Feature Story 01-Mar-2011
Watching your child become a driver is one of the most nerve-wracking rites of passage many parents endure. If you’re the mother or father of an under-12, you’re probably heaving a sigh of relief that this is one issue you don’t need to think about just yet. But the truth is that you can start helping your child become a safer driver long before they’re old enough to get a learner’s licence.
The riskiest group
According to the Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads, young drivers in their first year of driving have the highest crash rates on Queensland’s roads.
The department says about 100 deaths occur annually as a result of crashes involving drivers aged 17–24 years, with the young driver at fault about 75% of the time. Around 80% of young drivers involved in fatal crashes are males.
Frightening statistics, certainly. But how do they relate to you if you’re the parent of a younger child?
Baby on board — in more ways than one
The answer is that you are teaching your children about driving every time you drive with them in the car. Over the last 20 years, studies around the world have found that parents’ attitudes and behaviours when driving influence their children’s eventual performance as drivers.
For example, in the 1990s, health researchers in the USA found that college students’ attitudes to wearing seatbelts were likely to be similar to those of their parents, and that “direct modelling” was the major influence. Put simply, if the students had grown up watching parents not wear seatbelts, they tended not to do it themselves.
Also in the US, a 2000 study by the Highway Safety Research Center found that young drivers whose parents had three or more crashes were 22% more likely to have a crash themselves. Those whose parents had three or more traffic infringements were 38% more likely to break traffic laws. Closer to home, a 2008 New Zealand study also found an association between parents’ and adolescents’ risky driving behaviours.
Most recently, the London Department for Transport commissioned two psychology researchers to consider all the available evidence on this issue. In a study published last year, the researchers concluded that children are “witnesses” to their parents’ driving behaviour for many years, and that: “Parental beliefs about how it is appropriate to behave as a driver are likely to have become apparent [in children] before adolescents actually start learning to drive.”
In other words, when you drive, your children are watching — and learning.
How can you help?
Bridie Scott-Parker is a PhD student in psychology at the Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety — Queensland (based at Queensland University of Technology). A passionate advocate for road safety, she is investigating how parents and friends influence young drivers in their first year of driving.
After interviewing hundreds of young people, Bridie has found that parents’ attitudes, behaviour, and rewards or punishments to encourage safe driving do influence young drivers’ behaviour. She believes that parents should model safe driving from when children are very young.
“When we talk to young drivers, they are able to recall mum’s and dad’s driving behaviours,” she says. “And if it’s a behaviour that you’re doing over and over, certainly that’s more likely to be repeated by the young driver.
“So we would encourage parents to always ensure that they’re modelling safe driving behaviours from a very early age, and consistently, all the way until the child is licensed and beyond, of course.”
It’s not hard to work out that parents (like every other driver) should obey the speed limit, follow the road rules, and be considerate of other road-users. But Bridie says more subtle factors are also at work in forming children’s attitudes to driving.
“If they see mum or dad drink and drive and nothing happens, they don’t have a crash, they’re not caught by the police, their licence or vehicle isn’t confiscated, the young person learns that that’s a safe behaviour,” she says. “ Just the same, if the family is driving along and mum and dad are saying ‘Oh, look, the police are just revenue-raising, catching people who are speeding’, the young driver internalises that, and they may end up having very similar attitudes to their parents.”
So, in the ideal world, parents would always stay calm when driving, and only display positive attitudes… But nobody’s perfect, and we all know what it’s like when the kids are fighting in the back seat, you’re running late, somebody’s just cut you off, and frustration is bubbling up. What should you do if you’re about to lose your temper and do something you might regret?
Bridie, mother of a 10- and a 12-year-old herself, laughs sympathetically.
“Certainly that’s a common situation! I myself have been involved in that circumstance, and the best thing is just to stop… pull over if necessary, defuse the situation, calmly look at it like a third person, try to assess what’s going on in that circumstance and reappraise… and come back to the situation and move on from there.”
If you do make a mistake in the car in front of your children, Bridie suggests you discuss it honestly afterwards.
Explain to the child what went wrong and what would have been a more appropriate alternative behaviour or attitude at that time, and explain the reasoning behind that,” she says.
Schools can help too
While you are an important influence on what kind of driver your child becomes, you aren’t the only factor. Research shows that your child’s personality, peers and age also have a major impact. Adolescence is a time for risk-taking, not just on the road but in many parts of life.
Dr Lisa Buckley is another researcher at the Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety. Her work focuses on reducing teenage injuries caused by risky behaviour, including risk-taking on the road. Working mostly with 14 and 15-year-olds, she’s been trialling a school program to help them become safer passengers, pedestrians and cyclists — and to encourage them not to drive until they’re licensed.
