Fears for young women motorists over errors around heavy trucks

By: Cobey Bartels and Rob McKay

Spike in fatal miscalculations by those under-21 shocks National Truck Accident Research Centre

Fears for young women motorists over errors around heavy trucks
Teresa Senserrick says there are common misperceptions around most young driver crashes


The appearance of high numbers of young women making fatal mistakes around heavy trucks has alarmed the National Truck Accident Research Centre (NTARC).

The issue was raised by National Transport Insurance (NTI) National industry affairs manager Owen Driscoll, who heads NTARC, at the recent Trucking Australia conference when providing insights into the soon-to-be-released 2017 Major Accident Investigation Report.

While 93 per cent of major crash fatalities were down to errors by the lighter vehicle, Driscoll explained that within that, a dreadful percentage were females under the age of 21, something he says that needs to be addressed.

"Thirty six percent were females, and 63 percent of those females were under 21 … that was a really shocking statistic," he said.

"We’ve got to look at that … we’ve got to look at licencing … how we teach kids, etc."

It is understood NTARC has seen nothing like it in previous editions of the bi-yearly report.

The development comes as industry groups in New South Wales and South Australia have been vocal about a need for a greater focus on motorist education on safe driving around trucks.

In the absence of more details and deeper research related to the NTARC finding, driving safety experts ATN spoke to on the issue would not be drawn on possible reasons for the development.

Seasoned expert and Australasian College of Road Safety president Lauchlan McIntosh took a conservative line when approached about the figures, especially as comparatively few incidents are involved to base conclusions on.

"Smaller numbers are very dangerous," McIntosh says.

"You need a period of five years to get a reasonable handle on it."

He cautions against simplistic reasoning and responses, given the variables.

"Everyone wants to blame the driver," McIntosh says, adding that a range of other accident causes including infrastructure are involved fatal and serious injury crashes.

Teresa Senserrick, associate professor of transport and road safety research at the University of New South Wales, notes that road fatalities generally have reversed their downward trend recently.

Senserrick, who highlights that numbers are prone to spikes and slips, points to the NSW Centre for Road Safety interactive crash statistics website.

This shows a fall from 2015 in all NSW female fatalities in the 17-20 year old bracket but a huge spike for males of hat age, a spike replicated in the total male figure after nearly 20 years of falls.

Senserrick was loath to attribute reasons for any short-term spike, as the figures are prone to aberrations and variables.

"There is a common misperception that most young driver crashes happen because they are taking stupid risks in a stupid, youthful, irresponsible manner," she tell ATN.

Without knowing the crashes identified by NTARC, she says inexperienced young drivers could be misjudging gaps and stopping distances.

"Young people would be very prone to those errors because they are very new to it," she adds

In a 2015 paper posted on The Conversation website, Young driver crashes: the myths and facts, Senserrick underlines that "newly licensed drivers of any age have the highest risk of crashing in the months following the (very safe) learner period.

"They are novices of a very complex skill and, as with any complex skill, they make mistakes. Factor in that most new drivers are young and it follows that young people have more crashes."

Also at play are that along with their bodies and changes in hormonal functions including that for sleep, you people’s brains are also still developing and the process continues into their early 20s.

There are also social forces at play, with the path to personal independence leading to more time in cars but, for some, also involving "pushing the limits".

Senserrick’s paper criticises current driver training programs that fail to address such complexities, being prone instead to "target advanced vehicle handling skills in imminent crash scenarios, which, contrary to expectations, are shown to increase crashes. Such complex skills cannot be mastered in a day.

"Nor can they be applied effectively without practice, yet these skills might be needed months later.

"Such approaches increase young drivers’ judgement of their skills beyond their actual ability. This results in more rather than less risk being accepted when driving."

Her alternative is for licensing conditions for new drivers – including restrictions on night driving and peer passengers – that serve to reduce exposure to high-risk conditions.

"Contrary to some beliefs, they do not punish all for the sake of the intentionally risky few, but rather address inexperience and developmental limitations," Senserrick writes.

"They have proven to be the single most successful initiative in reducing youth crash casualties."

More to come

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