A UK government road safety programme that aims to reduce road deaths in young drivers is criticised by authors of a study in this week's issue of THE LANCET. The authors conclude that the programme could actually increase the number of teenagers who die on roads in the UK.
In March 2000, the UK Government launched its road safety strategy, setting out how it plans to achieve a 40% reduction in road deaths and serious injuries by 2010. Prominent within the strategy is a plan to reduce deaths and serious injury in teenage drivers. Drivers aged 17-21 years make up 7% of licence holders but 13% of drivers involved in road-traffic crashes resulting in injury. The government plans to tackle this problem with driver education programmes in schools and colleges. Students aged 16-18 years are offered an education package developed by the Driving Standards Agency which involves presentations by driving examiners about selecting a driving instructor, theory and practical tests, and a range of road safety issues.
Ian Roberts and colleagues from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK, did a systematic review of experimental studies, which suggested that this policy could do more harm than good. After extensive searching of publications worldwide, the authors found three large experimental evaluations of school driver education involving a total of around 18,000 teenagers. The results showed that teenage-driver education lead to earlier licensing; the authors comment that because this early licensing results in more teenagers driving, education programmes increase rather than decrease the proportion of road deaths.
In December, 2000, the UK Government announced that it was doubling the number of road-safety education programmes in schools. The decision was based on research by the British Institute of Traffic Education Research into teenagers' attitudes to road safety. However, the authors criticise this research (a survey of the "attitude, knowledge and intended behaviour" of 947 teenage students at three schools, before, immediately after, and 3 months after a presentation by a DSA instructor) because the study had no control group and had a very low response rate (36%).
Ian Roberts comments: "There are about 3500 road deaths each year in the UK with over a million deaths each year worldwide. Road safety policy must be based on the best available research evidence, otherwise we will just repeat the mistakes of the past. We need to know what works in road safety on the basis of proper experimental evaluation studies. Focus groups and attitude surveys may tell us what sorts of road safety policies people like, but they won't tell us whether they work." (Quote by e-mail; does not appear in published article).
Contact: Professor Ian Roberts, Public Health Intervention Research Unit, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, 49-51 Bedford Square, London, WC1B 3DP,UK; T) +44 (0)20 7299 4748; F) +44 (0)20 7299 4663; E) firstname.lastname@example.org