Dr Buckley says that the program tries to encourage positive relationships between young people and parents, peers and teachers, and to affect attitudes to risk-taking.
“Part of the program is one lesson a week for 8 weeks — which is the school term — looking primarily at messages of safe attitudes to the road and getting them to look out for their mates around the road. First aid has also been a key component, understanding the consequences of key behaviours in terms of injuries,” she says.
Teachers are trained beforehand to use role plays, workbooks and discussions to get young people thinking about risks and strategies for staying safe on the road. Dr Buckley says a pilot of the program in six Queensland schools in 2006 produced pleasing results, with participating students reporting a 20% increase in wearing bike helmets and a 15% reduction in cycling injuries. They also had a greater awareness of risk and actions to reduce risk.
So successful was the program that it will soon expand to 26 schools with a $330,000 grant from the Commonwealth Government.
“The program will run in 2012,” says Dr Buckley. “Then we’ll come back to the schools a year after the program finishes to see if the change in risk-taking behaviour and injury holds.”
If the program is eventually introduced more widely, we could see schools playing a key role in helping Queensland students become safer drivers — again, well before they are old enough to get a learner’s licence. Interestingly, there is research to show that emphasising attitudinal programs in schools — rather than emphasising ‘hands-on’ driving skills — is likely to have a bigger impact on creating safe drivers.
Driveway runovers - Stopping driveway deaths
While it’s important to think about safety when children are in the car, you must also know exactly where any children are when you’re reversing out of your driveway and they aren’t with you. Driveway runovers kill an average of one child a week in Australia.
Low-speed run-over is the third most common cause of death by injury for children 1–4 years in Queensland.
Children 1–2 years are the most likely to be killed in home driveways. Young boys are at greatest risk.
Vehicles are usually moving slowly and are often driven by a parent, relative or friend.
Late afternoon is the riskiest time.
A “blind space” means that small children cannot be seen behind many vehicles. 4WDs are over-represented in driveway runovers.
In almost all driveway runovers, there is no clear separation between the driveway, garage and rest of the yard where children play.
Three steps to safety
1 SUPERVISE Know where your children are and hold them close if someone is moving a vehicle. If you are the only adult home and need to move the car, the safest approach is to restrain all children appropriately in the car with you.
2 SEPARATE Separate play areas from driveways. For example, use high handles on garage doors if your house opens directly into your garage, and install self-closing doors and fences to separate the driveway and front lawn. Keep toys away from the garage or driveway.
3 SEE Walk around your vehicle to check nobody is under or behind it. Install car cameras or sensors but don’t rely on them alone.
Source: Kidsafe Qld fact sheet: driveway runovers. For more information, visit www.health.qld.gov.au and search for “child injury prevention”. To check the “reversing visibility index” of popular cars, visit www.nrma.com.au.
New Queensland licensing for young drivers
Age to get learner’s licence reduced from sixteen-and-a-half to sixteen years.
Young people must now hold learner’s licence for at least 12 months and attach an L plate to their car.
Learners must keep a logbook recording 100 hours of supervised driving practice, including 10 hours of night driving. Logbook is submitted to Department of Transport and Main Roads before practical test for provisional licence.
If learner passes practical test, they receive a ‘P1’ provisional licence (red P plate).
After 12 months at P1 level, driver must pass a hazard perception test to progress to ‘P2’ (green P plate). P2 must be held for a minimum of two years before driver can progress to open licence.
Learners and P1 holders under 25 cannot use hands-free mobile phones.
P1 drivers under 25s can carry no more than one passenger under 21 between 11pm and 5am.
P1 and P2 drivers under 25 have restricted access to high-powered vehicles.
For more information, visit www.tmr.qld.gov.au.
Stricter licensing laws for young drivers
The Queensland Government has also taken steps to reduce the road toll among young drivers. In July 2007, the government introduced the Graduated Licensing Scheme. The new scheme requires young people to go through a more stringent process to get their licence, and places more restrictions on them during their early years of driving (see box for more details).
It’s early years yet, but experts are hopeful that the scheme will lead to a reduction in crashes involving young drivers.
Keep trying to connect with your kids
If all this seems a bit daunting, there is some good news: being a loving, connected parent is one of the best things you can do to help your child grow up safely.
Studies the world over have found that children are less likely to engage in high-risk behaviors (including risky driving) if their family communicates, provides appropriate discipline, offers a supportive environment, and takes an interest in what children are doing.
So — connect with your kids, keep talking, and try to get them on the right road early on.