Are road safety improvements reaching all young drivers?
In Australia, most states have experienced decreases in young driver fatalities in recent years. In comparison to overall driver fatalities, this decrease is larger than the general population of drivers, suggesting road safety initiatives targeting young drivers may have been successful.
To examine this issue more closely, a trend analyses can account for fluctuations over time and determine if the seemingly downward trend is significant. Such an analysis can assess changes for different sub-groups, and crash outcomes can be explored to determine if trends are only significant for certain groups or crashes and not others.
Two recent studies were conducted to explore several trends in young driver crashes over a decade long period (1997-2007) in New South Wales. The studies explored data on 17-25 year-old drivers provided by the Roads and Traffic Authority of NSW and looked at rates per 10,000 licensed drivers.
The first study looked at trends based on the crash outcome: when the young driver was not injured, was injured, or died in the crash. Both young driver non-injury and young driver fatality rates decreased significantly. The average decreases were 4% and 5% per year respectively. Young driver injury rates increased to 2001 but then decreased thereafter.
The overall rates for male young drivers also decreased significantly (and moreso than for females) suggesting that initiatives to target this high-risk sub-group may have been successful. However, compared to drivers aged 21-25 years, rates for 17 year-olds and particularly also for 18-20 year olds were much higher, suggesting more needs to be done for these younger groups and not only with the youngest newly licensed drivers.
The second study looked more closely at the fatality trends by exploring differences for young drivers living in urban, regional and rural areas and in low, moderate and high socioeconomic (SES) areas. The only significant decreasing trend was for young drivers living in urban areas. Overall, the fatality rates were much higher for youth living in rural areas and in low SES areas compared to their urban and high SES counterparts. High posted speed limits and fatigue were significant contributing factors for these fatalities, as was drink driving and seatbelt non-use for the rural youth and driving older cars for the low SES youth. These are modifiable factors and so initiatives to address these issues should be supported and promoted to reduce these disparities.
In addition, the rate of young driver fatalities at night (10pm to 5am) did not change in this second study, accounting for 30-40% of fatalities. This further supports a role for night-time driving restrictions in New South Wales for newly-licensed drivers.
Data were available to 2007 so it is unknown whether these trends may have changed recently.
Despite that many potential confounding variables were available in the dataset (as recorded by police), other factors that were not measured may have also impacted on the trends. For example, risky driving behaviours have been shown in other studies to be more common among rural and low SES drivers but it is not known how these contributed to the crashes or may have changed over time.
This work is the only recent Australian research to look at these trends and so it is unknown whether these findings apply to other states and territories, but these issues are worthy of attention in other jurisdictions and should be kept in mind when considering ‘one-size-fits-all’ approaches to young driver safety.
Overall the findings are encouraging that young driver crashes, including young driver fatalities, are decreasing, but there are several inequities in the findings. While graduated driver licensing particularly targets restrictions in the first year of licensure, more might need to be done for successive years (particularly the 18-20 year old group). Night time driving restrictions are needed to reduce the disproportionately high crash rate at night. Targeted initiatives are also needed to reduce disparities for young drivers living in rural and low SES areas. Initiatives to address driving on high speed roads, fatigue, drink driving, seatbelt non-use and older vehicles are likely to show benefits.
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