Young people's responsibility for their lives is increasing – is this right in traffic?

Mika Sutela Pasi Rissanen Julkaisupäivä 20.9.2022 9.54 Blogit

Increased mental health challenges and anxiety among young people

The school year has again got underway. School burnout has recently become more common and, for example, learning difficulties and anxiety have increased in primary, secondary and tertiary education. This is what the National Institute for Health and Welfare says in this year's report. At the beginning of the summer, Mehiläinen announced that the number of visits concerning young people's mental health had increased by more than 50 per cent. Anxiety among young people has been gradually increasing for some time, the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine among things have exacerbated the mental health problems of young people.  

At the beginning of August, the Hospital District of Helsinki and Uusimaa HUS reported that the results of a national survey on the mental health of children and young people aimed at primary and secondary school principals showed that the mental health challenges faced by primary school pupils have increased over the past two years. This is reflected, for example, in the increasing number of behavioural problems facing pupils. The study also highlighted anxiety in children and young people. 

Responsibility for career path creation and self-determination for young people

A major reform of the student selection process in universities a few years ago has triggered stress among young people. The reform increased the importance of the matriculation certificate, and now many young people starting upper secondary school think that they already need to know at the beginning of their studies what field they want to graduate from when they grow up. It is understandable that this adds to the pressure on young people. In an interview with Suomen Kuvalehti, Antti Saari from Tampere University recently told how school is emphasised as a creator of individual opportunities. Learning is seen as an individual's free, self-determined activity and there is little discussion about teaching things at school. 

In an interview with Helsingin Sanomat in August, a student counsellor considered the image of young people as being informed and responsible to be an illusion, because young people are still young, their brains are still developing and they still need support from adults. Among other things, a culture or approach that emphasises self-development signals to young people that they are responsible for their own everyday challenges as individuals.

Less compulsory driving instruction in driving school

Young people's own responsibility for learning how to drive also seems to have increased. At the beginning of August, Helsingin Sanomat reported that fewer and fewer drivers pass their driving test the first time. The pass rate has decreased dramatically in a few years, especially with those taking lessons at a driving school. The main reason for the change is considered to be the 2018 driving licence reform, where the number of compulsory driving hours decreased. To acquire a passenger car driving licence, a driver must complete at least ten hours of driving instruction and four hours of risk training at a driving school. Many students try to get through driving school with as few hours as possible, which is often not enough. 

Social message for young road users?

Reflecting on the above issues, the question may arise as to what kind of signal the more general responsibility and individualisation of learning in society gives to young people when addressing road safety. 

Risk factors related to driving fitness are very common in fatal road accidents. For the police, driving fitness issues may arise, for example, when dealing with emergency calls, in a criminal investigation or when a person is taken into custody on the basis of the Police Act, i.e. in a situation other than a traffic environment. Increased anxiety among young people – and possibly the associated use of intoxicants – is likely to be reflected in police traffic surveillance work sooner or later. According to a recent doctoral dissertation by Tiina Maria Miettinen, the self-destructiveness of Finnish young people appears in a variety of ways, also as a symptom that is typically not perhaps defined as self-destructiveness. This is also good to take into account in road safety work.  

It is important to give young people responsibility, but how much is too much? Young people themselves have been given responsibility for creating a career path, self-determination and for assessing their own skills in traffic. Responsibility has been assigned not only for assessing skills but also when a young person is mature enough to get behind the wheel.

Reform of the Driving Licence Act triggers discussion

The reform of the Driving Licence Act currently under preparation and the safety of young drivers trigger great discussion. Proposed amendments to the Driving Licence Act would mean that under certain conditions a 17-year-old driver would be granted a category B restricted right to drive. Restrictions, rights and obligations in many respects highlight young people's own responsibility for fulfilling the conditions. Of course, the majority of young and new drivers act responsibly in traffic, but there are also those who should be subject to supervision, which is a challenging task given current police resources.

The Finnish Road Safety Council (Liikenneturva) has raised its view that lowering the minimum age requirement for driving licences from 18 to 17 years will increase the number of underage drivers on the road, which, in turn, will increase road accidents among young people and reduce the road safety of young people. Furthermore, nor do the police see any sense in a development that will increase the number of road accidents among young people and reduce road safety. The risk is too great and the consequences are grave.

