Reporter: Peter Overton
Producers: Glenda Gaitz and Jonathan Harley
They're so young, so full of life and behind the wheel, so deadly.
They love their cars, they think they're invincible. They're not.
Two P-plate drivers are killed every week.
No wonder parents are scared, driving a car is the most dangerous thing a teenager can do.
And science can tell us why.
It seems their brains are not fully-equipped to handle all the pressures involved.
In fact, on the test track you can see it. A 17-year-old driver is more reckless, less in control, than a 19-year-old.
So, armed with this information and high-tech cars, the experts are now devising new ways to save these precious lives.
For more information about the NSW Centre for Road Safety's trial of the Intelligent Speed Adaptation technology, visit the Roads and Traffic Authority website at:
For more information on the Roads, Attitudes and Action Planning (RAAP) Program visit:
For more information on Monash University Accident Research Centre (MUARC) Australia’s largest injury prevention specialist, visit:
Teenage driver assistance provided by:
Mind over Motor www.mindovermotor.com.au
Calder Park www.calderpark.com.au
INTRODUCTION - PETER OVERTON: They're so young, so full of life and, behind the wheel, so deadly. They love their cars, they think they're invincible. They're not. Two P-plate drivers are killed every week. No wonder parents are scared, driving a car is the most dangerous thing a teenager can do. And science can tell us why. It seems their brains are not fully-equipped to handle all the pressures involved. In fact, on the test track you can see it. A 17-year-old driver is more reckless, less in control, than a 19-year-old. So, armed with this information and high-tech cars, the experts are now devising new ways to save these precious lives.
STORY - PETER OVERTON: A car full of teenagers out for the night. They're good kids, stone sober, obeying the law. But right here, right now just being in this car is the most dangerous place they can be.
BROOKE PRATT: All I remember is just before the crash and the car started to slide and going sideways.
PETER OVERTON: Brooke Pratt has lived through the horror of a devastating road crash.
BROOKE PRATT: We were doing about 180km/h and by the time we hit the tree it would have been about 160km/h. And then just bang, like, it's just so fast.
PETER OVERTON: Her three friends died around her as she lay trapped in the twisted wreckage. Brooke was a passenger, how she survived at all is extraordinary. You slid, the police say, for 75m in that car.
BROOKE PRATT: Yeah, doesn't feel like that. I can't explain how fast it is and how scared you are, especially being trapped and not being able to move and hearing their phones ringing, knowing they were dying and screaming and saying, "Don't, answer your phones, wake up, wake up."
PROFESSOR IAN JOHNSTON: This is too much. This has got stop.
PETER OVERTON: Road safety veteran Professor Ian Johnston has spent 40 years finding ways to stop teenagers doing deadly things behind the wheel.
PROFESSOR IAN JOHNSTON: They believe they're capable of doing almost anything. They don't believe that speed matters. They love the risk-taking.
PETER OVERTON: And they're killing themselves?
PROFESSOR IAN JOHNSTON: And they're killing themselves in very large numbers.
PETER OVERTON: The numbers aren't just large, they're staggering. Two Aussie P-plate drivers die every single week. The biggest killer of our youth and a national tragedy. Now science is suggesting a major cause lies in the teenage brain.
PROFESSOR IAN JOHNSTON: Peter, what we've got here is a 3-D model of the brain.
PETER OVERTON: New research reveals the human brain hasn't fully developed till the age of 25.
PROFESSOR IAN JOHNSTON: Now if we look at the brain of someone under the age of 25.
PETER OVERTON: And until drivers reach full maturity, they are an accident waiting to happen.
PROFESSOR IAN JOHNSTON: That whole green section is the frontal lobe and that's the bit that controls emotions, controls risk-taking, controls decision making and the research is saying that it develops quite slowly. But as a generalisation, the 18-year-old brain is more mature in those areas of risk-taking and decision making than a 17-year-old brain.
PETER OVERTON: Behind the wheel, that one year can mean the difference between life and death. To test this theory, we put a group of young drivers through their paces.
PROFESSOR IAN JOHNSTON: The thing that research shows about young drivers is it's both inexperience but also that overconfidence that comes with being young and the thrill of risk taking.
PETER OVERTON: First cab off the rank is 19-year-old Trent. He approaches the course with caution. Trent takes out one pedestrian on the straight.
TRENT: Oh, just killed him.
PETER OVERTON: But successfully avoids another we concealed on a blind corner. Ellyse is 18. Being a female, she's naturally more cautious driving a lot slower. But her skills still don't match Trent's. Then along came Craig. At 17, he's full of bravado and attitude. CRAIG: I'm just going to try to floor it a bit - be a race car driver.
PETER OVERTON: And what a difference - the driving gets erratic... ..and then downright reckless.
CRAIG: (LAUGHS) Nailed him! He's obliterated. Is he dead?
PROFESSOR IAN JOHNSTON: Oh, he's not well, he's not well. How did you feel about that, Craig?
CRAIG: Yeah, it was fun.
PROFESSOR IAN JOHNSTON: It was fun?
PROFESSOR IAN JOHNSTON: What if that had been a real person?
CRAIG: Well, he'd be dead and I'd be in jail.
