Driver Experience, Driver Inexperience and Road Safety
How important is experience behind the wheel for safe driving? In 2016 more than 500,000 people became newly licenced drivers in SA.
In South Africa, we should not only focus on inexperienced drivers as being "Young" drivers, as our political past and inequalities meant that many older people only recently became vehicle owners and licenced drivers.
It is generally accepted that time spent behind the wheel is a very important determinant of crash risk.
To consider the impact driver inexperience might have on road safety we decided to analyse some research, crash report and insights from driver instructors.
- During their first six months of solo driving, newly licenced drivers are about eight times more likely to be involved in fatal crashes that are more experienced drivers (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 2004).
- Even after more than six months licenced to drive alone, teens are two to three times more likely to be in a fatal crash than are the most experienced drivers.
- A University of Adelaide study has found that young drivers are twice as likely to have an accident during their first few months of driving on a provisional licence than if they had more than a year of driving experience.
- Craig Kloeden from the University's Centre for Automotive Safety Research (CASR) says the high crash rates show that many newly licenced young drivers are still too inexperienced to handle a vehicle safely.
- "The study indicates that it is many hundreds of hours before young drivers become competent in a vehicle."
Why does Driver Inexperience present an Increased Risk?
Inexperienced drivers tend to underestimate hazardous situations and tend to disobey many of the Rules of the Roads!
Young Drivers and Lawless and Dangerous Driving Behaviour:
The young inexperienced drivers are more inclined than older drivers to
- Speed and not adjust speed to road and traffic conditions.
- Run red lights.
- Make illegal turns.
- Be an intoxicated driver or drive after using alcohol or drugs. Drunk driving reduces coordination, slows down reactions, and impairs the judgement of speed, distance and risk.
- Drive distracted and use mobile phones and other modern technological gadgets.
- Fail to wear a seatbelt.
- Cut in and out of traffic.
- Fail to keep adequate following distances.
- Try to impress passengers.
- Perform dangerous manoeuvres.
- Drive much more at night.
Failure to Anticipate Hazards and Drive Defensively
There will be numerous types of roads, conditions, scenarios involving other drivers and obstacles that the inexperienced driver never encountered before. Hazards often not anticipated by the inexperienced driver Include:
- An animal suddenly crossing the road.
- Tyre failure on your vehicle or another vehicle on the road.
- Adverse weather conditions such as mist, fog, smoke from veld fires.
- Stormy weather and sudden flooding.
- Driving in mountains, mountain passes and in conditions such as strong wind.
- Criminal activity such as hijacking and smash-and-grabs.
Driving skills such as anticipation of potentially hazardous traffic situations require years of practice.
What are the Critical Elements needed by teen and other inexperienced drivers to drive safely?
Jim Hedlund provided a framework for the wealth of data on risk factors for teens by describing five critical elements teens need to drive safely:
- Skills—which include the capacity to operate the vehicle and to recognise hazards, as well as the capacity to react appropriately to the unexpected;
- Knowledge—of traffic rules and operating procedures, as well as understanding of risks and their potential consequences;
- Experience—including both sufficient practice, as well as the familiarity with the consequences of bad judgment that fosters good judgment;
- Maturity—or developed capacity for reasoning, judgment, and decision-making; and
- Environment—or safe surroundings in which to learn to drive.
How could we reduce the risks that driver inexperience presents?
Every time we drive we are setting an example to our future drivers in our vehicle. Responsible driving should be taught and showed my parents. When parents drive with caution and obey the laws of the road, their children will also have more respect for traffic laws and for others who use the roads.
There is no quick-fix and it will take a time to build up experience on the road. There are however quite a number of aspects within the control of the driver such as driving speeds, following distances, and position. An inexperienced driver can compensate for a lack of experience by focusing on defensive driving techniques creating larger safety margins with more time and space to respond to hazardous situations.
A few simple steps the inexperienced driver can take to keep himself /herself, passengers and other road users safe:
- Drive at a speed that is appropriate for the road and conditions.
- Avoid harsh acceleration and braking, except in an emergency.
- Make sure your car is in a roadworthy condition, for example, check your tyre tread depths, lights and engine oil regularly.
- Take breaks on long journeys – don’t drive for longer than 2.5 hours at a time and take a break for at least 20 minutes.
- Don’t give in to peer pressure – don’t let any passengers encourage you to drive in an unsafe way.
