IF parents in Australia feel anxious letting their teenagers behind the wheel, imagine how they feel in Norway.
Long dark winters and roads made slippery by fresh and melting ice and snow make learning to drive in Scandinavia a particularly perilous prospect.
The Norwegian government’s response, in the 1970s, therefore looked like it made a lot of sense.
All learner drivers would need to complete two practical courses before driving on their own: a night course, understandable in a country with a six-hour window of daylight in winter, and a course on how to drive in icy and slippery conditions.
And the result? Not what they had expected. By the late 1980s, it had become clear that drivers who had been through the slippery road course stood a much higher chance of having an accident on the very icy and slippery roads they were trained to deal with.
When the O’Farrell government this week announced a package of reforms to the state’s driver licence scheme, it was fulfilling an election promise and jumping into an area of policy in which it is decidedly tricky to work out what works and what does not.
This is a problem for governments searching for the right mix of measures to ensure young people emerge as safe drivers. And it is also an issue for parents trying to work out what to do to ensure their children will take as few risks as possible when they get out on the road.
For more than a decade in NSW and Australia, the general trend of learner driver policy has been to make young people spend much time in training before graduating to driving on their own.
By and large, the policies have worked. The rate of crashes involving young people has dropped more then 50 per cent in NSW since 2000. This is when the former government lengthened the amount of time drivers spent on their Ps and insisted on a logbook recording 50 hours of instruction for L-platers.
In 2007, the requirement for logbook hours jumped to 120, the highest in the country.
The changes announced this week partly reverse this trend. ‘‘Currently young people have to do 120 hours – and their parents have to do 120 hours with them,’’ Roads Minister Duncan Gay said in announcing that learner drivers would, from July, have to record only 80 hours in their logbooks if they had at least 10 hours of professional instruction and signed up to a new driving course.
‘‘It frankly is a sentence on families across the state,’’ Gay said.
‘‘Do we get better drivers at the end of this? The verdict is out on that.’’
The new measures were derived by the roads bureaucracy, with help from a panel from motoring groups, safety academics and the training industry which worked on the content of the new course.
And whether the measures will work or not will largely depend on the success of that course, which will involve a three-hour classroom lesson and two hours in a car with an instructor.
There will probably be at least two students in the car with the instructor, in part because of the difficulty of finding enough instructors to meet demand across the state.
But what the course will not do, says Marg Prendergast, general manager of the Centre for Road Safety at Transport for NSW, is teach young drivers how to handle their car if they get into trouble.
‘‘We are trying to focus on risk-taking and hazard perception,’’ Prendergast says.
The reason, says Dr Teresa Senserrick, chairwoman of the Sydney chapter of the Australasian College of Road Safety, is that the Norwegian experience in the 1980s is a general one.
‘‘If you have the training, you think you should be able to manage the situation, so you don’t avoid going into risky situations,’’ Senserrick said.
In Norway, signing up to a lesson on how to drive on slippery roads meant you were more likely to attempt icy conditions in the first place.
In NSW, this might mean that a young driver will approach a corner faster in the belief they know how to handle the car, should anything go wrong. ‘‘My definition of defensive is about trying to not get into crashes in the first place,’’ says Senserrick, who sat on an advisory panel for the current reforms.
The trick, therefore, is to give young drivers as much experience as possible, without ramping up their confidence level too much.
Parents can cut the hours required to sit alongside learners by sending the kids to driving school, writes Jacob Saulwick. But the impact on safety is not clear.