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Understanding Risk The Key To Saving Young Lives

Media Release: October 5 2006

Understanding Risk The Key To Saving Young Lives

“The issue isn’t necessarily driving age, the main issue is giving young drivers effective training that decreases their risk-taking behaviour,” says Dr Robert Isler, the senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Waikato currently conducting a ground-breaking young driver study in Taupo alongside the AA Driver Education Foundation.

“The brain’s frontal lobe doesn’t develop fully until you’re 25, and young drivers are therefore more at risk from making inappropriate decisions when driving. Teenage drivers are 19 times more likely to crash in their first six months driving solo, than in the months in which they were supervised.”

“But unless you raise the driving age to 25, the issue isn’t only age, it’s also training.”

Isler’s comprehensive study hopes to prove that cognitive skills training to offset that undeveloped frontal lobe does work. “This experiment will let us determine what is appropriate, so it can be applied to any young driver under 25.”

One major problem for young drivers is an inflated self confidence in their driving ability. Isler’s study includes innovative exercises to puncture that confidence.

For example, on a closed road outside Turangi, an instructor drives at 50kph down the right hand lane. The young driver follows at what he or she sees as an appropriate distance down the left hand lane. The instructor slams on the brakes …

Every student initially follows too close, stops too late – and overlaps the other car in what would, in real life, have been a crash. Hokitika’s David Couper is typical. “I thought I was going to stop in time but I couldn’t, even though I knew I’d have to stop.”

No instruction is given, but every student drops back for subsequent runs and every student knows what to do – Couper: “That two second rule works.” Until this exercise, he hadn’t absorbed the importance of the rule in real life conditions.

Then there’s the instrumented AMS car. It looks like an ordinary Subaru Impreza. But it carries an array of electronic equipment reading everything from acceleration and G-forces, to whether both hands are on the wheel, or you’re trailing the clutch.

AMS instructor Karen Paramore says it’s hard to argue with a computer. “We surprised a few of them when we showed them what we’d downloaded.”

“Some of the improvements are unreal,” Paramore says. “It’s like they want to beat the computer – so they’re really thinking about what they’re doing.”

Will they relax in their own car? “I don’t think so, because once they see what they’re doing wrong, they see the logic and understand the safety factor. Tell them to do something because it’s the law and they’ll say, ‘sod you’. Knowing the when and why makes a difference. Why not tailgate? Not because it’s annoying – after the emergency exercises they know why, and with the instruments we can show how often they’re doing it, and they get a shock.”

Dr Isler’s study is targeted at the thought processes in which young drivers fall short.

“One problem with young drivers is an inflated self confidence in their driving ability. How people perceive their abilities has an important impact on their risk-taking behaviour. For example, they speed because they hold unrealistic beliefs about their ability to deal with hazards at high speed.”

“In the frontal lobe project we promote awareness of their limitations in real driving situations to reduce risk-taking behaviour.”

Dr Isler hopes the frontal lobe project will drive development of evidence-based training interventions, based on best international practice, to help young drivers learn to keep themselves safe.

“Raising the driving age doesn’t solve the whole problem,” Isler says. “Accurately targeted training for learner drivers under 25 years of age is another key.”


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