Young drivers licensed to kill

by Geraldine Johns / 06 June, 2011
With young drivers causing hundreds of deaths and costing the country more than $1 billion a year, new research suggests it’s time to change the way we teach people how to drive.
Jessica Law - fatal impact

As her daughter Jessica set out for New Year’s Eve celebrations, Kaye Law kissed her goodbye. The next time Kaye saw her, she was being zipped into a body bag – killed in a car crash at age 16.

Jessica’s death is a textbook example of the potentially fatal effects of inexperienced teens getting behind the wheel. The 16-year-old driver of the car, Josephine Clay, had held her learner licence for two weeks, and had just three hours’ driving experience, when she crashed and killed Jessica – her best friend – and seriously injured another young passenger.

Four more minutes and they would have been safe. The crash happened 2.4km from the Law family home in Arrowtown, where the trio was headed. Clay had been behind the wheel for just over 600m. It was New Year’s Day, 2010. “That date will never be the same again,” says Kaye Law, “only a painful reminder of a huge loss” of a “very lovely daughter who was loved by and inspired so many”.

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t let anybody behind the wheel until they turned 25, says crash prevention educator Robert Isler.

He has long argued that although young drivers may quickly develop basic car-handling skills, they sorely lack other vital driving abilities: to search visually, anticipate hazards and manage risks. They just don’t have the complex perceptual and cognitive skills required to recog­nise and respond to potential dangers quickly enough, he says.

Not until people reach 25 do their frontal lobe’s executive functions – impulse control, decision-making, problem solving and planning – become fully developed, says Isler. Impulse control is particularly useful when people are in charge of a car, especially in hazardous situations. And it’s no coincidence that age ceases to be a risk factor – regardless of driving experience – after people turn 25.

Vehicle-handling skill courses alone are not enough to overcome this problem, Isler says, and may instead be dangerously counterproductive: these techniques are easy and fast to master, inflating young drivers’ confidence – which can in turn cause them to crash.

Instead, argues Isler, a senior lecturer in psychology at Waikato University, it’s time to change the way we teach people how to drive.

In a paper just released, Isler reports the findings of a study he and his colleagues conducted into young drivers’ safety. The “frontal lobe project” put 36 teens, all of whom had a restricted driver’s licence, into a driver-training research camp in Taupo for two weeks. The study compared the on-road driving performance of the participants after higher-order driving skills training – including cognitive skills such as hazard anticipation and risk management – and after just basic vehicle-handling skills training.

The students who completed the higher-order skills training emerged as the more competent drivers, displaying a greater degree of risk-awareness and a more realistic sense of their own driving ability. Follow-up monitoring reinforced these assessments.

As a result, Isler and his colleagues are calling for a fresh approach to driver training: one that focuses as much on mental and psychological skills and emotional control as it does car-handling abilities.

This approach can be crucial in combating major risks in young and inexperienced drivers – and in preventing a one-way trip to the mortuary. As Isler says, “They have poor insight; they overestimate their skills and underestimate the difficulty of driving.”

Young drivers in particular bring bad habits from their lifestyle into their driving. If you are a risk-taker in everyday life, you’re a risk-taker on the road, he says. “Nobody can say, ‘Oh, I only do road rage.’”

To see the seriousness of Isler’s call, consider the national road crash death and injury statistics: according to the Ministry of Transport, road crashes are the single greatest killer of 15-24-year-olds and the leading cause of their permanent injury. We have one of the lowest driving ages – 15 – in the OECD, but our 15- to 17-year-old drivers have the OECD’s highest road death rate, and our 18- to 20-year-old drivers the fourth-highest.

Fifteen per cent of licensed drivers in New Zealand are aged 15-24, but in 2009 they were involved in about 35% of all fatal crashes and 30% of all serious injury crashes. In those incidents, young drivers were found to be at fault 80% of the time, leaving 102 dead and 797 seriously injured, and costing the country a total of $1.3 billion.

The New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) says young drivers tend to be disproportionately represented in fatal crashes at night. Between 2007 and 2009, about half the fatal crashes occurring on Friday and Saturday nights involved a young driver – while just 29% of daytime crashes did. With peer passengers in the car, the driver is 15 times more likely to have a crash than if driving alone.

But changes are afoot. The minimum driving age is soon to be lifted to 16 – still a long way from 25. As well, new and tougher provisions for getting a restricted licence are being introduced. And a new $1.9 million media campaign specifically targeting teen drivers is being launched this Queen’s Birthday weekend. It introduces a new tool aimed at keeping them safe: their parents.

According to the NZTA, parents and care­givers are the key people who can influence the lives of at-risk young drivers. When their teenager graduates from a learner to a restricted licence – and can drive without adult supervision – parents should be maintaining a strong presence in their child’s ongoing driver education, rather than breathing a sigh of relief, the agency says.

