Otago’s long-running New Zealand Drivers Study has been gathering information about our young drivers to help reduce the incidence of traffic-related injury among this high-risk group. The results have thrown new light on to the attitudes of teenagers and the role of parents, as well as informing and influencing changes to this country’s driver licensing system.
The leading causes of death in young people are car crashes and suicide, with fatal crashes generally outnumbering suicides among teenagers 15 to 19 years old. But, with the recent raising of the minimum age for learner driving licences from 15 to 16, there is hope that at least the road toll statistics may reduce.
The law change in 2011 came after decades of lobbying from Otago’s Department of Preventive and Social Medicine’s Injury Prevention Research Unit (IPRU). The IPRU’s New Zealand Drivers Study (NZDS) provided convincing evidence to help push through the legislation after years of opposition.
For Dr Dorothy Begg, principal investigator of the NZDS, it had been a long battle. “[Professor] John Langley and I started sowing the seeds of this study about 20 years ago. The national databases have records of crashes involving young drivers, but they have very limited data on the behavioural aspects of crashes.
“If we were going to make a difference, we had to look elsewhere for our information.”
The team initially worked with the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, which has been monitoring about a thousand people born in 1972-3. Despite indications of the risks faced by young drivers, attempts to get the learner licence age raised failed in 1998 – about the same time as the multidisciplinary study’s participants grew too old to fit the young drivers’ profile.
“We had been basing a lot of our arguments on evidence from international studies, so when we realised that people and politicians were not going to take any notice of these studies we decided we would do our own research and find out what we should be doing in New Zealand.”
In 2001 Begg and Langley received funding from the Health Research Council (HRC) to undertake a pilot study to determine if it was feasible to do a large, nationally-based, multi-stage cohort study of newly-licensed drivers. The pilot showed it was, indeed, feasible and, in 2005 with funding from the HRC, ACC and the Road Safety Trust, the NZDS began. The primary aim was to identify ways of targeting areas to reduce traffic-related injury among a high-risk group of drivers.
“One of the reasons for the drivers study was to obtain evidence from New Zealand to try to influence policy in New Zealand, so the argument about international research not applying here could not be used.”
Begg and Langley were joined by Dr Rebecca Brookland, Professors John Broughton and Shanthi Ameratunga, and assisted by Dr Pauline Gulliver and assistant research fellows Anna McDowell and Hamish Rogers.
They recruited almost 4,000 newly licensed car drivers in New Zealand, with a relatively representative spread of gender, ethnicity and location. The majority were teenagers, with most of the other young drivers in their early 20s. The novice drivers agreed to share their experiences, motivation, training, alcohol and drug use, risk-taking, and traffic crashes and convictions.
One of the early key questions investigated was how the young drivers felt about raising the minimum age of licensing. Contrary to what many had believed, only about half of them opposed the change. The evidence also showed that few would really be inconvenienced by amending the legal age for driving to 16.
“It seems that having a licence isn’t quite the rite of passage that we thought it might have been.”
With New Zealand data being collected, Begg and Langley put forward a submission to a new select committee considering the change of law. “We could answer all their questions and had the evidence to support our answers. Then, after years of resistance, suddenly everybody decided it was a good idea to raise the age and it went through Parliament virtually unopposed. Clearly, they all thought its time had come. We’d been pushing it for years, so it was a really big moment,” says Begg.
But not everything was going quite as smoothly as the researchers would have liked.
The study’s plan is to interview the cohort at each of the three stages of the graduated driver licensing system – on gaining their learner licence, restricted licence and full licence. When they found that a sizeable proportion of their learner drivers had not progressed to a restricted licence when they had been eligible to do so for at least two years, the researchers decided to investigate this. The primary reasons given were that they were too lazy or busy, or had limited access to the means to drive.
Now the government is considering imposing time limits on learner and restricted licences, so non-progressors will have to start again if they haven’t moved on to the next stage within a reasonable period, currently mooted at five years.
“Our findings showed that those learner drivers who had not progressed were, on the whole, not driving very much,” says Brookland. “They were also less likely to be issued with traffic offences.”
Extending the period of learner licensing from six months to a year is also under consideration. The NZDS shows that learner drivers who spend longer on a learner licence under supervision are less likely to be involved in crashes when they drive unsupervised at the restricted licence stage than those who progress rapidly from a learner licence.
The results also show that many learners drive unsupervised and that this is associated with an increased risk of crashing. Making it more difficult to get licences is one strategy that has been introduced to try to reduce those risks, says Begg. “We could extend the time to be spent on a learner licence but, at this stage, the approach taken is to encourage 120 hours of supervised driving and the test for the restricted licence has been made more difficult. It is believed that these changes would give novices a chance to get more experience and be safer on the roads.”
Research into young drivers included interviews with 1,200 parents, which brought more surprises.
“Parents have recently become a very hot topic and what we have in the NZDS on the involvement of parents is probably unique in the world. We have a large sample and we have detailed information from them,” says Begg. “As much as we have helped to influence policy for young drivers, I think in terms of developing new areas of research, this is one of the most important parts of the study. It’s very hard to get and no one else has got it.”
Brookland is discovering links between parental involvement and risk on the roads.
“When I started my thesis, parents were not really on the radar. There was no acknowledgement that parents were part of the picture at all. But now our study shows they have a very important role to play in keeping young drivers safe. The onus is not just on the adolescents or the police who enforce the rules. It’s a much wider community issue.”
Findings from the study show that parents can have considerable influence over their children’s driving by being good role models.
Supportive parents who enforce the rules and are involved in their adolescent’s driving experiences can reduce the risks. Unfortunately, the opposite holds true as well. If parents break rules and have crashes, their children are likely to follow suit.
The information is now being used as part of the New Zealand Transport Authority’s Safe Teen Driver programme development and Safer Vehicles for Teens campaign. The NZDS study shows most adolescents drive vehicles that provide poor crash protection and parents would benefit from learning what factors are important to consider when choosing a vehicle for their adolescent to drive.
For Brookland, the emerging data make her more conscious than ever of her own responsibilities as a parent. “There’s a high level of non-compliance involved with so many crashes, so we have to find ways to enforce conditions that support safe practice.
“My thesis research has been my life for the past seven years. It began when my twin boys were two. Now they are nine. I’ll be well and truly looking after their safety when it comes to learning to drive. I won’t be encouraging them to start early.”
Although the funded drive of the NZDS is now complete, the follow-ups continue.
“This is the longest running study of its kind and it is highly relevant both in New Zealand and internationally,” says Begg. “We have a statistically significant number of people and response rates have been consistently high all the way through. Even 85 per cent of the parents are still in the study. It’s very comprehensive.
“The licensing system has been a central feature of our work along with the introduction of graduated licensing and our ability to evaluate that legislation. No one else has really done much on this in New Zealand.
“We’ve also been pushing for years for zero blood alcohol limits for young drivers. Alcohol is a huge problem. Even in the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Study we were seeing teenagers who were meeting the criteria for alcohol dependence – and they were self reporting. High-risk young adults have huge problems with alcohol. In New Zealand 40 per cent of fatal crashes involving those under 20 involve alcohol.
“These are the big issues, although we are also fine-tuning other ones. We’re very policy oriented.”
And with the researchers’ track record in influencing public policy so far, we can probably expect more changes – and safer roads – in the years to come.