A post-holiday reminder
School holidays are over, and with that comes increased congestion on public transport and roads in the morning and afternoon. Drivers are encouraged to be increasingly vigilant whilst travelling within designated school zones and increasingly aware at all times when students are travelling to and from school.
Despite this, tragedies can and do occur. In the last few months there have been a number of serious and fatal car crashes involving students on the road, including the serious injury of a young brother and sister riding their scooter to school in Queensland, the death of a young boy hit by a car skateboarding to school in Victoria, and a 5-year-old girl hit and killed by a truck in NSW after getting off the school bus, metres from home. Tragic car crashes have also occurred in the context of parents transporting their children to school.
What about student drivers?
Fortunately, there is no clear evidence of recent serious injuries or fatalities involving students driving themselves to and from school.
However, the number of road crash statistics mean there is no room for complacency:
- with nearly all students turning 17 in one of their last two years at school, an increasing number of students seem to be driving themselves to and from school;
- adolescent drivers have the highest involvement in all types of crashes – from property damage all the way to fatalities - and fatal crashes have reportedly been rising across Australia in recent years;
- of all hospitalisations of young Australians, nearly 50% involve drivers who have been in road accidents, with another 25% being passengers; and
- teenagers are generally less likely to use seat belts. Failing to wear a seatbelt makes it 10 times more likely for a person to be killed in a crash.
The response to statistics such as these often focuses upon driver-centric initiatives, such as increased requirements on learners and provisional registration and additional consequences for breaches of road rules. But what role can and should schools be playing to reduce the risks caused by student drivers?
The extent of a school’s duty of care
As we have discussed on numerous occasions, schools and their teachers have a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect students from reasonably foreseeable risks of harm which manifest while they are under the care/protection of the school.
The statistics above clearly demonstrate that the ‘youth factor’ in car crashes is a reasonably foreseeable risk. The open question is whether, and in what context, student drivers fall within the scope of a school’s duty of care.
The duty of care owed by school authorities and staff is normally considered to be confined to the school premises and within school hours. However, court cases have shown us that a school’s duty of care does extend outside of the school setting, into any situation in which a school has undertaken responsibility for the supervision and care of students.
Driving to/from school
A school’s duty of care may arise before the first teacher arrives for morning playground duty, with the same logic applying after school hours. Refer to our previous School Governance article.
This would clearly include the scenario in which a school provides the means of transporting students to and from school, such as the provision of a school bus. In fact, it has been stated in previous cases that the school-student relationship may even exist throughout the entire journey of a student to and from school in this context.
This is not to say that a student driving themselves to school is to be equated with a bus service. The NSW Department of Education has stated that parents/carers are responsible for how students travel to and from school, and that whether a licensed student driver may transport themselves to/from school is the decision of the student, their parent/carer and the vehicle’s owner. However, if a school has particular knowledge regarding student drivers – such as if a student is known to be a dangerous driver or there is a busy/dangerous road outside the school – then there may be a duty to take certain precautions to preserve student safety.
Driving to/from excursions
When a school organises to take students to an external venue/location as part of the school’s curriculum or activities, they owe a duty of care to those students for the duration of the excursion. Refer to our previous School Governance article. Court cases have shown that a school may be found to have breached its duty of care if a student is allowed to travel unsupervised from school to an excursion location and an injury occurs.
Therefore, if students are required or permitted to make their own way to a school excursion, such as by their own private vehicle, it is the school’s responsibility to ensure arrangements are made which will protect students from any reasonably foreseeable risks of harm, such as by implementing clear policies and procedures and having consent arrangements in place. It should be noted that in certain jurisdictions such as Victoria, students are not permitted (by the Government) to transport other students to/from school functions and excursions. This requirement only specifically applies to government schools, but should also be taken into account by non-government schools.
What should schools do?
To promote student and staff wellbeing, schools should implement a comprehensive road safety and driver education framework. The concept of whole-of-school student driver education has been well-developed by Western Australian entity School Drug Education and Road Aware (SDERA) in their Students Driving to School guidelines, which recommends:
- curriculum focused programs which actively engage students in skill development;
- strategies for informing and engaging parents and the community to reinforce road safety messages and skills;
- utilising agencies to complement school road safety programs; and
- developing a safety-conscious school ethos and environment.
While only directly applicable to Western Australian schools, their approach to education and recommendations for developing policies and guidelines would clearly be useful for schools around Australia.
Student safety policies and procedures
Aside from educating students on driver safety and appropriate behaviour, it has become common practice for schools to require students to seek permission before using vehicles for transport to/from school. They should also ensure that parental consent is obtained from all relevant parents/carers in respect of any student passengers travelling with licensed student drivers. There are obvious grounds for controlling passengers in this way, given that the risk of a fatal crash increases with each additional peer passenger.
Some schools also require students to provide a copy of their license, car model and registration details to the school. Schools should keep careful record of student drivers and their authorised passengers, with any non-compliance followed up with disciplinary consequences.
Schools may consider allowing students to park in designated parking lots on school premises; however, schools should keep in mind that their duty of care extends to supervision of students in these areas. In certain circumstances, schools may request students to leave their keys with the front office during school hours, with permission from the principal or delegate to be obtained if the vehicle needs to be used or accessed during this time (such as if a student has flexible learning arrangements).
While schools cannot actively prevent the ‘youth factor’ in driving incidents, by educating students and taking reasonable steps to promote safe and responsible driving, they will likely be fulfilling any duty of care they have in respect of student drivers.