Teen deaths devastating communities

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, a heaving crowd of screaming sports fans can often be found jammed in Bluetongue Stadium on the NSW Central Coast.

A hulking steel and concrete structure, the stadium boats about 20,000 seats – enough to fit half a sizeable country town.

It’s also big enough to fit every Australian teenager killed in a road crash over the last 30 years, with just a few seats to spare.

Despite drastic reductions over that time, the number of young men needlessly dying on country roads remains disproportionately high. This year, roughly one young life has been lost on the road every day. Inexperience, speeding and drink driving bring most unstuck, while other factors like crowded cars, mobile phones and fatigue are also at work.

Peter Draper, a former northern NSW state MP turned driving instructor, said the death of a young person inflicted a particularly cruel blow on regional areas.

 “Everybody knows everybody and to lose a young life before they have the opportunity to live up to their potential has enormous impacts,” he said. “It can actually devastate entire communities.”

Mr Draper cited the extraordinary outpouring of grief in the Tamworth area following the death of teenager Brad Hillier in 2009. Brad’s car crashed into a power pole at over 100km/h. Police found he had been distracted by a mobile phone at the time.

“I have never seen such an outpouring of grief from young people following that incident but sadly, a tragedy like that doesn’t translate into better driving behaviour for other young people in most instances.”

Dr Bridie Scott-Parker, a researcher at Queensland’s Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety, has spent the past two years analysing why so many young drivers take unnecessary risks.

“Young driver crashes is something we just can’t ignore,” she said. “These kids are beginning their lives but so many of them are having them cut short or irreparably damaged.”

Last year, 283 died: a 16 per cent reduction on the previous year. Those gains are set to be wiped out this year.

Dr Scott-Parker said teenagers were in control of cars when key brain functions were not yey fully developed. Such physiological factors would be extraordinarily difficult to combat through regulation, she said.

“That key part of the brain, that deals with key decision making capacity,” doesn’t really finish developing until you’re in your mid 20s,” she said.

Tackling the problem by making teenagers wait longer to get behind the wheel can be problematic, especially in regional areas.

“We’ve got to be able to balance mobility and safety,” Dr Scott-Parker said.

“In many regional areas, public transport is non-existent during the day and having a car to get around to work and school can be very important.”

Dr Scott-Parker said a new approach was needed for the most novice drivers – those on the first six months of their provisional licence.

“Maybe we need to introduce a more structured approach in that first six months, like more rigorous supervision and no peer-passengers at night.”

A young driver’s risk of being involved in a fatal crash is more than five times higher when carrying two or more passengers than when travelling alone. It means when a car does crash, the consequences can be disastrous because multiple young people are inside.

Mr Draper said more intensive driver training would also help lower the toll.

Of the 283 17-25 year-olds who died in road accidents last year, 133 were drivers and 77 were passengers. The remainder were pedestrians, motorcyclists or cyclists.

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