Monday, 26 September 2011

Risk Shift

The Trouble With Politics?

In the LA Times just over a week ago, there was an interesting report about a recent study of teenage drivers:,0,7056006.story
Basically, the situation in all the states (California being no more than a particular case in point) has been, for over a decade, that the newest drivers, which is to say 16-17 year olds, have been subjected to various restrictions on their ability to (a) carry passengers, and (b) drive at all during certain times of day. There have also been other restrictions adopted by certain states, such as driving without supervision, or the ability to use mobile phones while driving, but these two have been the main and most popular ones in every state since the first of these so-called "graduated driver licensing programs" was originally introduced in Florida in 1996.

What the study has revealed is that the anticipated - and indeed observed - reduction in fatal accidents involving 16-17 year old drivers, has been "almost exactly matched" by a corresponding increase in fatalities involving 18-19 year olds. In other words, the carnage has merely been pushed two years into the future.

(According to my reading of the evidence, the increase is actually closer to half the earlier reduction, but we'll let that go for now.)

Hot Potato

It's obvious with hindsight, that what these programs have done is to mask the immaturity and inexperience of new drivers for a year or two. By preventing them from being exposed to certain driving situations and environments, the restrictions have of course done nothing to prepare them for such eventual exposure.

Politically, this has become a very awkward truth. During the first couple of years of every such program, public officials have been able to point to a real reduction in young driver related fatalities, and boast with confidence that their policies have been saving lives. Now that it turns out in general not to have been the case, what are the chances that these programs will be cancelled overnight?

Absolute zero, obviously. But for more than just the usual reasons, i.e. short elected terms, and blissful ignorance of the actual evidence. This will not become just another case of badly thought out laws surviving through inertia. For if these programs were discontinued, there would be a bow wave of doubled fatalities lasting for as long as the initial reduction, namely two years, as today's pre-existing 18-19 year olds meet the newly liberated 16-17 year old wave of fresh idiots.

Obviously there's a lot that can be done, in terms of education and training, to defuse these unintended consequences and arrive at a program that does make sense. Still, it's an interesting study, and a good reminder of how shortsighted, wilfully or otherwise, we and our politicians can be.

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