Around five people will die on Victorian roads this week. Today, around 15 will be seriously injured.
Working as a newspaper photographer in the 70s, defensive driving instructor Pete Barr was exposed to countless tragic accidents and road fatalities.
The images of devastation are imprinted on his mind, the seedling to his flowering passion for driver education. As a young photographer, car accidents struck Barr as a senseless way to die. It’s a waste of life, he explains, accidents are avoidable.
“We have control over our vehicle and the way we react to our environment. We are able to prevent those tragedies occurring.”
Barr doesn’t accept tragedy as a price we have to pay to get around.
While 18 to 25 year olds represent around 14 per cent of all licensed drivers, they account for more than a quarter of all fatalities on Victoria’s roads. Young people continue to be frighteningly over-represented in the road toll.
Forty-five per cent of all young Australian injury deaths are due to road traffic crashes.
Vic Roads says our driving tests are designed to keep Victorian roads safe by ensuring a “minimum standard” of driving ability. But is this minimum standard too low if 249 people died on our roads last year?
University of the Sunshine Coast Research Fellow Dr Bridie Scott Parker thinks the current licensing system in any jurisdiction can be enhanced. Victoria has one of the best licensing systems in Australia, she says, but we can definitely build upon it.
The introduction of the graduated licensing system (young people first receive a restricted probationary license) to Victoria in 2007 saw a 23 per cent decrease in the casualty crash involvement of drivers aged 18 to 20.
Dr Scott Parker says although a significant reduction in crashes, fatalities and injuries has followed the introduction of the graduated licensing scheme everywhere in the world, the road toll statistics in Victoria have begun to plateau.
“This plateau suggests that graduated licensing has given us the best it can and we need to keep finding ways to continually improve it and augment it with other things we are learning along the way,” she explains.
The United Kingdom, Switzerland and Sweden all have a significantly lower number of deaths per 100,000 people than Victoria. So do Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Germany and Ireland.
According to the Victorian Government, Victoria is one of the best performing states in Australia but 80 fewer people would be killed on our roads each year if we had the same trauma rate as the UK and Sweden.
An emergency stop is tested in the licensing process in the U.K. Classes on avoiding dangerous driving situations are mandatory throughout the three year probationary period in Switzerland.
Risk assessments during the learners phase in Sweden involve learning about the affects of alcohol, drugs, fatigue, speed and high risk behaviour on road safety.
Pete Barr says the emergency stop would be a greater value skill than a three point turn or a reverse parallel park, two elements of the current drivers’ license test.
“Reverse parallel parking safely is a good skill to have, but nobody dies or is injured doing it.”
P-Plater and Monash University student Elliana Saltalamachia is not confident she is fully equipped to control her car in an emergency situation, however she felt well prepared to drive solo as a P-Plater.
Barr says the main reason braking and swerving is practiced in defensive driving courses is as a teaching tool.
“They show how much difference a bit of speed makes, how looking further ahead on the road and seeing things early allows you to make safe decisions and the importance of having that extra bit of space around your car at all times.”
RACV Road User Behaviour Manager Melinda Spiteri says RACV encourages parents to remain involved with their child’s driving as a P-Plater.
“We support parents to encourage their children not to drive late at night,” she says.
Dr Scott Parker says testing driving ability is difficult.
“Most people can be on their best behaviour for 45 minutes, but is that really how you drive all the time?”
She would prefer the behaviour of learner drivers be monitored on a device placed in the car for a week, allowing an assessment over a longer period rather than based on the “rather short, relatively artificial” test in place now.
And she would like to see the current computer simulated hazard test – which seems to assess reflexes rather than hazard perception – replaced with a ten minute verbal driving commentary.
She thinks talking out loud about what you are paying attention to in the driving environment, understanding how certain factors pose a risk and how the risk may change in the future, would be a more beneficial way of assessing hazard perception.
In their first year of driving, young Victorians are almost four times more likely to be involved in a fatal or serious injury crash than more experienced drivers.
Barr emphasises driving is complex and much more than a mechanical activity.
“You could train a monkey to drive a car, what you couldn’t do is train it to drive it well.”