It’s when they graduate from a learner to a restricted licence that teens are at the greatest risk of being involved in a crash: drivers on a restricted licence are more than four times as likely to have a crash than learner drivers – and this risk is even greater in the first six months after getting a restricted licence.

“The adults might not have to be the taxi driver any more, but they do have to be the coach,” says Andrew Joel, NZTA senior education adviser for novice and young drivers.

But how do parents and caregivers assume this additional role? To help them, the agency has prepared an online information programme about the crash risks young drivers face (www.­ It’s designed to help parents support their teens travelling down the road to independent driving – both in the car and in an online driving environment.

The key themes of the programme are:

  • to reinforce the importance of abiding by the graduated driver licensing system;

  • to emphasise the need for learner drivers to accumulate 120 hours of supervised driving – across a range of driving and weather conditions – before they start driving solo;

  • to push for ongoing monitoring of young drivers; and

  • to stress that driving is a mental task as well as a practical one.

“Our campaign is looking at parents who are still involved with their teens, but who are not aware of their [driving] risks or how to mitigate them,” says Joel.

In preparing the campaign, the NZTA discovered some common misconceptions that parents hold about their teen drivers. This includes the belief that driving is a purely practical, technical skill – which they may teach well, but to the exclusion of mental skills. Cost and convenience means it’s usually the parents who teach their children, but they don’t always teach them well, tending to emphasise the habits they picked up as young drivers.

For the new, tougher restricted licence test being introduced next February, doing the recommended 120 hours will be voluntary – there’s no log book like in the Australian state of Victoria, which came up with the original version of the programme. But Joel says overseas research shows learner students who complete 120 hours of supervised driving have 40% fewer crashes than those with less experience.

Isler has also developed an online programme: eDrive, an interactive evidence-based training system ( The programme costs $36.80 for nine months but is available free for teens who hold a learner licence and sign up for “Practice” through Practice is a tool to help parents and teens in the learner-driver phase.

Robert Isler

Supported by the association and the Accident Compensation Corporation, eDrive puts the operator in the driving seat as a car travels from Bluff to North Cape. The journey is peppered with real-life incidents and hazards, which the operator has to identify and negotiate before he or she can advance to the next stage of the trip.

Isler says it’s these sorts of skills that teens need to develop before they can be deemed competent to drive alone. “[eDrive] is deliberately quite hard – even experienced drivers make mistakes. But that’s what we want; we want people to realise that driving is hard.”

Among this year’s fatalities is Kelvin McDonnell of Te Awamutu. The 16-year-old died instantly in March after allegedly losing control of his car while overtaking a four-wheel-drive in Ngahinapouri, rural Waikato.

McDonnell, the sole occupant of his vehicle, held a restricted driver’s licence. He was the third youth with a restricted licence to die in the Waikato district in the first three months of this year.

His death prompted Waikato road policing manager Leo Tooman to note too many young people are dying on our roads – and in some cases taking the lives of others. “Not all of these drivers are breaching their licence conditions; in some cases it’s just poor decision-making. The trouble is, out on the roads, often there’s no second chance.”

Tooman says 14 of the 41 fatal collisions in the Waikato district in 2010 involved young drivers either breaching their graduated licences or holding no licence at all.

“It’s pretty hard to put an old head on young shoulders. Sometimes they get away with [making] a poor decision – and sometimes they don’t.”

Teenager Tamoko Christy is one example of the latter. In October 2009, the van she was driving hit an oncoming car and then crashed into a bridge near Taradale, Hawke’s Bay. Two teens died and five others in the van were injured. Christy, 16, had had her learner licence for just five weeks. She was driving at over three times the alcohol limit for someone her age, and although she had initially resisted driving, she ended up at the wheel because she was deemed the least drunk of her group. She pleaded guilty to two counts of manslaughter.

At her sentencing earlier this year, Justice Ronald Young acknowledged Christy’s initial reluctance to drive as a mitigating factor. However, he said, “in the end the decision was yours and of course it was simply a stupid decision”.

Justice Young went on to pose some questions, which he said arose from both this case and many others in which young people died in similar circumstances. “How is it that 15-, 16- and 17-year-old boys and girls are drinking six or 12 or more bottles of ready-mix spirits or a dozen or more bottles of beer? What examples are they following? Who is supplying them with this alcohol? Why are they able to go to parties in vehicles when they are going to drink so much? Why are they allowed to stay out all night drinking?

“Who makes arrangements for them to get home safely and at a proper hour? Why can’t our young people understand that choosing the least drunk driver might kill them? Why do so many of our people have this attitude to drinking and driving? These may be some questions that the community wants to ask itself.”

