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Waikato youth driver study breaks new ground

28 September 2006

Waikato youth driver study breaks new ground

The University of Waikato's ground-breaking young driver study could have world-wide ramifications. "This is the first scientific study of its kind since an elementary experiment in the US a quarter-century ago" says Dr Robert Isler, the senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Waikato who is conducting the study.

"We've learned so much since then. For example, we know that the brain's frontal lobe, which controls cognitive skills like hazard perception and impulse control, doesn't fully develop until you're 25. And we now know that the methods used by the earlier study may not work for young drivers."

Hence this study, in which 36 students - representing the 60,000 new young drivers each year on our roads - will receive intensive driver training, plus cognitive skills training aimed at reducing their risk-taking behaviour.

But first the 36, from as far a-field as Invercargill and Northland, and from every kind of rural and urban background, are tested for their baseline behaviour.

Robert Emmitt, a driver licence auditor for LTNZ, ensures all the driver examiners - from various driving schools and the NZ Army - will mark consistently, before they take each student on a 45-minute loop to mark their driving standards.

Meanwhile a team of graduate students conducts an intensive series of psychometric tests measuring cognitive ability, inhibitions, impulse control, risk taking behaviour and the like.

Students also evaluate their own driving - which will be cross-checked to the instructor assessment and data from an instrumented car to see how accurately the students self-assess.

Already Hamish Whistler - completing a masters degree in organisational psychology, and conducting the risk-acceptance hazard detection tests - has noted a wide-range of skills, from timid students to show-offs; from those already skilled in spotting road hazards, to others apparently living in a dream.

Whistler will not be part of the training to address that. He is not allowed to know which students will undergo which course of instruction. During each week he and the other evaluation teams are replaced by a different line-up of driver trainers - including volunteers from the AA Driver Education Foundation and the ITO.

Whistler, Emmitt and their teams will return twice more, to evaluate progress.

Meanwhile the students - in three groups - are undergoing intensive training in and around Taupo.

They will take theory and practical driving courses. Be evaluated by overseas experts, their eye-scanning checked by equipment still en route from Hamburg. They will undertake theory courses, coaching in how to manage crash scenes, training in night driving - plus a battery of cognitive skills exercises.

At the end of the two weeks the participants, plus the control group of 36 not attending the courses, will go home - primed to fill out driver diaries punctuated by follow-up tests at six and 12 months..

Isler aims to prove that targeted training in higher evaluation skills better enables young drivers to appropriately use their practical skills.

Such proof could have important ramifications for youth driver licensing not only here, but overseas.


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