Geoff Dangerfield: Road toll too high and teens most at risk

A teenage driver was killed when this car collided with a truck on a country road in February. Photo / Richard Robinson
A teenage driver was killed when this car collided with a truck on a country road in February. Photo / Richard Robinson

It seems like a lifetime ago when I was getting my first driver's licence in the early 70s, and it's remarkable to think that that even though our population has nearly doubled since then, our road toll has plunged by 60 per cent.

But while in 2011 we might end up with a road toll under 300 for the first time since 1952, we mustn't be complacent. Nearly 300 road fatalities still amounts to more shattered lives and families than we can ever imagine.

The fact remains that the fatality rate on New Zealand highways is higher than in most developed countries, and we need to save more lives. This means focusing on where we're most at risk. These are our young drivers.

More than 700 Kiwi teenagers have died in road crashes in the past decade, with one teen killed on the roads every week in recent years. New Zealand has the highest road death rate in the OECD for people aged 15 to 17, and the fourth highest road death rate for those aged 18 to 20. And there's never a time they're more at risk than during the summer holidays, when they're hitting the road for New Year getaways, music festivals, and other great escapes.

As the parent of teenagers who are learning to drive, I'm all too aware that my role has shifted from driving them around safely during the holidays to helping them to do that themselves.

It's not about lecturing them - it's about looking out for them. Sometimes young drivers seem oblivious to risks, yet often they simply need more experience in fully appreciating these risks. That's where parents can play a lifesaving role; in applying our experience to help young drivers prepare for the risks that come with long-haul trips.

For example, if your teen is on a restricted licence, there's a good chance he or she will be driving alone, which means no one to share the driving with on a long trip. Offer a reminder that pit stops along the way are not only an enjoyable way to make the most of the journey, but they also lessen their chance of crashing,

If they're on their full licence, there's a good chance they've been recruited by friends as a chauffeur. This often means a noisy car with lots of distractions. Teens are 10 times more likely to crash when they're carrying two or more passengers. As parents, we became proficient at telling our kids to keep it down in the back seat. Now, it's their turn.

They'll also be using rural roads, whereas most teens will have learned to drive in cities. Rural roads are much less forgiving - 70 per cent of teen driver crashes are in the country. And 80 per cent of teen driver crashes are through misjudging hazards or the conditions.

In a downpour, a winding country road can be much more dangerous than conditions they're used to, and it's important to adapt their driving.

As for speeding and drink-driving we drum these messages into our young drivers, and with good reason. Young people aren't as adept at reacting to risks and hazards because their cognitive pathways are still developing. That's also why the alcohol limit for those under 20 is zero.

Teenagers are more easily affected by alcohol, which impairs their reactions and judgment even further.

Safer vehicles play an often overlooked role in reducing the seriousness of crashes, or avoiding them altogether. Parents often give their teen the old dunger to drive. However, newer cars are safer and most newer cars have electronic stability control, which reduces the chance of your teen being involved in a single-vehicle crash by around one-third. Ultimately, a son or daughter is more precious than any vehicle.

And if your teen is buying a vehicle make it a joint activity to help get the safest car he or she can afford. Make the point that airbags are more important than mags. You can visit our Rightcar website (www.rightcar.govt.nz) to compare makes and models for both new and used cars - it's a great tool, and it's free.

If your children are still on a learner licence use holiday downtime to give them lessons. From February 27, we're making the restricted test much harder to ensure our young drivers are better prepared for our busy roads. Learners should have 120 hours of practice before they sit their restricted test. And because paying for 120 driving lessons is beyond the budgets of most learner drivers, having someone they can trust such as a parent is vital to helping them develop their skills safely.

And while it's our kids that are learning to drive, let's not forget that we're all susceptible to driver error, and these holidays we need to take precautions to keep ourselves safe. Take regular stops and share the driving. Check your vehicle before travelling. Allow plenty of time - make the journey part of the holiday. Try to plan your travel around the worst peak periods.

Watch your speed and drive to the conditions. And of course, never drink and drive.

No one deserves to die or suffer a serious injury on our roads. We all make mistakes, but most fatalities can be prevented. Make this summer a safe and enjoyable one, for you and your teen.

- Geoff Dangerfield is chief executive of the NZ Transport Agency.

- NZ Herald

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