01 October 2013:
Keeping the matric road trip safe
The end-of-year matric holidays are nearly upon us and it lifts one's spirits to see young people venturing out into the world to seek their fortunes. They are untainted by failure, undaunted by challenges, ready to take the world by the scruff of its neck. Unfortunately, all that can be ended by a few drinks before driving, or someone on the wrong side of the road.
To understand the risk young drivers face, one has to compare fatality rates for all age groups, and those figures haven't been available since 1998. Back then, a typical driver between 18 and 24 years old was four times more likely to be killed in a traffic crash than the equivalent driver of 60 or older. Even in the absence of more recent data, it's reasonable to presume that this gap in fatality risk between young and old has persisted. After all, it's a worldwide phenomenon that young drivers are three or more times more at risk than drivers over 60.
And within mere months, many of the most vulnerable young drivers – those who have had their licences for possibly just a few months – will be celebrating the end of their school career in that most traditional of ways – the matric road trip holiday. At the forefront of every parent and youngster's mind should be ensuring a safe return. This involves scaling some hurdles, the first of which is licensing. Parents who buy their children a licence - and some parents do – have unknowingly set up a road safety obstacle that is near-insurmountable.
No further road safety advice is likely to be effective, since the lesson is that money is all it takes to make road safety problems go away. If you are one of those parents, consider that your child might not be the only person to pay with their life when the basic errors that stood between them and passing their licence are exposed at 120 km/h.
Then there's driver impairment. There are no safe levels of alcohol or drugs when it comes to driving. Even a single drink doubles a driver's crash risk. If parents want their children to avoid driving drunk, they might have to take radical steps to provide an example to follow, such as committing to not driving after even one drink in future. A zero alcohol level for drivers is an unpopular subject with many, but just look at the facts: more than half the people who die on our roads are under the influence, at an average Blood Alcohol Concentration nearly four times the legal driving limit, according to the Medical Research Council. Parents who persuade their children not to drive after drinking will not only reduce their crash risk, but help them avoid the vast numbers of drunken road users they are likely to encounter. Alcohol is not the only cause of impairment though – if someone is ill, or fatigued, or on medication that causes drowsiness or distraction, someone else should be driving.
What about roadworthiness? Parents are fully entitled to insist that their children drive (or are a passenger in) a roadworthy car for the matric road trip. Proper tyre pressure and condition are vital. Also ensure that brakes, steering and shock absorbers are in tip-top condition: sooner or later everyone will face a potential emergency at the wheel; it's inevitable. And when it happens to young drivers, life and limb might depend on the vehicle's mechanical condition.
If the journey will be a long one, parents should ensure their children understand the importance of sharing the driving. Whoever is at the wheel should be fresh and alert, and night-time driving should be discouraged - the fencing along South Africa's roads is not what it used to be, meaning a higher risk of crashes involving game or livestock, especially at night. Levels of drunkenness among road users - especially pedestrians - rise sharply after dark too. Young, inexperienced drivers should probably be checked into a hotel or guest house at 11pm, instead of on the road between Beaufort West and Laingsburg.
Perhaps, above all, society should be emphasising to young drivers that safe, sensible driving habits are not about dampening the joy of the moment. Quite the opposite – they are there to ensure that everyone is able to experience that joy. Of course, at 18, immortality is a fact of life, so parents dispensing road safety advice for the matric holiday have to be both subtle and believable. After all, the road safety tips they dispense will be some of the most important advice they could give their children as they spread their wings for the big wide world.