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The drive to save young lives

Jade Dixson’s parents Julie and Mark and twin sister Georgia

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The drive to save young lives

It’s great to be young and fearless, but not behind the wheel of car. In the wake of 17-year-old Woombye girl Jade Dixson’s tragic death, her family are calling for change – but what’s the best way to ensure young drivers stay safe on the roads?

It had been raining the afternoon an excited university student took her new car for a spin, a gift from her parents for her 18th birthday. Chuffed to be driving her own car to her best friend’s house, she was speeding as she turned a corner and met an oncoming car veering onto her side of the road. She swerved to avoid a collision and aquaplaned on the wet road. The time between losing control of the car and slamming into the tree seemed to pass in slow-motion.

That 18-year-old was me, and while I escaped with little more than a bruised ego, I still have pangs of guilt about writing off the car my parents so generously bought me so I could get myself to uni. But I’m grateful for that crash. I had no concept of the danger I was to myself and other motorists. I used to drive like a bat out of hell and it was the wake-up call I needed.

Sadly, many young drivers don’t get that wake-up call until it’s too late. Young drivers aged 17 to 25 account for one-quarter of all Australian road deaths, despite representing only 10 to 15 per cent of drivers. A 17-year-old driver with a P1 licence is four times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than a driver over 26 years.

Woombye man Mark Dixson’s beloved 17-year-old daughter Jade became one of those tragic statistics on March 27. Mr Dixson has set up a not-for-profit organisation called Jade’s Legacy (Juvenile Attitude Defensive Education) to advocate for more effective education for young drivers, particularly at school, and to lobby government for tougher laws. The family is heartbroken, but trying to create something positive from their loss.

“My kids come home and say they’re teaching sex education and languages at school,” Mr Dixson says. “Teach them English and maths and real-life skills about how to drive a vehicle. Instead of having sex education for a whole bloody term, do half a term of driver education. You need a whole set of teachers to teach that and hopefully that will happen down the track.”

Jade’s Legacy will be launched on June 8 and a fundraiser will be held at Corbould Park on July 15 to help fund what the Dixsons hope will become a game-changing campaign.

RACQ Motoring Advice manager Joel Tucker says there are various in-school road safety education programs available to Queensland schools.

“It is up to schools to choose which programs best suit their students and if they can fit them into their curriculum,” he says.

But that’s a big IF. The school curriculum is already so crammed, it’s difficult for schools to implement the level of driver education Mark Dixson and others are calling for.

RACQ has instigated the Streets Ahead and Docudrama school-based education campaigns, and the Queensland Government funds RACQ to deliver Docudrama to 50 Queensland schools each year.

“While we don’t include in-car training in our programs, Docudrama highlights the risks and consequences involved with unsafe driver behaviour and gives young Queenslanders (Year 11 and 12) the tools to help make safer choices and avoid unsafe situations altogether,” Mr Tucker says.

“If you start introducing in-vehicle training in schools, that’s going to have a cost associated with it. Do the parents pay for that? If that’s the case, the time frames and things like that have to suit them. That’s one of the barriers as to why you don’t see that rolled out across schools.

“Australia is seen as having a good graduated licensing system. All the changes we’ve got were introduced in 2007. An evaluation has been done and shown it has saved lives.”

But clearly, we still have a problem and some people are cashing in on it. So-called ‘defensive driving’ or ‘advanced driver training’ schools are legally able to operate with no government accreditation, taking money from parents who think they’re sending their kids along to a course that will help them be safer drivers when in fact, the opposite may be true.

Mr Tucker is careful to distinguish the difference between actual defensive driving – which is learning how to stay out of danger on the roads – and advanced driver training targeted to young people as ‘defensive driver training’, but which may teach things like power slides and skids on wet roads.

Mr Dixson has concerns: “A lot of them are teaching them the wrong thing. They’re putting them on skid pads and teaching them to do burnouts. The Queensland Government has been pretty slack and done nothing about that over the years.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Transport and Main Roads confirmed to My Weekly Preview that schools teaching defensive driving don’t require accreditation.

“Defensive driver training that incorporates advanced driving skills (for example, involving skid training) is not a requirement of the licensing process and we do not require these providers to be accredited, nor do we monitor them,” the spokesperson says.

“While defensive driving courses can provide experienced drivers with some additional skills, we do not support defensive driving courses for young drivers.

“Research shows defensive driving courses for young, inexperienced drivers can actually be counterproductive.

“There is evidence that teaching advanced practical skills to young drivers (particularly males) can lead to overconfidence, and novice drivers may decide to drive in a risky situation, thinking they have the necessary skills.”

Garry Church is the president of Road Trauma Services QLD, a Cooroy-based organisation that provides support for families involved in car crashes. A forensic crash investigator on the Sunshine Coast for many years, he has his own ideas on how we can lower the risks.