Continued Driver Training
Every time we drive we have an opportunity to become a safer driver. When doing so in the company and under the guidance of an experienced driver trainer we can gain important insights into safer driver behaviour much quicker.
Continued driver training and courses on defensive and advanced driving can help improve confidence on the road and even save money on car insurance. For the improvements in driver instruction, the focus should shift from vehicle control and traffic participation to higher order skills such as hazard perception. A complex area in this respect is the training of how to recognise personal skill limitations and how to 'manage' safety margins to reduce risk.
Q &A with Driver Instructors on Inexperienced Drivers and Driving
Would you agree that a driver’s license test may not be enough to adequately assess the driving ability of a new driver and that there are many aspects of driving not assessed?
- Yes and no. If correctly applied, the K53 covers far more than people realise [ and effectively], but there are also many shortcomings.
- The current K53 driving test is a basic practical assessment that, rightfully, over-emphasizes the role and importance of observation.
- There is far too much emphasis on yard work, and although some defensive driving is incorporated in the K53 test, it is too little and is being taught by instructors, many of whom do not know any defensive driving standards themselves, and it does not incorporate modern technology.
- The test, as it stands, assesses the practical ability to manoeuvre in confined spaces (parallel parking, alley docking and three-point turns etc.) and the ability to drive in a built-up area.
The current K53 test tests the driver on parking in the yard using poles this in it is a problem as most driving schools teach their learners to use markers to park with. The road test is a problem as driving instructors to drive the actual test route with their learners over and over so when the learners get there licence, they now are legal and free to dive anywhere but have only ever been driving on the test route. Many testing officers don’t even test the new student on a freeway.
- There is a lot that can be added in this regard, as well as things like skid control, aquaplaning, emergency lane changes, cadence braking in older models etc. etc.
- It does not show a student how to deal with an emergency situation. An emergency brake is a part of the test but that is at a very basic level.
- As long as you can apply the K53 driving techniques, you will pass this test, but it doesn’t cover aspects such as driver awareness, thinking defensively (for yourself and others), anticipation skills or what to do in an emergency / should you lose control of the vehicle.
- Something as simple as braking distance is not covered. Drivers have no idea how a vehicle will react if you hit the brakes hard at different speeds and how many metres it will take for the vehicle to come to a standstill.
- Very little real-world driving is included such as driving at higher speeds on freeways, driving in adverse conditions, driving with a loaded vehicle or driving at night. Bearing in mind that the act of driving constitutes 25% practical and 75% mental processes, the K53 is unable to assess the mental element comprehensively given the constraints in time and capacity.
- Drivers attitude is not addressed, and as you eluded to, that is fundamentally where “younger" drivers go wrong.
Can driver instructors easily identify most common mistakes by inexperienced drivers in a controlled environment / on a racing track?
- It depends on a large extent on the experience and ability of the instructor.
Instructors can identify most common mistakes e.g. vision through corners, looking ahead, correct gear selection, braking and vehicle sympathy.
- It is better not to do this on a racing track or only on a racing track. An on-road assessment is required to identify problems with planning and anticipation in real-world driving environments.
- We do not have the benefit of private areas for driving instruction. The Government does not allocate areas for driving instruction as a rule, which is why I believe we need a national training Centre for all instructors and franchise satellite training centres in every single city, town, village throughout the country.
- Driving on a racetrack is far different from driving on a public road. Race-track driving concerns itself with high performance driving in a competitive environment between man and machine and man and other men/women.
- There may be certain skills such as braking before a bend, positioning, changing down to the appropriate gear, steering, following the racing line, clipping the apex and “powering out” that may be useful in a limited way in the real world.
- The experienced instructor could easily analyse a driver’s standard.
- K53 calls this the “System of Vehicle Control”. Essentially, there is a clear distinction in driving objectives and high speed and yes, a proficient, advanced, high-performance instructor would be able to pick up poor training and bad driving habits on a racing track.
What are the most common mistakes inexperienced drivers make?
- Applying the wrong mindset to driving. They live in a world where everything is about being faster, and unfortunately, they apply this to their driving habits. Driving a car becomes a competition that they have to win.
- Lack of confidence [timidity] is generally the most common emotion all my clients demonstrate, both because they are new drivers, and mainly due to the continuous bullying they have to endure.
- The most common mistakes inexperienced drivers make due to lack of confidence / being nervous are: jerky clutch application, incorrect gear selection, mirrors not used to full extent, indicators not linked with mirrors, brakes too early/late or brakes sharply, poor sense of acceleration (RPM too low/high), poor road observation/awareness, follow too close, stop too close to vehicle ahead, ignores road signs to name a few.
