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Australians are becoming over-regulated worrywarts: Let our young people drive

By Edward Wright - posted Wednesday, 1 September 2004

The fact that the proposal to ban young drivers from the road at night is even being seriously considered shows what a nanny state Australia can be. Although a few lives will be saved, a whole way of life for tens of thousands of young people, one which has been taken for granted for decades, will be seriously disturbed. As a consequence the cultural vitality of this city will suffer significantly.

For about 50 years getting a licence has been one of those crucial rites of passage, which mark entry into adulthood. For many, and especially those living in the country or outer suburbs, driving is one of the central pillars of freedom. As the cost of renting increasingly forces many young people to remain at home with their parents longer, the car is often their most personal space, an essential way of connecting with friends and primary venue for connections of more intimate kinds.

While it is disturbing that the proportion of young people in fatal accidents at night is higher than for the rest of the population, in another sense it is also natural. The night belongs to the young. While the rest of us are at home battling with weariness on the couch, young people are out on the town far more than their elders.


We should expect inexperienced drivers to have more accidents than experienced ones. When I got my P-plates my appalling driving resulted in a number of incidents, which could have been fatal. It was the same with my friends. It was all part of learning. You don’t really know how to react when your car goes into a spin until you’ve done it. If you ban young people from driving at night they can’t learn how to drive at night, something that is undoubtedly more difficult than driving during the day. Most of us are relatively lucky with our early driving mistakes. Some unfortunately are not. Yet while this might point to the benefit of advanced driving training for drivers as a condition of becoming licensed, it is overkill to ban night driving for three years.

Interestingly, this kind of overkill is not unfamiliar in our society. Carl Scully’s proposal embodies an aversion to risk, which is widespread in the Australian social fabric. Rather than a love of belligerent American Presidents and economic neo-liberalism, this is what is meant when we are described as a conservative society. Although there is an enduring image of the Australian character as laidback and showing scant regard for the rules, in reality we’re a bunch of over-regulated worrywarts collectively engaged in trying to forget that fate is capricious and everyone has to die.

Another example that comes to mind is fireworks. For the last three years I’ve been living in Japan, where one of the most popular things to do in summer is to get together with some friends, buy a bag of crackers from the local convenience store, go to the beach with an Esky full of beer and set them off. Now some people might think this irresponsible, but I thought it was fun. Merely watching someone else set off a couple of million dollars worth of crackers from a kilometre away paled in comparison. And it got me to thinking why I couldn’t do this back home. Or ride a bike with the breeze flowing through my hair on a balmy spring day? Or have a beer in a pub when I’m drunk? If you’re allowed to smoke cigarettes, why is it illegal to do these other things?

While other cultures make decisions that the fun for many justifies the tragedy for a few, this is a position we are uncomfortable with. The night driving ban is yet another gambit in a long line of wowser initiatives against pleasure ready to be legislated at the slightest whiff of risk. Yet risk is essential to a sense of feeling fully alive. Of course one of the things about being 18-21 years old is that the thrill of danger is yet to be paired with the realisation of mortality. This does make some young people more dangerous than the rest of us. But this does not justify a proposal that for many will effectively be a kind of overnight house arrest.

Hopefully, the administrative difficulty of managing the exemptions for those who live in the country or who have to work at night, and the likely widespread flouting of the curfew, might prevent it from coming into law and young people will be able to continue to enjoy the freedoms that technical adulthood entitles them to.

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About the Author

Ed Wright is a Sydney writer, reviewer and sometime academic.

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