Young New Zealanders are over-represented in accident and death statistics on our roads, and those figures are among the worst in the developed world. Morgan Tait asks if the gap with Europe can be closed.
In their first 10 years of holding a licence, young Kiwi drivers are up to twice as likely to die or be seriously injured on New Zealand roads than other motorists.
Those statistics make our young drivers some of the most at risk in the developed world.
New Zealand Transport Agency data shows an average of more than one teenager is killed each week on the road, making such accidents the biggest killer of Kiwi teens.
In 2012 alone, 61 New Zealanders aged between 15 and 24 died on roads here and another 3378 were injured, the Transport Agency data shows.
Those rates were more than a third higher than 25- to 34-year-olds and double, or close to double, each other demographic of driving age.
When looking at fatality rates only, those aged between 15 and 24 years accounted for 19 per cent of the total road toll for that year.
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The Ministry of Transport's most recent analysis put New Zealand behind the United Kingdom , Germany, Sweden, Japan, France, South Korea and the US when it came to road fatality rates of the demographic.
The data, for all countries that contribute to the International Road Traffic and Accident Database, painted a grim picture for the country, said Waikato University transport psychologist Dr Robert Isler.
"There has been an improvement in the three years since the driver licence age was raised from 15 to 16, but it is still far below standard practice overseas," he said.
"We [still] have a long way to go until we catch up to the northern countries in Europe.
"Norway, Sweden and even England are better than us," he said.
"For me every injured young person is one person too many and because of the fatalities I think we really need to make an effort to improve that safety of young people," Dr Isler said.
"It has improved but we really need to not be complacent now and do the next step and work on this hard."
New Zealand's Automobile Association (AA) Driving School head Nigel Clark lambasted the country's road statistics.
"Our rates of death and serious injury amongst our youngest drivers are the worst in the developed world," he said.
The association has started a free lesson programme for its young members and children of members in a bid to improve skills and improve the dire track record.
"Our goal is to help improve road safety outcomes by ensuring new drivers are better prepared to be unsupervised behind the wheel after they get their restricted licence."
Dr Isler believed a cultural shift that meant drink-driving was no longer accepted had played a part in improving trends, but said driving age and licensing practices were causal factors in the high fatality and accident statistics.
"It comes down to training standards and increasing the driver licensing age. We have done a lot of research on young people and I think 16 is still too young.
"There is an issue about the transition from the learner to restricted.
"People are still very high risk when they become solo drivers and it is hard for the police to enforce because there is no plate, like an 'R' plate or something like Australia has.
"The restricted driving scheme, it is much less effective than in countries overseas like America and Australia," he said.
AA tries to catch drivers before bad habits set in
Targeting youth drivers before they pick up their parents' bad motoring habits is a priority for the Automobile Association.
From today, the AA will extend its free driving lessons to include Auckland members or their children in an effort to improve road safety.
The move will cost the association $50,000 a month, but is such a priority it is willing to take the financial hit, said AA Motoring Driving School general manager Nigel Clark.
"We like to play a role in driver education and help reduce death and serious injury on our roads.
"Our rates of death and serious injury among our youngest drivers are the worst in the developed world," he said.
"AA is about motorists, and youngsters learning to drive are the future motorists, whether they are members now or not ... We want to expose people to professional driving tuition early in their driving career."
Auckland was the final stage of a nine-month introduction around the country for early intervention into learner driving.
"Lessons in the past have just been one or two before their restricted licence test," Mr Clark said. "We want to show them the right skills, the right approach and right attitude before they start getting bad habits from their parents."
Since the courses began there had been a takeup of about 300 lessons a month. That demand was expected to increase by 250 now the offer has hit Auckland. Lessons normally cost $70. A youth AA membership is just $39 a year, and for adults the fee is $79. In Auckland, those charges are $44.50 and $89, respectively.
The national manager of the service, Karen Dickson, said the takeup showed a demand for the expertise. "People are saying, 'I want another lesson because mum and dad didn't know this stuff'. So we are teaching them correctly, when normally we wouldn't have seen them at all."
There are 55 AA driving instructors throughout the country, and the AA also runs defensive driving courses.
The free lesson programme is open to drivers who have held their licence for less than two months.
Mrs Dickson said depending on feedback, the offer could be extended.
A look at what is being done to improve the safety of youngsters on New Zealand roads. The Herald will examine licence testing and speak to the police, government and advocacy groups about their efforts to combat the issue. Read about what happened when reporter Morgan Tait took one of AA's driving lessons.
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