The automobile has become an integral part of most people’s daily life and often is an indispensable element in their mobility. With a population of slightly over seven million, Quebec has more than 4.2 million driver’s license holders who collectively cover some 75 billion kilometers annually. The commonplace observation is that this mobility exacts a heavy price in terms of loss of life and suffering for accident victims and their families. Notwithstanding the substantial decline in the accident toll during the last 20 years from more than 2,200 fatalities in 1973, the cost in lives is still close to 900 and another 6,000 people are severely injured on the road each year.
The fact that such a scourge is tolerated illustrates the degree to which the automobile occupies an important place in our daily life: doing without one is hard to imagine. An automobile provides mobility and independence so evidently that it has become a naturally coveted object sought by the vast majority of individuals, some even while still adolescents. If an adult can lay claim to full independence, the automobile certainly provides the ultimate in liberty of movement, so greatly prized that it is frequently enshrined as part of the rite of passage into adulthood.
While the accident toll is in itself a major concern, the prevalence of road trauma among youngsters sets off alarm bells. While the 16-24 age group accounts for 13% of licence holders, their share of involvement in accidents resulting in bodily injury is 24% (SAAQ, 1995). This overrepresentation of drivers aged 16-24 is even more disconcerting when one considers that on average they cover 30% less distance than other drivers (Pichette, 1991).
Graduated licensing: for young or all novice drivers?
“The overinvolvement of young road users is one of the largest and most consistently observed phenomena in traffic throughout the world. It is so robust and repeatable that it is almost like a law of nature. Its magnitude suggests that it must involve much more than a mere lack of driving experience.” (Leonard Evans, 1991). The issue of access to the driving privilege proves to be enormously complex since accident rates among young and/or new drivers is a function of the interaction between age and driving experience.
It must be admitted that the question of the relative importance of risk-taking (associated with young drivers) and of inexperience (associated with new drivers) has not been definitively resolved. Depending on the perspective, one can cite the effect of age: with 13% of licences, 16-24 year-olds represent 24% of all drivers involved in bodily injury accidents; or the effect of inexperience: representing 5% of licence holders, new drivers « 2 years’ experience) comprise 12% of drivers involved in bodily injury accidents (SAAQ, 1995).
Guiding principle: the search for balance between mobility and safety
As with any transport policy, reforming access to the driving privilege takes place in a social and economic context. In this case, we would do well to remember the relative dominance of the mobility imperative over safety. In other words, individuals are usually ready to bear a certain level of risk in moving about, and its corollary, risk reduction can be difficult where it unduly inhibits mobility.
Accordingly, the search for measures begins with ones offering significant safety gains while having a limited restraint on mobility. The final choice of measures affecting mobility or personal freedom more substantially must be justified by effectiveness and a clear, direct link with the issued being addressed.
To be succinct, measures 1, 2 and 3 were rejected despite their real potential in improving road safety, because they would have too great a restrictive impact on young driver’s mobility or freedom. Measures 4, 5, 6, 8 and 9 were not deemed suitable because their impact on safety was not demonstrable.