“We need to explain to these kids that the important thing with driving is not to get into trouble in the first place,” he says.

“When something goes wrong at high speeds, you’re not on a racetrack – you’ve got other cars coming towards you, trees around you, you’ve got no hope of getting out of that unless its sheer luck.”

Mr Church is haunted by the devastation he’s seen on the roads and says the government needs to get tougher as a matter of urgency, such as restricting the types of cars P-platers are legally allowed to drive.

“I’m very sceptical when it comes to government and road safety,” he says. “They say we put all this money into road safety and I’m thinking, where? If you want to cut down the road toll, you could do this easily. First, take the speed cameras off, which is no more than revenue raising. Put police back on the road in high profile marked cars. Look at the road toll – speed cameras don’t work.

“The other thing I do not agree with is the licensing. When someone loses their licence through points, once the disqualification period is up, their licence is handed back.

“They should be made to re-sit the whole thing again. Evidently they didn’t learn the first time. They should double the fee and the time they’ll have to spend on their P-plates.”

Mr Tucker says governments have to balance safety regulations with the need for mobility, especially in areas with limited public transport, and this is something that would require public consultation.

“We’d prefer to see better enforcement and application of the penalties we already have. The RACQ has always promoted an increased road police patrol presence to catch people doing the wrong thing. That’s a key issue.”

Dr Bridie Scott-Parker, a senior research fellow at the University of the Sunshine Coast, has been studying young driver safety for 13 years and says we need to look at the problem differently.

“I think we need to reward safe driving behaviour,” she says. “You’ve got a group of people who are young and problematic. We need to look after them in a completely different way. We could reward them with lower insurance premiums, cheaper health insurance, lower prices for cars – there are many options.

Dr Scott-Parker is wary of mandating driver training at school as students might simply disengage. Instead, she says we need to teach road safety in all its guises from birth.

“The key is not to talk at them,” she says. “We should be talking with them. It’s perfectly normal for teenagers to want to spend time with their friends, to show off, to push boundaries and not want to voluntarily comply with the rules. The problem is if they’re doing it in a car.”

Dr Scott-Parker says we need around five years experience before we can consider ourselves experienced drivers, and that the 100 hours of driving experience, which learner drivers must complete before they receive their P-plates, isn’t hitting the mark because its mostly done to and from school, rather than a variety of scenarios.

“Think about how they’re going to drive, who they’re going to drive with, why they’re driving and what they’re driving in.

“Do that practice now, when you’re the extra set of eyes and an extra brain. Take them out in the car and ask them, what are the risks, who could we hurt, why could we hurt them, what could we do to avoid it?”

Tech companies are now jumping on board with the introduction of devices like the TomTom LINK 530, which is installed under the dashboard and measures speeding, harsh braking and harsh cornering, as well as vehicle location, and relays the information via an app or online platform to nail-biting parents. The device can’t be disabled or disconnected.

But ultimately, Dr Scott-Parker says it’s up to parents to practice tough love and refuse to hand over the keys if they’re at all concerned.

“There’s evidence to show the older you are learning to drive as a teenager, the safer you are on the road. If parents know their kids are a little bit young for their age, it’s a good idea to postpone their licence. The older they are, the more their brain has developed.

“My son is 18 and doesn’t have his learner licence. He gets called Evel Knievel because he has no fear. To keep him and his friends safe, he’s not getting a licence until he’s a safer kid. A big part of this is recognising you do not have your licence as a right. Don’t let them drive until they’re a little more cooked.”

Jade’s Legacy Fundraiser will be held at Corbould Park on July 15, proudly supported by My Weekly Preview. Visit jadeslegacy.com.au.

Fast facts

45 per cent of all young Australian injury deaths are due to road traffic crashes.

Of all hospitalisations of young Australians, almost half are drivers involved in a road traffic crash and another quarter are passengers.

The biggest killer of young drivers is speeding and around 80 per cent of those killed are male.

The current Queensland graduated licensing system (GLS) dictates that P1 drivers are not allowed to carry more than one passenger under the age of 21 (if not an immediate family member).

The Department of Transport and Main Roads has created a new online learner driver training and assessment program called PrepL, now being piloted with the aim to make it available to all Queenslanders in the second half of this year. It is designed to improve young learner driver education by focusing on developing safe driver behaviours and attitudes. It will ultimately replace the current 30-question written test.

Queensland’s Road Safety Strategy 2015-2021 commits to an ultimate vision of zero fatalities and serious injuries on Queensland roads and ambitious interim targets to reduce serious trauma by 2020.

 

 

 

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Leigh Robshaw is a journalist who has worked in the media industry for more than 20 years. Originally from Sydney, she has lived and worked in London, Tokyo and Latin America. She joined the team in 2012 and is MWP's deputy editor. Writing, reading and travel are her greatest passions.

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