Page last updated at 15:47 GMT, Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Road death: Teenage drivers

Nick Bennett nearly died in a car crash seven years ago
Nick Bennett nearly killed himself in a crash that he caused through recklessness

When Nick Bennett was 17 he had a good job and a girlfriend. He was a keen football player and went snowboarding every year. He was also a boy racer with a passion for cars and driving fast.

But one short journey in his beloved sporty Corsa Sri hatchback would change his life for ever.

After dropping off his girlfriend at her home one bright sunny July morning, Nick drove on to work. Coming up behind two slow moving cars, his impatience got the better of him. "I thought, 'God, they're going slow' I'm going to overtake."

Coma

The next thing he remembers is waking up in hospital three and a half weeks later. For three months he drifted in and out of consciousness and remained in hospital long enough to mark his next two birthdays.

Nick Bennett as a young boy
Nick was a passionate football player

Nick had driven straight into a three tonne truck coming the other way. As he wasn't wearing a seat belt, the force of the crash threw him against the steering wheel in his car, inflicting serious chest and head injuries.

Both his lungs collapsed and his brain stem, responsible for speech, coordination and other key body functions, was severely twisted in the impact. Also, while in a coma, a bite reflex that clenched his teeth at the slightest sound forced doctors to remove part of his tongue and two of his front teeth.

Six years on from the crash, Nick lives alone in sheltered housing, gets around in a wheel chair and needs help with getting dressed and making meals. Though his mind is sharp, he has difficulty speaking and his speech is slurred. Most of his old friends, along with his girlfriend, have disappeared. Family is what sustains him now.

Reckless

In many ways Nick's profile is typical of those who crash early in their driving career. For Nick and others like him, who've just passed their tests, the chances of having a smash is 10 times that of older drivers.

The wreckage of a car in which four died
Three teenagers and a 21-year-old man died in this late night car crash

But young drivers, particularly men, remain high risks right through their 20s. More than any other group on the roads, young male drivers under 30 have more accidents, die more frequently, and cause more death and injury to others than they suffer themselves.

Of particular note is the high frequency with which young drivers and their young passengers feature in the statistics for single vehicle accidents, typically late at night on rural roads, involving loss of control at excessive speeds.

The reasons why appear straightforward. As a group they drive faster and more recklessly than older drivers, and are more likely to be have drunk alcohol or taken drugs before getting behind the wheel. They also die more often because they're less likely to wear seatbelts and drive older, flimsier cars or new, smaller ones that come off worse in a road smash.

'Hulking teenagers'

But Dr David Clarke, a professor at Leeds University who's studied young people and road crashes, says this has less to do with driver skill than with attitude and experience.

Though relative novices behind the wheel, young drivers generally have better car control and faster reactions than their older counterparts. The trouble arises for other reasons.

Tearing along a familiar road alone is one thing, says Clarke. "But pack a car with four hulking teenagers and suddenly you've got a much heavier, unbalanced, rear-end heavy car, possibly a fairly old vehicle with not terribly good shock absorbers and brakes."

It's not just that the driver is doing something more risky than before. It's that suddenly, he's driving a vehicle that doesn't handle very well and there's no warning that it's going to get away from him.

"What they don't realise is that the same manoeuvre which is completely uneventful nine times out of ten, will just suddenly throw you over the hedge the next time round. They just don't have any awareness of the safety margins they need to leave," Clarke says.

In tears

Add in the fact that seat belt wearing rates are much lower after dark, particularly in the rear, and it's easier to understand why it is that when youngsters crash, they tend to die together.

Worryingly, despite the general decline in the overall number of people killed on the roads over the last decade, the numbers of young drivers dying remain stubbornly high.

Nick Bennett
Nick as a young boy before the crash

Around 41% of all fatally injured car drivers are aged between 16 and 29, a percentage out of all proportion with the number of men and women in the driving population of this age.

Research by Clarke in 2007 concluded that more needed to be done to target young drivers to lower their speed, increase seat-belt wearing and reduce drink-driving and "reverse the decline in driver behaviour."

Nick Bennett himself is contributing to these efforts. He now tours schools telling pupils of his experience. "A lot of them are in tears by the end," he says. "But it really opens their eyes to driving and it shows people that you can't drive dangerously without suffering the consequences."



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