- Failing to understand the basics of how a car works in an environment (the forces of nature and the laws of physics). Also known as road-craft.
- Underestimating the role of speed – following distance, braking distance, stopping distance and impact caused by different speeds.
- Failing to appreciate the role of observation, concentration, identifying hazards, predicting outcomes and prioritising the avoidance techniques (which is what advanced, defensive driving is all about).
- Failing to master the System of Vehicle Control (as explained above).
- Lack of mental maturity which leads to disastrous decisions, fatal errors and road rage.
Instructors can identify most common mistakes e.g. vision through corners, looking ahead, correct gear selection, braking and vehicle sympathy.
Are there differences between what you find among the inexperienced male and female drivers?
- Generally, younger female drivers are more cautious in mindset and this leads to fewer mistakes. However in saying that sometimes the over-cautious approach causes other issues on our roads.
- While men tend to be more skill-full and willing to take risks, females tend to be more circumspect and careful, making them a lower risk in traffic.
What are the most common mistakes the overly confident driver tends to make?
- Speeding and the "I must win factor”. Remember speeding is relevant, and this is proved on the Autobahns of Germany. But unfortunately, younger drivers don’t know how to differentiate between where to drive faster and not.
- The arrogant type of driver is dangerous and often unreachable. They frequently speedway over the speed limit, and brake at the last minute, stopping by coasting to a stop.
- They cut people off, driving very aggressively, disturbing every other driver on the road with them.
- They ride very close to the rear bumper of any other driver in front of them, bullying and pushing, flashing lights and hooting, swerving in front of them and breaking to make trouble.
- They live on their wits, sometimes anticipating better than other, but they have a false sense of pride in their own ability.
- Speed too fast for circumstances, exceeds the speed limit.
- They underestimate distances to hazards, follow and stop too close to vehicles ahead.
- Distracted driving and a greater propensity for taking risks, especially, when overtaking.
Can continued defensive driver training and advanced driver training contribute towards improving driving ability?
- Definitely, this can even start in a classroom by applying the correct attitude to safe driving among our students.
- Defensive driver training should start at driving licence level.
- Yes ... especially with repetition.
- Like all practical functions the more you practice, the better you become. Ideally, every novice driver should undergo a refresher driver enhancement programme, at least every three years, for the first nine years, after which, at least every five to six years.
How important are the theoretical section and the actual driving [in -car and behind the wheel] component of driver training – what are the most important aspects addressed in both?
- The theory is the basis of all understanding, and personally, I believe this is where in South Africa we lack the skill to present this side of driver education.
- A sound theoretical understanding of the tasks involved in order to manage risk on the road and to better understand vehicle behaviour is a prerequisite to being able to implement them practically. Both are of equal importance and complement each other.
The theory session is important as it covers all the defensive driving principals and makes use of video material to support what is taught, it is a time where the trainer can interact with the drivers and raise their awareness levels before the practical drive, the drive then reinforces the principals taught in the classroom and identify the drivers bad habit which then can be correct through coaching. E.g. you wouldn’t do a scuba diving course without understanding the theory component.
The theory explains the technical aspects so that it can be understood and applied during the practical part of the training. Practical is the main focus with the aim to improve driver skill.
- Theory includes explaining gear selection, clutch control on flat roads, downhills and uphills; stopping at low speed and normal speeds; how to wait as traffic passes and on inclines; how to leave the side of the road responsibly; blind spot checks (and I show them a video); correct lane change procedure; and if time permits, I also explain an overview of the K53 test sheet and weekly garage checks.
- Practical application forms the second appointment. Steering without crossing arms is my second or third lesson, depending on how easily they accepted the practical training.
- The system of vehicle control and coaching forms the next lesson. As soon as the intensive coaching gets them driving competently and checking the rearview mirror, right, left right before crossing intersections, stopping distances etc, then they start driving in light traffic, fully prepared to manage well, and they do.
- In a very short time, they are driving everywhere including on freeways and in the CBD of Pretoria and in Marabastad in taxi world downtown where no rules of the road are applied.
