Car crash

Young drivers regularly make the front pages of our newspapers, too often in tragic circumstances. From drag racing to drink-driving, they’re portrayed as being a menace on the road. The UK’s Telegraph wrote, sensationally, that “Young drivers have a licence to kill“.

But for all the emphasis on young hooning P-platers, another age group is causing more than its fair share of road accidents.

Earlier this month in Victoria, a 91-year-old driver left a “trail of destruction” after losing control of her car. She wasn’t the only one. Three other older drivers damaged property this month in Victoria, with one losing her life. And there are more and more older drivers around; the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that the number of drivers over 60 could double by 2030 and almost quadruple by 2050.

Crikey wondered: who is more of a danger behind the wheel, young drivers or the elderly? The raw figures from the ABS paint a grim picture. Almost as many drivers aged 17-25 died in 2011 as drivers aged between 40 and 59, even though there are far more people in the older age bracket. It was the same for the 10 years before that.

But that isn’t the whole story. The Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety analysed crashes in Queensland from 2004 to 2009 and found that although the rate of crashes did spike between the ages of 17-24, they rose again between age 90 and 100.

In fact, in South Australia, a state government report shows older drivers surpass younger drivers for risk of death per kilometre travelled.

But the statistics aren’t that black and white. “Younger and older drivers have very high rates of crashes, but in younger drivers it tends to be from being irresponsible: drinking or driving too fast,” said Dr Mark King, from the University of Queensland’s Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety. “On the other hand, older drivers tend to have just made a mistake in judgement.”

He also found that young people were more dangerous for other road users, with older ones putting only themselves at risk. “If you look at older people’s crashes, where there’s been a fatality, it’s usually the older driver that’s killed, not anyone else. With younger people it’s more variable,” said King.

Monash University Accident Research Centre Professor Max Cameron says older drivers actively try to minimise the risk they pose to others. “What we find is that older people recognise their limitations and drive much less. They seldom drive at night, they usually drive at lower speeds, and they’re usually affluent enough to drive better cars,” he said.

In contrast, young people are often not thinking about minimising risk. “Inexperience is the big issue. Also they’re usually driving older, second-hand cars which add to the problem,” said Cameron.

Professor Raphael Grzebieta from the Transport and Road Safety unit at University of New South Wales said since some young people won’t check their behaviour, it’s up to the media.

“With young people, really the only thing that is preventing them from really going to extreme situation is threat of demerit points and threat of loss of life,” said Grzebieta. “Young people just don’t have a perception of risk, in terms of crashes, in terms of their driving skills, in perceiving hazards. You have to have that development of the driving skill, that process of learning to be a better driver.”