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European Road Safety Observatory Novice Drivers

In every crash and fatality statistic, 16-24 year old drivers are greatly over-represented

Traffic crashes are the single greatest killer of 15 to 24 year olds in OECD countries, and, although data is not always available, the situation appears to be no better in other, non-OECD countries. This web text focuses on young and novice drivers in the age group of 18-24, addressing the magnitude and nature of the problem, and it discusses effective countermeasures.

In every crash and fatality statistic, 16-24 year old drivers are greatly over-represented, with risks a factor 2 to 3 times higher than those of more experienced drivers. They pose a greater risk to themselves, their passengers and to other road users than other drivers do. In young driver crashes, for each young driver killed, about 1.3 others also die (e.g. passengers and other road users). Young driver crashes differ from those of more experienced drivers, in that more young drivers crashes happen at night, are often single vehicle crashes (with no other vehicles involved), frequently as a result of ‘loss of control’ and high speeds. Even alcohol consumption in low quantities has a greater impact on youngsters than on experienced drivers.

Young drivers’ high crash rates primarily result from immaturity, lack of experience, impairment, and lifestyles associated with their age and their gender. Young men in particular are often over-confident about their driving skills.

Biological research shows that at the age of 18 areas of the human brain which are responsible for the integration of information and impulse control, are still developing. Not only in physiological terms, but also in social terms youngsters are still maturing. An example is their getting away from their parents’ influences and gaining more independence. As part of this process peers become increasingly important to them, particularly in lifestyle related choices.

Young drivers drive more frequently during high risk hours and under high risk circumstances. Examples are night-time driving, speeding, carrying passengers and a less frequent use of safety belts and driving older cars with fewer safety features.

Learning to drive demands a lot of practice before expert levels are reached. In comparison, vehicle handling skills are relatively easy to master in only a few hours, while skills such as anticipation of potentially hazardous traffic situations require years of practice. The driving task is partly determined by the demands of the road environment, such as road design, the presence and maneuvers of other road users, and traffic rules. However, the complexity of the driving task is very much under the driver’s control also, because of his personal choices on driving speeds, following distances, and position.

These choices may lead to either small or large safety margins, and are based on his personal estimates about his ability to handle these traffic situations. In making these choices, inexperienced drivers in particular need to aim at large safety margins in order to compensate for their lack of experience. In reality however, young inexperienced drivers tend to choose for safety margins which are too small.

To a large extent, this phenomenon is a consequence of the fact that this age group tends to overestimate its skills and to underestimate the complexity of the traffic situation. This is particularly the case for young males.

In addition to their social and biological immaturity and their lack of driving experience, young novice drivers are often impaired while driving. This impairment results from alcohol and drug use, fatigue and distraction. Compared to expert drivers, alcohol deteriorates the young driver’s task performance to a larger extent. Illicit drug use is on the increase in this age group, in principle resulting in increased crash risk. In particular, the combined use of different drugs and alcohol leads to extremely high crash risks.

Youngsters are also strongly affected by loss of sleep, the task duration and the biological clock, that is when driving during sleeping hours. These three factors lead to increased fatigue, which can be recognized as a loss of energy, a reduced tendency to react and reluctance to continue with the task, ultimately resulting in falling asleep at the wheel. Distraction as a cause of driving errors is more prominent in novices than in experts. Furthermore, youngsters are frequently distracted, for instance by passengers or mobile phone use, which lessens the attention for the traffic situation.

Specific measures must be taken to counteract and eliminate the bad effects that immaturity and inexperience may cause. First of all, measures that raise the overall safety level of the traffic system such as adequate enforcement (alcohol, speed and safety belt), safe roads and safe cars, will also increase safety levels of inexperienced and young drivers. Apart from these general measures, specific measures for novice drivers are also called for. Effective measures aim to increase the amount of driving experience before solo driving, and to protect against high risk situations in the first phases of solo driving.

Pre-license experience can be increased by supervised driving (apprenticeship). Protection during the first stages of solo driving can be provided by measures such as low alcohol limits, and restrictions on night time driving and driving with peer passengers.
These measures will only be effective when compliance rates are high. Therefore compulsory measures are preferred, in combination with strict enforcement of these measures. To facilitate their acceptance, information campaigns are needed which increase problem awareness in society and in the group of youngsters and their parents in particular.

Possibilities for improvements can be found in driver instruction and in the application of technologies to control access to the traffic system and to monitor actual driving behaviour. For the improvements in driver instruction the focus should shift from vehicle control and traffic participation to higher order skills such as hazard perception. A complex area in this respect is the training of how to recognize personal skill limitations and how to ‘manage’ safety margins in accordance with it.

With respect to technology, the application of electronic car keys that hold information about the privileges of the driver, alcolocks and black boxes, may reduce the exposure of young drivers to high risk conditions. Other technologies like ESC (Electronic Stability Control) and Advanced Driver Assistant Systems may be beneficial to novice young drivers, but it is too early for firm conclusions because of the lack of empirical studies on the actual impact of these systems on this target group.

This web text is based on the detailed OECD report Young Drivers: the Road to Safety published at the end of 2006 [27], which presents a broad international overview. The report was produced by a large group of experts in the field: policy makers and researchers. Furthermore, it was sent to an even larger group of experts in almost every corner of the world for consultation. This web text is not as detailed as the OECD report. Because the OECD report has an extensive reference list, this web text contains few references to individual studies and concentrates on studies commissioned by the European Commission.

For recent data on this topic you can read the Traffic Safety Basic Facts, 2005: Young people (aged 16-24). The tables in this web text are meant to illustrate the patterns that are discussed. The data was collected for the purpose of the OECD report, and will not be updated in the coming years.