- Although the theory is considered to be the boring part of gaining knowledge, it is imperative as the underpinnings prepare a driver for the practical element, allowing for the theory to become reality in the “real world” of motoring. The following are normally covered in both components:
The System of Vehicle Control
The Commentary Driving System (The SIPDE System - (Search, Identify, Predict, Decide and Execute))
Driving with Mechanical Sympathy
Hazard Avoidance Techniques
Vehicle Dynamics (Forces of Nature and Laws of Nature)
Driver awareness and attitude
Driving in Adverse Conditions
Special Training: Over/under-steering (skid control)
How can a driver that knows he/ she is not yet a very experienced driver adjust driving to be safer?
- Practice and being led down a path of confidence with the correct tuition.
The only way would be to go on a defensive driving programme as if you don’t know what you are doing wrong you cannot correct it.
They need to take defensive lessons by a competent instructor. Proof of claims must be shown.
- Experience comes with practice – hours spent behind the steering wheel. Experience builds confidence.
- A novice driver should travel slower and observe more carefully.
- If all novice drivers could successfully implement the crucial advanced, defensive driving techniques, it would go a long way towards reducing the casualty rate amongst this vulnerable road user group.
- Speed management is key. Try to maintain the flow of traffic and create a 3-second following distance between yourself and the vehicle in front. This will make it easier to scan further ahead for problems as well as help to create more time to react calmly to the constantly changing driving environment.
When we talk about driving “within your ability” - what do we refer to?
- The term may be incorrect as we talk about driving within various abilities: the vehicle’s abilities, the driver's abilities and within the conditions and environment presented.
- The secret is to apply the right mindset to all factors and engage the right input.
- When an inexperienced driver has passed their licence and is driving alone, they must not tolerate being bullied. They have every right and responsibility to drive at a speed that they can handle without difficulty.
- They must select a slower lane to the left, and not block the right lane. If a right turn is required, they must move right nearer to the intersection, following strict lane change procedures.
- They must keep their vehicle straight while waiting to turn right to avoid being forced into a head-on collision position if rear-ended.
- Different people have different driving abilities. A new driver’s ability could be poor due to inexperience, whilst an experienced driver’s ability could be very good.
- Driving in a manner where you have TOTAL control over your vehicle anywhere, any place and at any time. The vehicle is a wonderful servant but a lethal master.
- The cars of today with all their advanced driving features can lull any unsuspecting driver into a fall sense of security which could end tragically. Always obey all road traffic rules and regulations and drive confidently, but safely.
Any suggestions you might offer to our inexperienced drivers or their family members?
- Driving is a mindset and an attitude, change those first!
- Following distance (3 seconds) and stopping distance (one car length) are vitally important. These create space that we need in order to calmly assess what is taking place around us. Check every intersection thoroughly and don’t underestimate the blind spot check.
- Learning to drive safely and legally is a big undertaking. Do NOT pay fly-by-night instructors for a service they are not legally registered to offer.
- Also, do not insult the driving instructor by asking them to teach you to learn the tricks to pass. Good driving instructors are dedicated to producing safe, confident, law-abiding drivers who can protect themselves on the road while driving safely.
- Take as much time behind the wheel as possible to gain more driving experience. The more you do/repeat an activity, the better you get at it and it could even include a few close calls along the way, that will give you better insight – you learn through mistakes.
- Driving is SA is a necessity and for many disadvantaged people, a means of freedom from poverty. Having said this, it is imperative to appreciate that there are no shortcuts to driving freedom.
- Engaging in corrupt actions to obtain your driving license will come back to haunt you. The initial, “benefit” would be short-lived as your driving will lead to on-going stress and tension for you, your loved ones and other road users.
- It is wise to go for your basic training through an accredited, reputable driving school and not rely on your family members as they could have been trained incorrectly and are merely passing on the bad habits.
- It would also be advisable that novice drivers undertake a course in advanced, defensive driving through a recognised advanced driving academy. Book a defensive driving programme, once we get our licence we never invest in furthering our driving ability, we understand the importance of education so we spend huge money on furthering our studies, considering how inexpensive a defensive driving programme costs, and it will save your life. The car is the most unsafe mode of transport.
- Book a defensive driving programme. Once we get our licence we never invest in furthering our driving ability.
- We understand the importance of education so we spend huge money on furthering our studies, considering how inexpensive a defensive driving programme costs, and it will save your life. The car is the most unsafe mode of transport.
A word of appreciation to the following for their assistance
Pat Allen - Institute of Driver Instructors
Ashref Ismail - Fleetmax Africa
Richard Brussow - National Hijack prevention Academy
Travis Krause - Toyota Advanced Driving
Christo Evangelou - BMW Driving Experience
Eugene Herbert - MasterDrive