Risk-taking behaviour is a strong predictor of accidents

The risks associated with young drivers stem from inexperience and immaturity among other things. Accidents involving young drivers are often related to speeding, driving when under the influence, failure to use safety equipment or swerving off of the road, for example, but these are more manifestations of young people's activities, which are driven by other root causes.

Studies show that risk-taking behaviour is explained by attitude such as the underdevelopment of the brain of young people, especially men's brains. This underdevelopment has an impact on young people's willingness to take risks on the road which lead to serious accidents. Yle reported on this matter at the end of April this year. In the news item, Sari Kukkamaa, a specialist in neuropsychology, said that "the underdevelopment of the brain predisposes boys, in particular, to the pursuit of quick pleasure. Immediate pleasure, immediate reward is more valuable than thinking rationally and logically about how to act."

Increased disregard of road safety and traffic surveillance among young people

The police are concerned about the behaviour of young people in traffic, the values regarding road safety, other road users and the police. Playing around in traffic is glamourised and photographed for social media. In terms of traffic behaviour, there seems to be increased disregard of road safety and surveillance carried out by the police.  The police also receive requests for traffic surveillance from citizens. 

Moped meetups are employing increasingly more police, and young drivers and young passengers have drawn attention in car meetups as well. According to some findings, the behaviour of young people towards the police has grown more negative, aggressive and inappropriate, calling the police into question. Young people's actions, including pursuit, are aimed at provoking the police. 

Parents lead the way and have a great responsibility in how young people relate to traffic rules, safety and surveillance. The police have noticed that when they call parents, the reception can often be indifferent and they even blame the police.

Social pressure and experience-seeking, for example, are associated with risk-taking behaviour

Studies show that young people's risk-taking behaviour in traffic is generally associated lifestyle coloured by antisocial behaviour, such as substance abuse, smoking, other risk-taking behaviour and time spent with friends. Social pressure and incitement by friends are also associated with the risk-taking behaviour of many young people in traffic. Passengers are known to be linked to the risk-taking behaviour of young drivers in traffic and to increased accident rates. The pressure from fellow passengers can be active (e.g. verbal encouragement) or passive (perceived driver pressure). 

The increase in individualism can be seen, for example, in the fact that young people value enjoying life more and caring for their loved ones less than earlier. For some, driving a vehicle means competition, a desire to show off, excitement and other experiences. For others, it is a question of upholding their rights to mobility, regardless of the risks involved, or of seeking risk-taking, pleasure and a sense of danger. Hannu Lauerma, a psychiatrist, has stated that among other things, gaining life experience, calming overall impulsiveness, dispelling the need to compensate for uncertainty and achieving a socially stable position reduce risk-taking. 

Risk-taking behaviour should be approached from a broader perspective than simply focusing on examining the manifestations of young people's activities. Part of a broader analysis and solution may be a procedure where a person who is guilty of risk-taking behaviour in traffic, for example a driver who has been banned from driving as a result of a traffic offence, is referred to examinations, which include driving cognition, behaviour assessment and risk training. The right to drive would be restored once the driver has shown that he or she is mature, in control of his or risk and that, for example, intoxicants are not an impediment. Ajopoli, Turku University Hospital's Clinic for assessment of driving capacity, presented a similar model in its opinion on the draft Government Decree amending the Government Decree on Driving Licences (423/2011). It would be a good idea to also consider making it easier to forfeit or confiscate the driver's vehicle as part of the solution. This would be an additional tangible and immediate consequence of the loss of the right to drive not only for the person guilty (perhaps also for the close circle) of risk-taking behaviour.

Life must be protected

Everyone's life is important and efforts must be made to protect it. Society also has to consider the priority of legally protected interests and their importance when enacting legislation. With regard to young people, it would appear that there has been a desire to share responsibility for their lives and to emphasise the individual's own potential. What about when you come across the research-based knowledge that for some young people immediate pleasure, immediate reward is more valuable than thinking rationally and logically about how to act? In the context of traffic and road safety, should we be more concerned about young people's lives than about their limitless possibilities to pursue pleasure and reward?

Pasi Rissanen
Assistant Police Commissioner
National Police Board

Mika Sutela
Information Analyst
National Police Board

A police car parked on the street. Yellow reflective tape on the side with the words police.