What does Australian and International Research say about skills based driver training?

The overwhelming body of evidence argues that skills based driver training has failed to deliver any quantifiable benefit, and may in fact be counterproductive. It is believed this style of training increases optimism, while simultaneously desensitising drivers to the dangers associated with being involved in a skid.

Although many may argue to the contrary, driving is a complex task - it requires the coordination of both arms and both legs while the eyes constantly track and monitor a varying and somewhat unpredictable environment. Yet in spite of its complexity, crashes even for bad drivers are quite rare.

On this basis the notion of up skilling drivers in preparation for avoiding a situation they are likely to experience once every five to ten years, is both unrealistic, and fraught with danger. Nonetheless, many fleet operators have ignored the results of research preferring to follow their instincts and persist with this form of training.

But what do the researchers say?

Naatanen and Summala (1976) suggest for the individual driver, the probability of being involved in an accident is very low and hence the driver is not aware of the need for improved safety. Thus, the advantages gained in driver training, such as improved skill, are often used not to improve safety, but rather to achieve other goals such as mobility, pleasure, adventurousness, fulfilling role expectations and living up to social norms etc. That is, motives that lead to immediate reinforcement for the driver.

The highly respected Australian market researcher Barry Elliott, says that the vast number of studies on the subject of driver training, from all around the world, point to the same depressing and intriguing conclusion: that the more drivers are trained in driving skills, the more they are likely to take unnecessary risks.

According to Elliott there is not a single study - anywhere - that contradicts this finding. Some research even reveals increased crash rates among those who undergo advanced driver training (Mackay 1995)

The relation between educational strategy and overestimation has been shown in an experiment by Gregerson (1996). In this experiment, learner drivers with trained skills were found to over estimate their ability more than learner drivers who were trained to realise their own limitations in the same situation. There was however no difference in actual skill.

The Federal Office of Road Safety (FORS) Fleet Safety Manual (1995) states that there is some evidence that driver training can lead to an increase in the number of vehicle crashes and traffic infringements such as speeding. They suggest this may be the result of increased confidence and aggressive or competitive attitudes to driving, and skills such as skid control which they are eager to demonstrate to their peers.

Dr Michael Henderson who is regarded as one of Australia's leading authorities on road safety, summed up the impact of traditional approaches to driver training by stating:

"If there is any positive effect at all, it is not large, it is not lasting, and there is no demonstrable effect on the primary criterion, that is, on accident statistics" (1991)

This is consistent with Dr Christopher Horneman (1993) from the New South Wales Roads and Traffic Authority who summarised the conclusions of about 20 independent researchers. Research came from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Sweden, United Kingdom, United States and the Netherlands. Without exception all the researchers concluded that no measurable decrease in crash involvement, could be detected as a result of exposure to traditional car control approaches to driver training.

Job (1990) comments that training courses focusing on skill, and on producing relaxed and confident drivers, may provide desensitization of fear in more risky situations.

According to Pam Leicester, (behavioural scientist at NRMA's road safety division), literature suggests post-licence, short-term driver training on a closed circuit is of little value. "In fact, drivers who have completed such training can be involved in more crashes because they may feel, unjustifiably, more confident about taking risks on the road," she says.

NRMA is currently completing a driver education research program on the effectiveness of driver training. The research highlights "changing drivers attitude and motivation" as an area that should be focused on, in preference to one-day driver training courses (Somerville 1997).

As a road trauma countermeasure, traditional skills-based driver training pre-supposes that motorists are motivated to drive safely. Its success is based on the assumption that drivers will take their newly learned skills and apply them in a manner that will minimize risk to themselves and others. A fundamental flaw is that there is no correlation between driving skill and driving behavior. You can always teach a person a skill like driving a car, but problems arise when you try to teach him [or her] to apply his [or her] skills, for instance, by not driving too fast (Overskeid, 1990)

The problems associated with skills based programs are possibly best summed up by Soames Job from the University of Sydney. Job (1999) suggests that the naive but pervasive belief that great driving skill is a critical road safety benefit persists despite the evidence to the contrary. This faith in skill has led to the waste of many road safety resources on numerous skill based driving courses and advanced skill components in courses (this does not apply to knowledge based or attitude based courses).

Job goes on to suggest that skills based courses currently are, at best, a waste of valuable resources and, at worst, actively harmful to road safety.

Having been fairly scathing of the value of skills based courses they do have a place, albeit without any prospective road safety gain. They're great fun, and they make for an exciting team building or promotional day.