Two weeks before she died, Jessica Law told her mother she felt scared when Josephine Clay was driving. Her mother told her not to get into a car if Clay was driving, especially since the Laws always chauffeured their children whenever they needed a ride. Besides, Clay’s learner status barred her from driving without the supervision of a person who had held a full licence for at least two years.

Kaye Law had agreed to pick up Jessica and Josephine in Queenstown on New Year’s Day and take them home. Josephine was to stay the night. But after phoning home to extend their time in Queenstown, the girls got in a car driven by Clay’s friend Jesse Boulay – also 16.

During the journey, Boulay, who was driving his mother’s Nissan Pulsar, stopped. Jessica, the front-seat passenger, got out and went to the back seat behind the driver; Boulay moved over and Clay took the wheel.

They were about to enter a steep and winding stretch of road, deemed one of the most dangerous in the Wakatipu district and with an 80km/h restriction. Police records say Clay was driving at an estimated 125km/h when she lost control of the car on a curve, crossed the centre line and collided with a Mercedes carrying a woman and two children. They received minor to moderate injuries. Boulay was critically injured.

Jessica died at the scene. Her mother, by now on her way to Queenstown to look for the girls, received an urgent call from husband Max, calling her home. She discovered the wreckage on the return journey. “I came over the brow of the hill, and I looked down on the crash … and I knew … I managed to hold her before she was zipped up in a body bag.

“The silence of that country road, with the respectful silence of the emergency personnel around us, was punctuated by my cries and screams. [It’s] an agony that is indescribable.”


May 2011, 1.00am Saturday.

Shaun Nilson, 17, died after the speeding car he was a passenger in crashed in Hamilton. Police said the 16-year-old driver was on a restricted licence and had been drinking.

February 2011, Saturday night.

A 17-year-old youth from Heriot, West Otago, died after the van he was driving crashed. He was the sole occupant. Police said speed and alcohol were contributing factors.

January 2011, Friday night.

Three people died after a Subaru carrying four male teens crashed into a car driven by a 44-year-old father of three near Waihi. Killed were the driver of the Subaru, 17-year-old Dylan Perkinson, his front-seat passenger, Vance Williams, 16, and the driver of the other vehicle, prison officer and decorated soldier Mark Sydney. Two other teenagers in the Subaru were critically injured. Perkinson had a restricted licence, was not wearing a seatbelt and was speeding on the wrong side of the road, police said.

December 2010.

Mary-Lee Huata, 17, died when the Toyota Hilux she was a passenger in crashed south of Wairoa. Huata was one of the vehicle’s five occupants, aged between 13 and 20.

December 2010.

Thirteen-year-old Isaiah Nathan died when the stolen Subaru he was driving crashed in Manurewa. Four other occupants of the car – aged 13 and 14 – fled the scene.

October 2010.

Harmony Wihongi, 16, died after a car driven by her 16-year-old boyfriend crashed near Westport. Driver Clark Pablecheque – also 16 – fled the scene.

September 2010.

The 17-year-old driver of a car and her two passengers, both 18, died at the scene when their car and a utility collided at Maramarua, Waikato. The teen driver – who had a restricted licence – had earlier been issued with an infringement notice for speeding and carrying unauthorised passengers. The adult male utility driver was seriously injured.

May 2010. Friday night.

A Christ­church teenager died and two other teens were seriously injured after the car they were in hit a power pole in Harewood, Christchurch. All five occupants of the vehicle were 14 or 15. Police believe speed was a factor.

Teen drivers: what you need to know

  • Each year for the past five years, around 1300 crashes resulting in injury or death have involved teen drivers on a restricted licence.

  • Many people think teen drivers are more at risk than other drivers because they are inexperienced. “While inexperience is an important factor,” says the NZTA’s Andrew Joel, “the reality is that teen drivers’ vulnerability is due to a mix of inexperience, age, their social environment and their physiological development.”

  • The teen who is good at school, sport and home does not necessarily make for a good driver. “Research with parents last year showed us they don’t have a yardstick to measure whether their child is a good driver,” says Joel. “They might have done well at school or in sport, but they forget what a big learning curve it is to learn to drive.”

  • Teen driving statistics were measurably worse 25 years ago. In 1985, 163 teen drivers died and 4427 were injured on our roads. In 2009, 57 teen drivers died and 2350 were injured. The NZTA partly attributes this decline to the introduction of the Graduated Licence System in 1987, and its strengthening several times since.

  • Between 2007 and 2009, 15- to 19-year-olds accounted for 14% of all drivers involved in minor injury crashes, 15% of drivers in serious injury crashes, and 12% of drivers involved in fatal crashes – but made up only 6% of all licensed car drivers.

  • Of all 15-to 19-year-old drivers involved in fatal crashes from 2007-09, 40% were on restricted licences, 23% on full licences and 21% on learner licences.

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