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How safe are you really, when you get behind the steering wheel?

Jackie Hill from Masterton Driving School, left, and one of the volunteer participants. PHOTO/EMMA BROWN

Years of experience do not necessarily make you a better driver
It’s always the other person at the wheel who’s the bad driver, isn’t it? But after driving for a few years, could you pass a restricted driving test today? The Times-Age put six volunteers, of varying ages and experience, through a driving test. The results were interesting, EMMA BROWN writes.

There is a belief that you gain experience, grow in knowledge and skill, and increase in wisdom with age.

As a reporter for the Wairarapa Times-Age, I often find myself at multiple car crashes every week.

This idea of becoming a better driver with age is often reinforced by the comments I hear after crashes – “I bet it was a young driver, it’s inexperience”.

In New Zealand, the test you must pass to get your driver’s licence has continued to change through the years, becoming more structured and a much longer process.

Forty years ago, with a minimum age of 15, it was a brief, probably multiple-choice theory test, and a 20-minute practical test involving a hill start and parallel parking.

Now, would-be drivers must pass a multiple-choice theory test just to get a learner’s licence at a minimum age of 16.

That allows them only to drive with a person who has had their full licence for at least two years, with exceptions.

Next, is a one-hour practical test to get a restricted licence to be able to drive alone, and carry passengers in certain circumstances.

The final test is a 30-minute practical test to get a full licence at the minimum age of 17 and a half.

So, with it becoming much harder to get a driver’s licence, why do people still have the same bias towards younger drivers?

New Zealand Transport Agency data showed that there were 734 crashes in Wairarapa from the start of 2017 to the end of July 2019, with 1256 recorded contributing factors.

The top factors were poor observation [231 crashes], poor handling [125], failure to give way [124], incorrect lanes or position [109], and alcohol [105].

The Times-Age sought the ages of passengers in car crashes and the ages of drivers who were assigned partial or primary responsibility for crashes in Wairarapa from the start of 2009 to July 2019.

There were 3182 crashes in that time. In 3027 of these, individuals were assigned primary or partial responsibility. Of those, ages were recorded in 1018 cases.

Injuries suffered by drivers who were assigned primary or partial responsibility for crashes showed a peak for ages 20-29, with 247 crashes.

In other age groups, the numbers varied only slightly.

Drivers under 20 caused 172 crashes, 30-39-year-olds caused 136, 40-49-year-olds caused 131 and 50-59-year-olds caused 129.

There were 109 crashes caused by 60 to 69-year-olds, and 94 crashes caused by people over the age of 70.

The information shows that although there is a peak in the 20-29 age group and also taking into account there are only four years in the under 20 group, crashes are caused by people of all ages.

So, does driving improve with age and experience?

We set out to find the answer.

The Experiment


Talking with a young driver, they said, “it’s not just us, I bet many people couldn’t pass a driving test these days”.

Wairarapa Road Safety Council was approached to see if it would take part in an experiment to test the ability of experienced drivers in a test environment. Driving instructor Jackie Hill, from Masterton Driving School, would put the drivers through their paces.

To spare blushes, participants’ names have been withheld, with results only identified by their age group.

Six people from 20 to 73 were put through a shortened test based on New Zealand restricted driving test requirements to see how drivers who had held their licences for varying lengths of time would perform.

Two people with full licences in each of three age groups – 20-39, 40-59, and 60-plus – were tested.

All drivers were given a slip explaining that the mock testing officer would instruct them to drive around a mini driving test course and to remember to check their surroundings, speed and use indicators.

Once participants had completed the test, they were told their results, and questioned about how they found the test and what they thought about driving.

The Results.

While some participants were described as good drivers, not one of them would have passed a restricted driving test.

Failing to physically turn their heads to check blind spots on the left or right caught out every participant at some point.

The markdowns from these alone would result in a fail.

Indicating and head checks while parallel parking also caught out nearly all the participants.

Other common failings were not stopping for three seconds at stop signs, not indicating when merging, and going too fast past reduced speed signs.

For example, when coming in from a 70kmh zone to 50kmh, they had not slowed to 50kmh by the time they reached the sign.

The Review

Participant 1, the youngest participant at 20 years of age, said he was not surprised with the result as he remembered how hard the restricted test was when he passed it three years ago.

“I wouldn’t like to be 16-year-old me these days.”

Participant 2 [20-39] said she knew she was not good at parking but believed that didn’t make her a bad driver.

“As I was going, I was thinking, I could have it if I passed my parking, which I didn’t.

“I never called myself a good driver, I am an overly cautious driver who can’t park.”

Participant 6, the eldest at 73 years old, said that he was glad to have participated and for Hill to have picked up his habit of not physically doing a blind spot check.

“I think it made me aware that I have a weak point and I need to work on it.

“There are some things I need to adjust in my driving as I have apparently developed habits.”

Having got his licence in 1960, he said a lot had changed since.

Participant 5 [60 plus] agreed traffic conditions had changed a lot in 10 years.

She found the fact that there was no retesting at any age “quite horrifying”.

Participant 4 [40-59] agreed.

“Everybody can do with a refresher.

“A whole lot of rules have changed since I got my licence.”

Across the board, participants thought it was great Hill gave feedback on the habits they had picked up over the years.

When asked what they thought about other people reviewing their skills after a few years of driving, the consensus was that a test which could lead to a person losing their licence was not needed.

But participants liked the idea of going out with an instructor to get feedback on their driving. They liked having things they had missed being pointed out and being warned when their driving was dangerous.

“It is important to drive responsibly, a licence is not a right, it’s a privilege,” said participant 6 [60 plus].

Participant 2 [20-39] said age was not necessarily the key factor. “There are dangerous drivers in all age groups, bad young drivers grow to be bad older drivers.”

Bruce Pauling. PHOTO/FILE

The results didn’t surprise Wairarapa Road Safety Council manager Bruce Pauling.

“We just don’t realise how robust the process is [getting your licence],” he said.

“Sometimes we are not driving to our potential and are not driving defensively.

“We seem to think that because we have been driving for x amount of years, that we are a safe driver and we are doing all the right things that a safe driver should be doing.

“[Young drivers], they don’t have the experience, but as the mock test shows, having driving experience doesn’t always translate into the best driving practices on the road.

“I think it is a skill we need to work on continuously and any initiative to improve your skills is a good idea.”

Drivers needed to remember the importance of what they were doing, said NZTA regional transport systems manager Mark Owen.

“When we’re behind the wheel, we have a responsibility to ourselves, our passengers and other road users to drive safely,” he said.

“Put road safety first and make sure you and everyone else on the road gets to their destinations safely and unharmed.”


  1. As soon as I read “not stopping for at least 3 seconds at a stop sign” I stopped reading the article. Please show me in the “Road code” where it states that rule….The stop sign rule is you must come to a complete stop with the wheels not turning. No time frame. This highlights a problem, all be it minor, of the huge variation of instruction from Parents, brothers & sisters etc and indeed Qualified Driving Instructors.

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