Good drivers aim to reduce and manage the inherent risk that you may injure or kill yourself or others while driving. The factors discussed here increase the risk of crashing for all drivers, and especially for new drivers.
Alcohol and drugs
Alcohol, drugs and some medicines reduce your ability to drive safely.
- Crash risk increases as your BAC increases. A BAC of .05 doubles the risk.
- Learner and probationary drivers must stick to zero BAC - no alcohol at all.
- Drink driving offences carry severe penalties. Relicensing after cancellation for drink driving requires the fitting of alcohol interlock devices for at least 6 months.
- Alcohol remains in your system for some time after drinking. This can result in a test above zero BAC the morning after.
- Drugs can affect driving. There is a zero tolerance to drug-impaired driving.
- Ask your doctor/pharmacist how prescription/over-the-counter medicines can affect your driving.
- Mixing alcohol, drugs or medicines is worse than any one by itself – having a few drinks and some cannabis is the same as a very drunk driver.
To avoid the risks, plan ahead:
- use public transport or take a taxi
- stay over rather than drive home
- organise someone to drive who stays alcohol and drug free
- arrange to be picked up by a friend or relative
The faster you go, the greater your crash risk and the severity of resulting injuries. Speed is a factor in almost 20% of fatal crashes and about 30% of single vehicle crashes (running off the road). Speeding is riskier for new solo drivers as it reduces your margin for error and gives you less time to do the things you have to do like scanning, effective hazard perception and correct decision-making in every situation.
Mobile phones and other electronic devices
Any mobile phone use (including hands-free and texting) while driving is dangerous because it takes your attention away from the road and therefore increases crash risk.
Using a mobile phone causes you to wander in and out of your lane, follow too close to the vehicle in front, and miss traffic lights and other signals. The rules are simple:
- Learners, P1 and P2 licence holders are not allowed to use a hand-held or hands-free mobile, and are not allowed to send or read any text messages.
- Fully licensed drivers must not use a mobile to make/receive calls, unless it is securely fixed in a holder or can be remotely operated.
Avoid the temptation of answering a phone by:
- switching it off
- putting it on silent
- putting it out of reach when driving
- setting your voicemail message to make it clear you will not answer while driving
To make/take a call, pull over safely and park (not in emergency lanes as this is illegal).
Using or reaching for other electronic devices could distract you:
- a CD player or radio
- your passenger’s phone
- GPS navigation systems
- MP3 players
- DVD players or other visual display units (VDU)
- handheld computers (PDAs and tablets) and computers.
Reduce the risk by:
- not having distracting devices in your car, especially on your P licence
- getting used to 1 or 2 distractions, such as the radio, late in your learner period while you still have the support of a supervising driver
- making any changes to devices (setting up GPS or radio) before you start driving
- using spoken directions from GPS instead of looking at the map
VDUs (e.g. DVD players) operating and visible from the driver’s seat or which may distract another driver are illegal - even when stopped, but not parked. Drivers’ aids (e.g. mounted GPS) are excepted. Penalties include fines and licence suspension.
Passengers can cause distraction and might increase crash risk. Reduce this risk by:
- keeping the conversation to a minimum while you concentrate on driving
- ignoring any conversation while you concentrate on driving
- recognising situations that require extra concentration (intersections, school zones or heavy traffic)
- reducing speed
- leaving a bigger gap between you and the vehicle ahead (more time and space)
- asking passengers not to use their phone unless it is an emergency
- being a responsible passenger and not distracting other drivers
- turning off other electronic devices that might make the distraction worse
Passengers can reduce distraction by helping with tasks like changing a CD, but you should avoid carrying more than 1 passenger during your first year as a solo driver.
P1 licence holders must not carry more than 1 passenger, aged between 16 and 22.
Many other distractions exist both inside and outside the car, including:
- eating and drinking
- brushing your hair
- reading maps
- advertising signs
- unusual events near the road
- pedestrians and other road users
- checking your makeup
- fidgeting with the car controls
- reaching for an object
- feeling upset or angry about something that has happened
Any distraction that takes your attention and eyes off the road might have serious consequences. Reducing your risk by resisting any temptation to do something other than concentrating on driving is important, especially in the first months as a P driver.
Careless/dangerous driving and failing to have proper control of a motor vehicle laws apply if a distraction causes you to drive inappropriately. Penalties include heavy fines, demerit points, or licence suspension or cancellation.
