Playing sport makes teenagers safer drivers

The surprising truth about teen drivers
The surprising truth about teen drivers Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

The high accident rate of young male drivers may be related to not paying attention to safety considerations rather than a lack of skill, according to a new study of factors associated with driving ability in learners.

The research, published in PLOS Onelooked at the relationship between novice drivers' skills and their age, gender, participation in organised sports and whether they played video games. One hundred participants, (50 men and 50 women) took part in the University of California study.  All had less than five hours driving experience before they were rated by a driving instructor during a formal lesson.

And the results were unexpected.

Among male drivers, age was associated with poorer driving skills. In fact, male teens scored 36 per cent higher than men in their 20s, a finding the researchers described as "surprising".

"This is counter to popular belief that young drivers lack technical driving skills because they have less experience behind the wheel," the authors write. "Based on the results of the current study, we hypothesise that the relatively high accident rate of younger drivers (especially male drivers) is most likely due to inattention to safety considerations rather than lack of technical driving ability."

But that wasn't the only interesting finding. The team also uncovered an unexpected bonus of participating in sport - for both genders. On average, study participants who played sport scored higher marks for their driving than those who didn't. "Practicing organised athletics of any kind, solo or team sports, either past or present, is associated with enhanced driving skills in both females and males," the authors noted, explaining that previous work has shown that participating in organised sports improves spatial perception.

The same couldn't be said for video games, however. "We expected to find that playing video games would increase a driver's skill, but an analysis of all 100 subjects showed no correlation between video game rating and driving skills,' the authors wrote.(They do, however, concede that they didn't gather information around the types of video games participants played.)

While the findings around video games and organised sport are interesting, the different skill levels between younger and older novice males is important given the existence of age-related licencing requirements. The authors cite a 2017 study, which found that while older novice drivers had fewer accidents than younger novice drivers in the first three months after getting their license, they had more accidents within three years of being licensed.  "This supports the theory that the higher rate of accidents among younger novice drivers is potentially due solely to behavioral factors, not driving ability per se," the authors write. 

In the US drivers under 18 must undertake formal driver's education classes and a minimum of six hours of on-road driving instruction. In Australia, however, the rules, (which vary slightly by state), are more stringent, but differ based on a learner's age.

In NSW, learner drivers over the age of 25 do not need to spend a minimum amount of time on their L plates and are not required to complete the minimum of 120 hours of supervised driving. Drivers under 25 must hold their Learner licence for at last 12 months and complete 120 hours of supervised driving, including 20 hours of night driving before taking their test. 

In Victoria, if you're over the age of 25, you only need to have held your licence for three months before being eligible to take a driving test. Drivers under the age of 21 must complete a minimum of 120 hours of supervised driving, including at least 20 hours at night.

"The present study showed a negative correlation between age and driving skills of novice drivers, which was most pronounced in males," the study authors write, "indicating that in fact it is older males who might require more training or different training."