Potholes, ever changing speed limits and slips are ongoing issues on our roading network but the biggest problem is our drivers. And much of it stems from the archaic licensing procedure in this country that gives Kiwis the ability to take to the roads.
It’s such a basic system, free of any teaching or development; it is simply something that enables someone to drive legally. But it’s not preparing anyone to drive safely on the road. We are just asking for trouble and the road toll reflects this, especially among our youngest drivers.
Years of downplaying the importance of teaching the necessary skills required to be competent on the road has put us in this hole. And there are many new hazards facing drivers in terms of distractions, particularly with young people who can’t help themselves, checking their phone every other minute while doing the incredibly complex task that is driving.
Combine this with the young, undeveloped brain that hasn’t been taught about assessing risk and you have a combination of factors waiting to come together to create a disaster.
The current licensing system doesn’t reference any of this. What’s needed is an overhaul that takes into account the teenage brain and provides the training to become a safe and aware driver.
It’s too easy to just memorise the answers to a basic multichoice test and undergo the most basic of practical assessments. That’s why we are setting ourselves up for failure; there’s so little learning required to get a licence.
Having some sort of training in a controlled environment would make a massive difference. This is done in many European countries and is something we created with our Streetsmart programme. I’m not talking about how to manage a slide which is an old philosophy and is not the right way to go about driver training. It’s about teaching basic skills and knowledge on things like what ABS is and what to expect when you jump on the brakes.
It’s about hazard perception and awareness, how long it takes to react to the unexpected, and about how important it is to be attentive. It’s about creating a distraction and showing them what that does to reaction times. It’s about gaining knowledge through experience, something you are never going to achieve through a theoretical approach.
Driving is a practical thing but most of what we do to obtain a licence is theory based. And then once we obtain it, it’s about learning as we go. People will find themselves in unexpected situations but they don’t know how to react, such as when the weather changes, or a cyclist pulls out. They don’t know what to do and the result is a crash.
We have Waka Kotahi telling us to buy safer cars so that when that crash happens, you have a better chance of surviving. It’s the same with installing road barriers; they are trying to reduce the harm of a crash rather than doing something to prevent it in the first place. Why aren’t we trying to change the outcome through improving driver skills and preventing the crash in the first instance?
The licence system needs to change to take into account a different philosophy, one that turns out smarter, more aware drivers before they even start out on the road, rather than learning as they go, and failing with sometimes disastrous outcomes.
It’s all too easy for people to take short cuts through the learner and restricted aspects of the licensing system. Waka Kotahi undertook a study on defensive driver course attendees a few years back. It showed that these courses do nothing to change the outcomes in terms of crash rates, injuries and deaths compared with those that haven’t attended such courses.
I believe there’s some very good information to be gained from these courses but as there is no test at their conclusion, you just have to attend to pass effectively so what really is the point other than to get six months off your restricted licence period? Attendees learn precious little because this is all theory. How many are actually processing the information and then have the ability to recall it when something goes wrong?
We make it too easy to get out on the road and this is why we have dire road death statistics. People are so blase about the dangers of driving that they think a catastrophe on the road will never happen to them and that’s just not the case. But then they’ve never been taught to expect the unexpected on the road.