Fatigue is a major cause of crashes as it can cause you to fall asleep at the wheel, slowed reflexes, and affect your attention and judgement. Fatigue is often the result of a busy lifestyle (parties, late-night jobs, studying). Fatigue can happen when you:
- drive as soon as you wake up
- have not had enough sleep
- are driving when you would normally be sleeping (10pm - 6am)
- have been awake too long (e.g. 17 hours)
- have been driving non-stop for more than 2 hours
Stop driving if you notice any of the following signs of fatigue:
- repeated yawning
- starting to drift across the lane
- trouble keeping your head up
- eyes closing or your eyesight getting fuzzy
- speed is increasing or decreasing unintentionally
- can’t remember the last few kilometres of road
Getting enough sleep is the only way to stop fatigue (coffee or a short break won’t). To reduce the effect of fatigue:
- stop if tired and have a nap (even a 15-minute nap can reduce crash risk)
- don’t drive when you would normally be asleep (10pm - 6am)
- ensure your medicines don’t cause drowsiness (ask doctor/pharmacist)
On a long trip:
- get plenty of sleep before the trip
- share the driving when possible
- plan ahead and rest overnight
- take regular breaks
- try to avoid driving during times you would normally be asleep
- don’t start a trip after a long day’s work
Wearing a seatbelt increases the chance of crash survival for drivers and passengers.
Drivers will be fined (plus demerit points) if passengers are unrestrained (including child restraints for children under 7). Passengers over 16 will also be fined if unrestrained. Most crashes happen on short trips so seatbelts must always be worn.
Driving with unrestrained passengers in the boot, ute tray or a passenger’s body part outside the door/window is dangerous and illegal. Fines and demerit points apply.
In crashes, unrestrained occupants are often thrown from cars or tossed around inside. People thrown from cars are up to 25 times more likely to be killed than those who remain in the vehicle.
Buying a safe vehicle will protect you and your passengers if you crash. Larger cars with more safety features provide better occupant protection than smaller cars with less safety features. The most important safety features you should get are airbags and Electronic Stability Control (ESC), which are fitted during manufacture.
To ensure Antilock Braking Systems (ABS) work properly in an emergency stop, keep firm pressure on the brake pedal even if the car vibrates or shudders and the brake pedal pulsates. To confirm if a car is fitted with ABS check the owner’s manual.
Vehicles should be regularly maintained by an expert. Tyre pressure and tread depth need to be maintained at safe levels. Tyre problems are a common cause of defect related crashes. If you have a tyre blowout, keep a firm grip on the steering wheel, take your foot off the accelerator and brake gently when the vehicle is under some control.
Keys to reducing your risk of a crash
Strategy 1 - Choose when and where to drive
Avoiding situations where you don’t have much experience (and building experience slowly) reduces crash risk. New drivers should avoid challenging situations such as:
- very late at night
- peak hour traffic in the city
- rural roads
- wet weather
- snow and ice
- gravel and dirt roads
Strategy 2 - Slow down
Hazard perception skills are limited while inexperienced (despite quick reaction times).
- Drive at a safe speed under the limit.
- When you see any potential hazard (pedestrians, cyclists, turning vehicles) slow down and move your foot on or near the brake so you can stop if needed.
- Create a buffer to give you more time to react to the unexpected.
- Going 2 or 3 km/h slower won’t delay you, so slow down a bit!
- Crash risk and injury severity increases with speed. In a 60km/h zone crash risk doubles every 5 km/h you exceed the speed limit.
- Speeding penalties include fines, loss of demerit points, and loss of licence.
Strategy 3 - Give yourself some space
|Leaving a safety margin (the space ahead, behind and to the sides of your vehicle) gives you the space and time to identify and react to hazards. A safe distance is enough to allow you to slow down and avoid trouble (2 seconds). Use this simple test:
A 2 second gap allows for an average reaction time. Leaving a larger gap (3 or 4 seconds) is a safer option for new drivers and is also a good safety margin:
- in distracting conditions
- when visibility is poor or it is dark
- when the road is wet or slippery
- when you have a heavy load
- on a gravel road
Heavy vehicles take longer to stop and change direction. They need larger safety margins to drive safely. Do not move into their safety margin.
If a vehicle behind is too close, increase the margin in front by slowing down (if safe). This prevents sudden braking by providing more time to respond to hazards.
Make sure you have space around you before changing lanes by scanning fully.
