Accident risk of young drivers

Young drivers, especially males, from 18 to 24 are dramatically more often involved in accidents compared to drivers of other age groups (Evans, 1991). This overinvolvement of young male drivers in the accident statistics is one of the most consistently observed phenomena in traffic throughout the world. A confounding factor is that young drivers usually are the least experienced. Simpson (1986) stated that the reason for the high involvement of young drivers in vehicle accidents, even when exposure to risk is controlled for, is not clear. While young people from 16 to 24 years of age represent 17% of the Canadian population, they account for 31% of all traffic fatalities, 33% of all traffic injuries and 58% of all driver fatalities in Canada. Because risk is usually applied as an explanatory concept for the high accident involvement of young drivers, studies on this issue are discussed here.
The meanings of the risk-related concepts will be discussed first as they are applied in the case of the young driver. Risk-taking is something which is usually inferred from observation of behaviour (Saad, 1989). Traffic researchers often assume that high speed and close following carry a higher objective risk. Drivers who display such behaviours are then assumed to take more risks. Jonah (1986) has given several examples of higher risk-taking in young drivers. Young drivers have been reported to drive at higher speeds (for example Wasielewski, 1984; Soliday, 1974), although the correlation between speed and age is generally very low. Also, younger drivers have been reported to follow at smaller headways (Evans and Wasielewski, 1983). This behaviour associated by a number of researchers with higher risk taking in young drivers, is often seen as evidence that young drivers either deliberately seek more risk or accept a higher target level of risk, and thus have a higher risk acceptance or risk utility, or have a deficient risk perception, i.e. they fail to see the risk involved with such behaviours. The former concept is associated with Wilde’s model while the latter is more closely associated with the models of Näätänen and Summala and Fuller. Both concepts have been used as expressions of subjective risk.

One of the problems with risk research centers around the conceptual vagueness of the term ‘subjective risk’. It is not always clear whether it refers to a failure to perceive the potential danger (hazard perception), to an underestimation of the probability of a certain event (subjective estimation of objective risk), to the driver’s poor appreciation of his or her ability to cope with the situation, or to attitudes and motives regarding safety (risk acceptance) (Saad, 1989). Haight (1986) argued that the only valid meaning of the term ‘risk’ refers to empirical probability or expected cost. In that case risk is a statistical concept referring to the outcome of behaviour on a highly aggregated level. In such a view there is little room for terms such as subjective risk, risk perception or risk acceptance. Another problem associated with some risk research is the circularity in reasoning. The explanation for behaviour associated with a higher objective risk, resulting in more accidents, is that drivers deliberately want a higher objective risk or fail to see the objective risk involved. So the behaviour to be explained is explained in terms of the outcomes of precisely the same behaviour.
The high accident involvement of young drivers has often been attributed to poorer risk perception, resulting in a larger discrepancy between subjective risk and objective risk for young male drivers. Jonah (1986) stated that, even though young drivers may perceive as much risk while driving as older drivers and thus do not deliberately seek more risk, they may be more confident in their ability to avoid an accident. In Jonah’s review, risk perception was meant to reflect the subjective estimation of objective risk. He presented some evidence that younger drivers had poorer risk perceptions in the sense that they estimated objective risk lower compared to other age groups. However, it is not clear what this means. Basically, the subjects were asked about their knowledge of statistical facts over which even traffic researchers are still debating. Wilde’s model is the only risk model that assumes that knowledge of drivers concerning statistical accident risk affects behaviour. It has been objected by many authors that it is highly unlikely that drivers are aware of accident statistics or that these play any role in driving behaviour. Finn and Bragg (1986) also measured subjective risk or risk perception as the estimation of objective risk as a statistical phenomenon by asking questions such as ‘how many people were killed in traffic accidents in Massachusetts last year’. Although it was found that young drivers see driving as more dangerous when general questions about accident risk were asked, and they recognize that their age group is at greater risk of accident involvement compared to other age groups, they see their own chances to be involved in an accident as lower compared to their own age group and older drivers when specific questions about their own risk are asked. Finn and Bragg saw this as evidence that young drivers differ from older drivers in lower risk perception and not in risk acceptance and that risk perception, or at least seeing less risk in driving situations compared to older male drivers, may account for the high accident involvement of young male drivers. Bragg and Finn (1982) found that specific behaviours such as speeding and tailgating were perceived as less risky by young drivers. They hypothesized that the lower perception of risk in young drivers may be attributable to the greater confidence in their skill or belief in their ability to handle a particular hazardous situation. Risk perception was thus connected with confidence in driver skills.
Matthews and Moran (1986) assessed the relationship between perceived skill and perceived risk. In their study young (18-25) and middle-aged (35-50) male drivers completed a questionnaire on accident risk and driving ability and gave subjective ratings of risk to videotaped traffic situations. Young drivers gave lower ratings of accident risk for driving situations which demanded fast reflexes or substantial vehicle handling skills. They rated their own risk of an accident and driving abilities as being the same as for older drivers. However, they saw their peers as being significantly more at risk and as having poorer abilities than themselves. The data suggested that risk perception is strongly related to perceived ability. Spolander (1982) found that drivers with three years of experience judged themselves to have better driving skills compared to other drivers. The drivers who gave the highest ratings on skill also reported  faster driving.
Brown and Groeger (1988) distinguished two inputs to the process of risk perception: information on potential hazards in the traffic environment and information on the joint abilities of driver and vehicle to prevent that hazard potential being transformed into actual accident outcomes. Risk perception is the detection of any shortfall in the ability to avoid realizing the potential of immediate task and environmental hazards.
This short review makes clear that the concept of risk perception has more than one meaning which makes the interpretation of results from these studies difficult. On the other hand, subjective risk has been linked more and more with (perceived) driving skills. This suggests that, at least in the mind of the driver, subjective risk really means fear of loss of control.

