Why Young Drivers Need Compulsory Brain Tests


A LEADING psychologist has called for mandatory neuropsychological testing of young drivers to ensure only those with ''mature'' brains are granted licences. Figures show that 19 people have died in NSW, Australia, this year - three a week - in crashes involving P-plate drivers.

John Reid, of Monash University, said the only way to reduce the number of P-plate fatalities would be to identify young drivers at risk of behaving irresponsibly. He said brain maturation varied considerably, although it was normally complete between the late teens and mid- to late-20s. Anywhere from 5 to 70 per cent of young drivers could have immature brains.

''Five per cent of people who are likely to have a fatal crash is still a high proportion,'' Dr Reid said.

The tests, different from the Hazard Perception Test, would probe what was going on in the brain and how young people thought through consequences of actions. Dr Reid said the test should be mandatory for all licence applicants but ''whether you've got the political will to do that, I don't know, because there would be an outcry''.

Simply raising the legal driving age would be ''unfair'' as it would penalise those teenagers whose brains had fully developed. Those who failed the test could be put on restricted licences or undergo an expensive brain imaging scan, called diffusion tensor imaging, at their own cost if they believed they had been unfairly classified.

Meanwhile, founders of school-based and extracurricular education programs say driver's education should become part of the curriculum or be mandatory. Singleton High introduced a Crossroads program after a student, Simone Wadsworth, died in a car accident that traumatised the Hunter Valley community.

Personal Development, Health and Physical Education (PDHPE) teacher Grant Godfrey, who co-ordinates 10 one-hour sessions in terms 2 and 3, hopes to introduce it to other schools this year. It includes units in crash statistics, crash impacts, better driving skills, understanding risk-taking, car maintenance, distractions, drugs, handling pressure, defensive driving and coping with other road users.

''We'd love to have it go further, considering road statistics are going through the roof,'' Mr Godfrey said.

The Rotary Club Youth Driver Awareness program has expanded to 40 venues, with 140,000 mostly year 11 students going through the course, since beginning on Sydney's north shore in 2001. Operations director Greg Cantwell wants to make the program available to all schools.

''We see a great importance of the education before there is any penalty,'' Mr Cantwell said. ''There has been lots of legislation introduced but there needs to be education.''

Maitland mother Michelle Davis lost two sons Brendan, 19, and Mathew, 16, in the same July 2005 crash. Brendan had been driving 120 km/h in a 70 km/h zone.

''It is a parent's worst nightmare,'' she said. ''I remember looking at the kitchen floor thinking, 'This doesn't happen to me.' But it can happen to anyone.''

Ms Davis now leads the one-day ROADWhyz safe-driving program taught in schools to L- and P-plate drivers. Since 2007, the organisers have spoken to 5500 teenage drivers and do presentations on average to 12 schools a year. The program includes graphic displays from ambulance and police officers.

Ms Davis said teachers and parents often asked her why the program was not mandatory for all children going for their licences. ''It has to be that education is going to be the key otherwise we'll just throw our hands up and say we give up,'' she said.

An RTA spokesman said that the issue of whether the licensing age should be increased would continue to be monitored. The director of the NSW Centre for Road Safety, Soames Job, said that the increase in the road toll from 374 deaths in 2008 to 460 deaths last year was largely due to speeding.

''If everyone made the commitment to stick to the speed limit, we would see more than 100 fewer people die on our roads and thousands fewer injuries each year,'' Dr Job said.