If driving a long vehicle (at least 7.5m long together with its trailer) and following another long vehicle, you must drive at least 60m away from it, except:
- in a built-up area (one with buildings next to the road or street lights)
- on a multi-lane road
Keep back at least 200m when following another long vehicle in a road train area.
Strategy 4 - Think ahead
Don’t focus just on the vehicle in front. Scan constantly. Look into the distance, to both sides and behind you using mirrors. Practice and think about road users’ intentions. Supervising drivers can help with this and you can use time as a passenger to practise.
Plan your trips using familiar routes (where possible) before you start out. This reduces workload and stress while driving.
Strategy 5 - Driving safely at night
Night driving is more complex than day driving because you can’t see as far in all directions making it harder to anticipate hazards. The 10-hour requirement isn’t much, so get as much night practice as you can when you are with your supervisor. Once licensed, keep night driving to a minimum, particularly in the first few months.
Slow down at night so you have more time to identify and respond to hazards. Crash risk is higher at night, with 1/2 of all probationary night crashes on Friday and Saturday.
Strategy 6 - Driving safely on country roads
As country roads present a variety of conditions (sealed, unsealed and gravel) get as much practice as you can as a learner under a variety of weather and light conditions.
Strategy 7 - Dealing with other road users
You share the road with many other road users:
- cars, vans, trucks, buses and trams
Sharing the road is easier and safer if you drive cooperatively. This means:
- using your indicators to adequately warn when you are turning or changing lanes
- allowing plenty of space between your car and the one in front
- smoothly controlling your speed rather than a fast stop/start manner
- staying in the left lane except when passing
- slowing down when approaching and passing roadworks
- letting others merge into the traffic
- keeping intersections clear
- changing lanes correctly
Cooperative driving is essential in places where:
- two lanes merge
- the left lane ends
- drivers are parking
- passing lanes or divided roads end
- extra lanes exist just before and after intersections
- cars are parked and there is not enough room for 2 vehicles to pass
- drivers need to exit from a small side street
Losing your temper affects reduces your ability to drive safely. Keep your cool by:
- planning your trip/route, and allowing plenty of time to get to your destination
- calling ahead if you’re running late
- avoiding driving if angry, tired or emotionally stressed
Some actions might upset another driver. They might tailgate, flash their headlights, use the horn or make obscene gestures. Help others to keep their cool by:
- Always driving cooperatively, even when others are not.
- Giving others plenty of space so they don’t feel you are invading their space.
- Concentrating on driving and changes in conditions (speed, roadworks etc.).
- Acknowledging if you make a mistake.
- Trying not to react to others’ mistakes - it’s a mistake not a personal attack.
- Using headlights or the horn only to warn others about a dangerous situation.
- Not making offensive hand gestures.
If you encounter an aggressive driver, don’t take it personally.
- Drive normally and try not to react.
- Avoid eye contact.
- If hassled or confronted, keep your doors and windows locked, don’t get out.
- If you are very concerned, drive to the nearest police station.
- Give the other driver plenty of space: if they are in front, increase the gap, and if they are behind you, maintain your speed or provide an opportunity to pass.
Driving and the environment
‘Eco-driving’ techniques can reduce your car’s environmental impact, save you money, and keep you and your passengers safe. You can start eco-driving when you are in Stage 4 of learning, or once you feel more confident after getting your licence.
- Avoid hard or unnecessary acceleration and severe braking.
- Decelerate smoothly by releasing the accelerator and leaving the car in gear.
- Don’t take off too fast - otherwise you could use 60% more fuel.
Slow down and maintain a steady speed.
- This uses less fuel (110km/h uses up to 25% more fuel than 90km/h).
- Use cruise control when safe.
Read the traffic flow.
- Maintain distance from the car in front so you can flow with traffic.
- Tailgating causes unnecessary acceleration/deceleration and increases fuel use.
- Space provides time to see and anticipate situations, and minimises fuel use.
Plan your journeys.
- Avoid peak-hour.
- Don’t use your car if possible (public transport, carpool, walk or cycle instead).
- Take less trips by planning ahead and combining trips.
- Reduce travel by going to nearby shops, and walking or cycling to local shops.
Maintain your vehicle.
- Keep tyres inflated to the highest pressure recommended in the manual. Low tyre pressure increases fuel consumption.
- Get regular services to save money and minimise your environmental impact.
Continue reading the Road to Safe Driving Summary:
4. Managing Risk
Check out the other resources available to help you pass the Learner Permit Knowledge Test and get your learner permit (L plates):