TRL Academy debates graduated licensing

TrafficSafe was invited to attend the TRL Academy Symposium in London in October to take part in the debate on improving young driver safety in the UK.

Dr Damien Poulter speaking on young driver safetyOpening the symposium to a packed auditorium of industry experts, academics, journalists and road safety advocates, the TRL’s Principal Psychologist, Dr Shaun Helman described his view of tackling young driver safety as a means of avoiding a rebound of casualties in the country after recent improvements have flattened off. After a similar flattening of casualty statistics in the 1990s, improvements in the Killed and Seriously Injured (KSI) figures have been steady and consistent up until the last few years when they’ve once again flattened.

Of course, as casualties reduce to extremely low levels, a flattening out can be expected as the equation of risk versus viability of reducing that risk further becomes skewed. Reducing the risk to zero is unlikely to happen since there will always be a trade-off between the benefits of transport and the risks it presents. When comparing road risk to other risks taken in life, the ratio is currently around 3:1 so on the basis that acceptable risk levels when compared to everyday life would be a ratio of 1:1, there’s still a long way to go and improving young driver safety is one way to achieve this.

Understanding young driver risk

Although there is sufficient evidence to show that younger drivers pose a more serious risk on the roads than people who are older, according to Dr Damien Poulter of the University of Greenwich, little is currently understood about why this risk is elevated in people’s early years or what the risk mechanisms are. Studies performed by Dr Poulter show that experience is the critical factor but this is always the case irrespective of age.

When looking at subsets of different age groups based on gender, risk attitudes and other factors showed that there is some clustering with some drivers showing the expected decline in risk over the years, whilst other showed either consistently low or consistently high risk throughout their driving experience.

His research showed that there are groups of drivers whose risk level isn’t characterised by changes over time but rather by the behaviour they exhibit within the first six months of obtaining a licence. This indicates that there isn’t a simple link between age or experience and crash rate, but there are other factors that need examining. An example that Dr Poulter gave during the symposium is that some high risk drivers “learn” when there is less risk in driving at higher speeds thus violations tend to increase with the years but crashes become less frequent.

The view of Dr Sarah Jones from Public Health Wales reinforces Dr Poulter’s position that experience is a critical element in the reduction of risk and that mechanisms can be put in place to reduce that risk whilst experience is gained.

Acknowledging that a great deal has improved during the last 15 years, Dr jones nonetheless believes there’s a lot that can still be done since young drivers are still eight times more likely to be involved in a collision on the roads than people in their mid 30s.

Risk reduction options

Both Damien and Sarah were conclusive in their support for GDL (Graduated Driver Licensing), which restricts driving whilst the new licence holder gains initial experience including forbidding the carrying of young passengers and placing a curfew on driving hours. “Evidence based solutions to the problem of young driver risk such as GDL should not be ignored,” stated Damien Poulter.

Since the important pre-crash factors are not just driving skills (which are addressed by the test) but also driving style, or a willingness to take risks, both speakers agreed that post-licence monitoring should be introduced. Dr Jones described such monitoring as a “stairgate for teenagers”, helping them to embark on their driving careers without unnecessary exposure to high risk factors.

Monitoring can involve insurance telematics or parental monitoring apps. Dr Poulton pointed out that the risk with this approach is that there would be a self-selection bias, meaning that those teenagers that are less likely to pose a higher danger through having a positive attitude to risk are more likely to agree to parental monitoring.

With political controversy and high feelings from those for and against GDL, it is unlikely to be implemented very soon in the UK but there is growing support for the concept within the country and could be the next step that helps continue the downward trend in road casualties.

Jonathan Newell

Studied Engineering at Loughborough University and now involved in broadcast and technical journalism. Jonathan is based in London and Almaty.

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