Cold light of day

25th August 2006 at 01:00
Gerald Haigh sees how crash simulations can help shift teen attitudes on taking risks in cars

Morning assembly at Blackpool Collegiate high school ends with two songs.

First, 15-year-old Laura Sheppard stands fearlessly before the school and, on a wave of support, belts out Mariah Carey's hit "Hero". ("And then a hero comes along, With the strength to carry on, And you cast your fears aside, And you know you can survive.") Finally, the choir sings "Circle of Life" from The Lion King. The music forms a neat prelude for what is to come - a dramatic re-enactment of the kind of road accident that happens every day of our lives and ruthlessly claims many. The kind of accident that needs heroes in action.

As the music fades, the children file out from the hall on to the grassy banks surrounding the playground. There, in front of everyone, is a smashed up Ford Fiesta with a body trapped inside. It's a scene many must have seen on Casualty but few will have witnessed firsthand. Two fire engines from Blackpool's Green Watch have roared up and the paramedics are on their way.

(In reality they're attending an actual emergency somewhere in town.) It's a mock-up, but the firefighters set about their work just as they would in a genuine accident; they assess the injured driver, judge how and where to get him out of the vehicle, put together the cutting gear and other equipment they're going to need. Then they move in, one firefighter giving constant encouragement and comfort to the driver as the others manoeuvre huge hydraulic cutters, making short work of the car. Within minutes, the casualty is lifted on a spine board through the now totally-open rear of the car, ready to be sped away by ambulance.

As they work, the voice of crew manager Steve Byrne resounds round the playground in a loudspeaker commentary. Factual and professional, he allows the scene to speak for itself, while pointing out the dangers posed by the bodywork of modern cars. Safety devices, ironically, are particularly problematic. "Side impact protection bars need special cutters," he says.

"And putting your head into a car where the airbag's not gone off can give you a broken neck." (Airbags are proliferating - front, side, rears, knee height, head height. Good for the passengers, but demanding a cautious approach from rescuers who must be wary of sudden impact if they inflate.) Male drivers aged 17-20 are seven times more at risk than all male drivers (see box) and it is a brutal near-certainty that, if you live long enough (and especially if you work in secondary schools), a young person you know will die or suffer serious injury in a road accident. My brother-in-law Alan died in his early twenties, three days before his wedding, riding in a car driven by a young friend. A young neighbour of mine Simone, who as a bright 10-year-old accompanied me on a TES assignment to add her views, died aged 16, in a car full of young people. Alan and Simone are just two of the 800 or so drivers and passengers in their teens and twenties killed each year.

The "car-crash scenario" - as near to reality as the local emergency services can make it - is a good example of trying to do something to prevent this continuing tragedy, by making young poeople think about the behaviour that leads up to it. The scenario isn't staged in isolation, explains Blackpool road safety officer Doug Cox. "We do a role play beforehand in which five boys and girls sit in chairs, simulating a car, and we tell the story of how they've been to a night club and they're coming home at two in the morning."

The children then pick up on this, indulging in horseplay, demands to go faster, appeals to stop and so on. It leads to a crash in which someone is notionally flung through the windscreen.

It doesn't end there. "Everyone's taken to hospital," says Doug Cox, "then there's a phone call to mum at three in the morning. We re-enact that, and she comes running out to discover that her car's gone, because her son took it."

Blackpool Collegiate's students pay close attention to the playground crash, and afterwards I ask some of them if this was an approach that could work. Collectively, they marked it at eight or nine out of 10.

"It's reasonably impressive," says 15-year-old Chris Sendall. "Better than the role play with the chairs. The role play script was good, but it would be better in a proper car."

There's general agreement that the work should be done also with younger children, before attitudes are too firmly set - and that although there's a hard core who will always be difficult to reach with safety messages, it's worth continuing to try. One issue is how to fit this kind of work, essential though it is, into a crowded curriculum. For David Nicklin, an assistant head at Blackpool, the answer lies in the citizenship requirements; a QCA unit directly addresses car crime scenarios and the effects of road accidents. "Some road safety initiatives are ideal, and can find a place on the timetable," he says.

Researchers from Nottingham University set out to discover exactly why so many young people are killed in cars. They examined 3,437 police accident reports - covering drivers between 17 and 25 - over two years. Their conclusion is that it's not so much lack of skill behind the wheel that's the problem as a willingness - a desire, even - to take risks. Peer pressure is important; the new driver may feel that he has no control over the imperative to speed. "Young drivers knew what was the correct behaviour, but attitudes, opinions and beliefs usually stopped them practising it," said the Nottingham academics. Research in the US confirms that the crash rate for teenage drivers is greatly increased when there are passengers. The pressure group Brake organises a road safety week each year in November. They suggest a number of measures, including "graduated licensing" - a scheme where drivers have to pass tests of escalating difficulty before being able to carry passengers or drive at night. (This would incorporate the current "Pass Plus" scheme run by the Driver Standards Agency.) There are other possibilities: using technology to monitor drivers, and encouraging voluntary agreements between parents and young drivers (which is popular in parts of the US).

In the end, many older drivers would be happy to see better enforcement of the existing laws, with an increase in camera technology and, crucially, more police traffic cars on the road. The most effective sanction against any kind of misbehaviour is the certainty of being caught.

* Brake Road Safety Week, November 6-12, this year targets young drivers. Brake has resources for schools, including the FedEx Academy run with parcels delivery firm FedEx. Details of this and other educational initiatives, including statistics and details on young driver accidents: Rospa, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, has publications and schemes for schools and young people at www.rospa.comroadsafetyindex.htm. For example, there's a downloadable pdf on helping young people to drive, and a linked website, that advises parents and others whose children are learning to drive. There's also an extensive key stage 4 resource that helps to place road safety in the context of citizenship.

www.rospa.comroadsafetycitizenshipindex.htm.l Enquiries about a road crash scenario: try your fire service (many of them do something similar) or your local road safety team.l "Voluntary risk taking and skill deficits in young driver accidents in the UK". David Clarke, Patrick Ward, Wendy Truman. School of Psychology, Nottingham University, 2005.

Who are the most at risk?

* In 2004, 151 drivers aged 16-19 and a further 291 aged 20-29 were killed.

(The figures for drivers 50 to 59 and 60 to 69 were 98 and 68.) * Thirteen per cent of drivers are 25 or under, yet 29 per cent of all drivers killed fall into this age group.

* One in five new drivers are involved in a crash in their first year of driving.

* In 2004, 59 drivers under 17 were killed or seriously injured.

Fifty-seven were male, two were female. Aged 17-19, the figures were 870 male, 288 female.

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