In another line or research, the high accident involvement rate of especially young male drivers has been associated with the use of alcohol and drugs as a lifestyle-related phenomenon. Although as many as 50% of fatally injured young drivers have been found to be positive for alcohol, this is slightly lower than the frequency for older drivers. Also, it has become clear from surveys that drinking and driving is widespread among younger drivers although they had typically consumed less alcohol than older drivers. In alcohol related crashes younger drivers tend to have lower BACs than older drivers (Simpson, 1986). Yet, the high accident involvement among young drivers has been attributed to risky driving behaviour as an aspect of adolescent lifestyle that is embedded in the same set of personality and behaviour aspects as other kinds of adolescent problem behaviour such as delinquency, problem drinking and illegal drug use and smoking(Jessor, 1986). Also, Beirness and Simpson (1986) found that accident involved young drivers score higher on thrill and sensation seeking, alcohol consumption and frequency of drinking while they score lower on traditional values and usage of seat belts. In short then, some authors believe that the high accident involvement of young, and especially male, drivers is a lifestyle related phenomenon resulting in a higher deliberate risk acceptance or higher target level of risk. But in that case it would be expected that a higher percentage of accident involved young drivers are positive on alcohol and have higher BAC levels compared to older drivers. This obviously is not the case.

It has frequently been reported that the relative risk of becoming involved in a fatal accident rises faster as a function of BAC level for younger drivers compared to older drivers (Simpson, 1986; Kretschmer-Bäumel and Kroj, 1986). In other words, with increases in the amount of alcohol consumed, the accident risk increases for all age groups, but much more rapidly for the young. Although the typical explanation for this has been the relative inexperience of young drivers with alcohol, driving and the combination of these, there is no scientific evidence that inexperience with drinking and/or driving is the cause for the stronger impact of alcohol on accident rate for the young (Simpson, 1986; Mayhew et al. 1986). Although the reason for the interaction between age and BAC level on accident involvement is not clear, it suggests that both factors share a common locus of effect, in the sense that the factor that causes the higher accident rate of young drivers is aggravated by alcohol. In the discussion of the effects of alcohol it was suggested that the lack of compensation for impaired performance may be the cause for the large role of alcohol in accident causation. Evidence was presented that drivers are unaware of performance decrements under alcohol which is possibly the cause for the absence of compensatory speed changes and effort. From the same perspective it may be suggested that young and inexperienced drivers have not yet learned to recognize the effects of situational factors on their performance and thus fail to compensate for these effects resulting in speeds that are too high for the circumstances. Extensive practice on relevant driving tasks can be improved in driver training and a car driving simulator can be a useful tool to accomplish that.

The following literature was referred to:

  • Beirness, D.J. and Simpson, H.M. (1986). Alcohol use and lifestyle factors as correlates of crash involvement amongst the youth. In: T. Benjamin (Ed.). Young drivers impaired by lcohol and other drugs. Royal Society of Medicine Services, London, 141-148.
  • Bragg, W.E. and Finn, P. (1982). Young driver risk-taking research: Technical report of experimental study. Contract No. DTNH 22-80-R-07360. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Washington D.C.
  • Brown, I.D. and Groeger, J.A. (1988). Risk perception and decision taking during the transition between novice and experienced driver status.Ergonomics, 31, 585-597.
  • Evans, L.E. (1991). Traffic Safety and the driver. Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York.
  • Evans, L.E. and Wasielewski, P. (1983). Risky driving related to driver and vehicle characteristics.Accident Analysis & Prevention, 15, 121-136.
  • Finn, P. and Bragg, B.W.E. (1986). Perception of the risk of an accident by young and older drivers.Accident Analysis & Prevention, 18, 289-298.
  • Haight, F.A. (1986). Risk, especially risk of traffic accident. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 18, 359-366.
  • Jessor, R. (1986). Risky driving and adolescent problem behaviour.: Theoretical and empirical linkage. In: T. Benjamin (Ed.). Young drivers impaired by lcohol and other drugs. Royal Society of Medicine Services, London, 97-110.
  • Jonah, B.A. (1986). Accident risk and risk-taking behaviour among young drivers. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 18, 255-271.
  • Kretschmer-Bäumel, E. and Kroj, G. (1986). Drinking and driving data from the Federal Republic of Germany. In: T. Benjamin (Ed.). Young drivers impaired by lcohol and other drugs. Royal Society of Medicine Services, London, 29-36.
  • Matthews, M.L. and Moran, A.R. (1986). Age differences in male drivers’ perception of accident risk: The role of perceived driving ability.Accident Analysis & Prevention, 18, 299-313.
  • Mayhew, D.R., Beirness, D.J., Donelson, A.C. and Simpson, H.M. (1986). Why are young drinking drivers at greater risk of collision? In: T. Benjamin (Ed.). Young drivers impaired by lcohol and other drugs. Royal Society of Medicine Services, London, 65-71.
  • Saad, F. (1989). Risk-taking or danger perception. Recherche Transports Securite, 4, 51-58.
  • Simpson, H.M. (1986). Young drivers’ alcohol- and drug impairment: Magnitude, characteristics and significance of the problem. In: T. Benjamin (Ed.). Young drivers impaired by lcohol and other drugs. Royal Society of Medicine Services, London, 1-7.
  • Soliday, S.M. (1974). Relationship between age and hazard perception in automobile drivers. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 39, 335-338.
  • Spolander, K. (1982). Inexperienced drivers’ behaviour, abilities and attitudes. Swedish National Road Traffic Research Institute Report.
  • Wasielewski, P. (1984). Speed as a measure of driver risk: Observed speeds versus driver and vehicle characteristics. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 16, 89-104.

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