very busy people and tend to be quite fatigued. Teenagers are often juggling education, employment and they may have chores or family responsibilities at home. Also, they tend to socialise at times when our bodies are meant to be asleep, late at night or early in the morning and they are driving at these times which are particularly risky.
Young drivers are more likely to be involved in crashes late at night and they are more likely to be carrying passengers, particularly if they are males. This can place them in a really risky situation. We know at some of these social events alcohol and drugs are more likely to be involved and if a driver is impaired by these substances they are much more likely to crash.
Does vehicle choice make a difference to young driver crash involvement?
Absolutely. Young drivers tend to drive cheaper, older cars. Often they have inherited the old family vehicle that mum and dad don’t want any more or they have been able only to purchase a very cheap vehicle with no crash avoidance and no crash protection features.
What type of car should young people be driving?
We don’t want any young driver in a car that is not going to keep them safe. Young drivers tell me they are driving around in a “bucket of crap” because it’s all they can afford. That “bucket of crap” is unlikely to have features that are going to keep them out of a crash. Things like ABS and traction control can help young drivers stay out of a crash in the first place. But if they do crash then we want protective features so they are much more likely to survive. We want there to be seatbelts, we want airbags; features such as that can help keep our young drivers safe if unfortunately they are involved in that crash.
Driving around in a “bucket of crap” that doesn’t have crash avoidance and crash protection features is just one of the most perplexing things to me. One simple thing all parents can do to help keep their teens safe is get them in a safe car. Usually mum and dad’s car is newer, it is likely to have crash avoidance features, it is likely to have crash protection features and there are consequences if something goes wrong.
Parents can set limits on who drives the car, when, where, who are the passengers and so on. I have heard repeatedly over the years that kids who are in mum and dads car are much safer drivers. You take a car home with a ding all the way down the side of the car or a speeding ticket rolls up in the mail two weeks later and you are in mum and dad’s brand new car, doom on you. Young drivers tell me they go home in their $500 bucket of rubbish and one of the panels is scratched and dented and mum and dad say ‘We don’t care; it’s your car, you pay for it if you want it fixed’. But we want mum and dad to care if there is a dent or a speeding ticket. This is a huge deal.
How has social media impacted on adolescents and their behaviour?
Social media is an interesting beast indeed. It can be a fantastic avenue and a great way to disseminate information.
Conversely, social media has the capacity to be a very detrimental part of road safety. We are finding here in Australia that it is quite normal for teenagers to have access to their own phone. We are also finding that teenagers have a phenomenon called ‘FOMO’ or a fear of missing out. So they are highly attuned to any updates from their friends. Things such as what they are eating at the time, where they are shopping, Facebook accounts, photos that have been uploaded.
If you are texting on your phone while driving there are three huge issues. Number one your eyes are off the road; number two, distraction; number three, you are physically holding that phone.
If parents were going to do just ONE thing to help prevent their adolescent from being involved in a road crash, what should it be?
Stay involved. Be involved in road safety right from birth. Monkey see, monkey do. Your young driver has seen you for 16 years before they got a license. They have watched everything you have done in that car and they have taken everything on.
If they have seen you talk on your phone every time you drive they are going to talk on their phone when they drive. If you then turn around and say, ‘don’t do that’ they are unlikely to listen to that message because they have seen you do that exact same thing and there were no bad consequences.
How can parents remain involved in their teens’ driving?
Set driving restrictions, particularly during the first six months of driving. There is a massive spike in crashes, fatalities and injuries during those first six months. Drive in the car with them. There is no law that says you must be in there but still hop in that car. You will be surprised how much their driving has changed.
Reward positive behaviour and set up punishments if they are not being safe. Know who your child’s friends are because they are the ones who are going to be travelling in the car with your child. If those friends aren’t a positive influence step in and set limits and say those friends are unable to travel in the vehicle. The priority is keeping your young driver safe.
Do you have any final tips for parents?
If you know your child is a risk-taker there is no law that says they have to have their driver’s license. Hold off and let them grow up a little bit and show that they can regulate their own behaviour.
For more information on Bridie Scott-Parker and her research visit:
There is also an extended version of this interview, with more in-depth advice for parents, an insight into Bridie Scott-Parker’s research and her opinion on how we can move road safety education forward.