PETER OVERTON: What's your attitude out there as a young driver - is it, "I'll be alright, I'm a good driver"?
CRAIG: My attitude, I'm a bit cocky with myself, sometimes. I think I'm a bit better than I really am and I tend to make mistakes a lot.
PETER OVERTON: You know how many P-platers are dying?
CRAIG: A lot, because they're probably trying to show off to their mates as well.
PETER OVERTON: Let me tell you, two every week.
CRAIG: Yeah. I don't wanna be one of em.
PETER OVERTON: It's results like these that have road safety veterans like Ian Johnston calling to raise the national licensing age to 18.
PROFESSOR IAN JOHNSTON: There's no doubt the higher we make it the less death there's gonna be. Because the real danger period is when they first start to go solo and they think they're bulletproof and can do almost anything.
PETER OVERTON: Was he bulletproof?
SARAH WATTS: He thought he was, and I believed it too. I thought he was invincible. Never dreamed that anything like this would happen to him.
PETER OVERTON: Nathan Watts was just 16. Another statistic mourned in another roadside shrine. Another family gutted by the loss of a son, a brother.
SARAH WATTS: Overwhelming. It still hasn't sunk in. Still don't believe it.
PETER OVERTON: Do you know what speed Nathan was doing?
NATHAN'S DADS: Over 100km/h, and it was just one stupid mistake. PETER OVERTON: Just weeks ago, Nathan and his mate Jack Muir slammed into this telegraph pole at high speed and were killed instantly. Nathan had pinched his mum's car to drive to a party after midnight, a young bloke living life in the way-too-fast lane.
SARAH WATTS: And I said to him, over and over again, just to slow down because they don't realise, kids don't realise how hard it is for us.
PETER OVERTON: What would he say back to you?
SARAH WATTS: Stop trying to play mum. He'd say, "Oh, you're not the boss of me." and now I know he would be saying, "I'm sorry."
PETER OVERTON: But even with kids like Nathan dying on our streets every weekend, the attraction of powerful cars and high speed can prove irresistible. It's two years since Brooke Pratt watched three friends die in her own terrible accident. For her, the sight of teenagers spending a Friday night hooning in their cars is hard to take.
BROOKE PRATT: I just wanna target all these little bastards and just grab them and just shake them and say, "What is wrong with you? These people, I don't know what is going on in their brains.
PETER OVERTON: I know when I was 17, I was pretty overconfident myself. It seems teenagers never change but if we're to keep them alive maybe their cars have to. I learnt to drive in a car just like this one. Safety-wise its pretty basic - seat belts and that's about it. These days most new cars have anti-lock brakes and airbags as standard. Maybe one solution is staring us in the face - teenagers are driving cars that are simply too old.
JOHN CADOGAN: Your average young driver is driving a 15-year-old car. They're a decade and a half behind the eight ball on safety technology and it kills them.
PETER OVERTON: Motoring consultant John Cadogan reckons these new cars are the single greatest weapon in the fight to bring down our teenage death toll.
JOHN CADOGAN: This is what we are talking about, Peter, if every new driver in Australia drove a modern car like this with airbags and stability control, the death rate would plummet overnight.
PETER OVERTON: But financially this isn't feasible.
JOHN CADOGAN: You spend the $20,000 on a new car or you get a bunch of dead teenagers. It's that simple.
PETER OVERTON: But soon, car safety could be completely idiot-proof. I'm road-testing the future - a hi-tech version of your satellite navigation system that not only monitors your location and controls your speed as well.
PROFESSOR IAN JOHNSTON: This will revolutionize young driver safety.
PETER OVERTON: It might be big brother, but it simply won't allow me to break the law. Okay, well, we're in a 50 zone now heading towards a 40km/h school zone I'm going to put my foot down and try and keep going at 50km/h There you go, I can feel the power come off, the fuel flow has decreased and this system has stopped me speeding. I cannot go any faster, no matter how hard I press the accelerator. That's pretty amazing. So the question is, what's more important - saving young lives or restricting their freedom?
PROFESSOR IAN JOHNSTON: That is exactly the question through the whole of road safety. It's that kind of balance. Would it save lives? Yep. What are the downsides and will society wear the downsides?
PETER OVERTON: Technology and legislation can do so much but there's nothing like a real-life horror story to grab a teenager's attention.
BROOKE PRATT: I had 13 broken bones, internal bleeding, my lungs were squashed flat so I couldn't breathe. I was put in a coma for two weeks.
PETER OVERTON: Brooke Pratt now shares her confronting story in schools for the Queensland Fire and Rescue Service.
BROOKE PRATT: You won't see it coming, it happens so fast. Within a second you could be dead or you could have your best friend dead and it is not worth it, trust me.
PETER OVERTON: There is much to be done but those who have lost friends and family to the road, are left only with the all-too-inadequate reminders of lives lost so young.
SARAH WATTS: This is all I have left of my brother, the bracelet that I gave to him. And people... the young kids don't realise that this is not enough. This... I can't hug this the way I hugged Nathan.
BROOKE PRATT: I just want young people to just stop. It's not fun, it's not fun when you see your mate die. It's not fun going to funerals. It's just the most heart-breaking thing in your life.