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Why Are 17-25 Year Olds Over-Represented in Road Fatalities?

This August we’re focusing on young adults. For Young Adults August, we look into the over-representation of 17 to 25 year olds in road fatality statistics and some of the issues young drivers face.

Young adults make up the majority of Learner and P-Plate licence holders. Every one of us knows at least one young driver, whether that’s your child, niece or nephew, neighbour, friend, partner or even yourself.

Did you know this age group makes up 15% of licence holders but represents 25% of annual road fatalities?

So, why is there such an overrepresentation of young drivers in fatal crashes?

Lack of supervision and experience, use of older cars, peer pressure and increased risk-taking behaviours are some of the major factors.

Research shows that P-platers are significantly more likely to engage in some form of risky driving when compared to L-platers. Without a parent, guardian or driving instructor sitting next to them, young drivers have a newfound sense of freedom which may lead them to engage in risky driving. Pair this with a relative lack of experience and the risk increases starkly.

Unless someone is an amazing driving prodigy, there’s no shortcut to mastering the complex task of driving. Learner drivers usually drive on familiar roads and in manageable weather conditions. As a result, many young drivers are just not prepared for unforeseen circumstances, extreme weather conditions and many other situations that take time and practice to get accustomed to.

The next issue is old cars. In many instances young drivers get older cars as their first car but the importance of the age and safety of a car is critical in how well it holds up in a crash. A 2018 study showed that in the past five years, 80% of drivers under 17 who died on the roads were driving vehicles older than 10 years. Newer cars seem to be a safer choice for young drivers, likely due to enhanced crumple zone technology and new safety mechanisms, but the higher cost of a new cars makes an older car the logical choice for people just starting out in the workforce.

Young drivers are five times more likely to be involved in a car crash if there are young adult passengers in their car. This falls to two reasons; distraction and peer pressure. Passengers are a big source of distraction for all drivers but with young adults, the risk of getting into an accident increases drastically. Peer pressure is another factor, with a 2018 study showing 68% of young drivers admitted they felt intense peer pressure when driving.

Risk-taking behaviour generally peaks during 17-25 years of age. In particular, young males are more prone to take risks, show less social anxiety and are less sensitive to outcomes when taking risks.

Can this be attributed to the underdeveloped prefrontal cortex?

Located near the front of our brains, the prefrontal cortex influences our social behaviour, decision making and plays an important role in our personality, goals and values. As our brains develop from the back to the front, this particular section of our brain develops last. Functions like evaluating information, determining good and bad, maintaining social control and understanding long term consequences are overseen by the prefrontal cortex.

Although the prefrontal cortex fully develops in our mid to late 20s, some research suggests that this part of the brain begins to develop at around 21 years of age for females and at 25 for males.

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