Best route to youth road safety: not driving

Professor Hank Weiss, director of the Injury Prevention Research Unit at New Zealand’s University of Otago, has a startlingly straightforward suggestion for reducing the number of young people killed and injured in cars.

Get them out of cars.

In Brisbane last week for the National Conference on Injury Prevention and Safety Promotion, Professor Weiss gave a talk, An Urgent Call for the Demise of Teen Driver Education Programmes, about scrapping teen drivers’ education in favour of lessons in safer, healthier and cleaner ways to get around.

As background to Professor Weiss’s comments to follow, here is some perspective from Road Deaths in Australia 1925–2008, a report by the Federal Government’s Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics:

“Nearly 200,000 people were killed in road crashes in Australia in the twentieth century. This is more than double the number of Australians killed (nearly 90 000) in the four major wars in which Australia was involved in the twentieth century: First World War, Second World War, Korea and Vietnam. In addition to the persons killed each year, there are many who are seriously injured. Overall, in 2006 … for every person killed on the roads there were also 20 persons seriously injured, many with debilitating lifelong injuries. Road crashes impose economic costs conservatively estimated to be $18 billion per annum and social costs that are not readily quantifiable but are nonetheless devastating for the individuals, families and communities involved.”

Out of control: a woman died and a man suffered severe abdominal injuries when their car hit a pole in Sydney. AAP/CareFlight

Professor Hank Weiss, Department of Preventive and Social Medicine, Dunedin School of Medicine, at the University of Otago

The basic theme is to begin to look at harm from motor vehicles from a much broader public health viewpoint, not just road safety.

From a public health standpoint, it should not just be about trying to prevent crashes and injuries, but also it should also be about promoting an active lifestyle, reducing car use to avoid pollution, emissions, the greenhouse gas emmissions, the effect on the enviroment.

The idea is to have an integrated approach rather than a narrow silo approach just thinking about how we make people safe in what is actually an activity that carries with it a lot of harm.

Some of the most up to date thinkers in this area are Australian, like [Murray] May and [Paul] Tranter, I’ve quoted their recent paper [Toward a Wholistic Framework for Road Safety, authored also with James Warn].

They call for deep change in road safety instead of the old paradigm of focusing in on trying to make people safe while they drive more. We should think about the more holistic approach, and think about the safety that stems from driving less, and about the multiple benefits across society from driving less.

There’s a real mix out there in terms of driver education. Some of it’s just classroom oriented, focusing in on facts and figures, and maybe some movies. But over and over again the studies that have looked at the effectiveness of that kind of training have not established any. What it ends up doing is just being the gateway to letting people into the driving environment where they then have problems.

Lots has been written in the last few years on the ineffectiveness of what passes for drivers’ education these days and there are lots of calls to change it so that people aren’t just getting facts and figures, but are instead able to better evaluate the hazards around them.

There are also calls for more practical training, and there’s some evidence that that sinks in a little bit better, but driving is a very complex activity and it requires a lot of practice. The programmes that graduate [slowly] to licensing and have those initial hours and weeks and months under supervision are probably much more effective than anything you can do in a classroom.

But most young people aren’t interested in drivers’ education, or they may not be interested in driving, or they may not know the disadvantages of driving. So I talk about adolescent mobility-health as the alternative paradigm, which is something we could approach every young person with, and not just focus on that minority - especially at the high school age - that are needing or wanting to take up car use.

What cities like Portland [Oregon, in the US] show is that when you have an infrastructure where young people have access to safe cycling and affordable and accessible public transit, they use it; they don’t need to take the car. And the fact is that the injury rate in Portland is much lower than other cities its size, because people don’t have to drive as much.

I’m talking about active transport as a safety measure, and encouraging the people in this audience, who are injury and forensic specialists, to realise that that’s something they can do; it’s something they can support, something they can be involved in.

The more you drive, the more you’re at risk. In the US they measure the effectiveness on the basis of fatalities per mile driven but the problem with that is if more people drive and the rate doesn’t go up accordingly, there can still be more people dying.

It’s not a true public health measure we should be using to evaluate how safe the highways are. If we talk about reducing miles we’re also talking about reducing not only the safety of the person who’s reduced the miles but the safety of the other people whose car they may have hit.

There’s a multiple flow-on effect from reduction in vehicle miles traveled in terms of safety. It’s an important part of the prevention tool kit. And then we take into account the contribution of transportation of transport to climate change, and the increasing cost of travel due to the fuel costs we’re probably going to be traveling less anyways, so we might as well get a start on that.

What do you make of Hank Weiss’s views? Do we mistakenly see youth-driving as a natural right and a respectable, everyday, recreational pursuit, when driving pollutes, replaces exercise, carries hideous risks, and is best done sparingly?

Comments welcome below.

Disaster: In the car on the right, a man, a woman, and their child all died, while a man in the red car suffered neck and back injuries. AAP/Wagga Advertiser