How can a driving licence improve health?

Two smiling Aboriginal women in front seats of white car Image copyright George Institute of Global Health
Image caption The programme teams up young Aboriginal people with mentors to help them get their driving licenses

It could boost the health of Australia's most disadvantaged people and is having a profound effect on lives, yet it doesn't involve a doctor, a clinic or medication.

Simply getting a driving licence can have enormous benefits for young Aboriginal people.

In regional towns with limited public transport, they can often feel compelled to drive without a licence, but inexperience can be fatal.

While Aboriginal people are less likely to have a driving licence than other Australians, they are up to three times more likely to die on the roads.

There are stiff penalties, too, for unlicensed motorists, whose lives can then spiral out of control.

Home alone

By being behind the wheel of a car Aiden Burns, a 21-year old Aboriginal Australian from Dubbo in outback New South Wales, has managed to break a dispiriting cycle of unemployment and isolation.

"I have had no-one to drive me. Usually I am at home by myself through the day," he said.

"If you don't have a licence, you've got to sit there and be bored.

"You can't go for a drive, go see a friend, or go see a family member just for something to do."

He is proud to be part of a project that helps indigenous groups in the nation's most populous state get their driving licenses by guiding them through the maze of documentation and giving them lessons.

"It definitely makes you feel a lot better. It keeps you out of depression," he said.

Driving Change operates across New South Wales, with offices in the suburb of Redfern in Sydney, the country town of Condobolin, and Dareton that sits near the border with Victoria.

The scheme is run by the George Institute for Global Health, which has a hand in various initiatives in more than 50 countries.

'Good news'

Prof Rebecca Ivers, director of its injury division, says driving lessons are part of a holistic approach to caring for indigenous Australians.

"The Aboriginal definition of health is social and emotional health and wellbeing," she said. "It is about the health of the whole community, not just the physical health of the person. The programme does have a huge impact on the health of a community."

Image copyright DriveSafe NT Remote
Image caption Getting your driving license opens up opportunities, especially in remote areas

"You can end up in jail pretty quickly," said Prof Ivers.

"It is really critical that we support people before that process starts to happen so then people can move on, move into employment and education, and actually end up with really satisfying, fulfilling lives."

In the Northern Territory, a programme to help residents to drive in more than 20 isolated settlements is also claiming success.

The DriveSafe NT Remote initiative also gives indigenous inmates the opportunity to get their driving licence before they're released to improve their chances of finding work.

"They haven't gone through proper driver training before. This good news message spreads like wildfire. It is very exciting for the community," said the head of the territory's Department of Transport, Clare Gardiner Barnes.

"It is an educative process that has not ever happened at the community level before," she added.

Freedom to 'drive and thrive'

In Dubbo, 400km (250 miles) northwest of Sydney, Driving Change uses mentors to nurture confident and safe drivers.

Office manager Rose McBride says the programme eases the burdens many students carry.

"Having a licence helps in mental health because if you don't, they become depressed and they think they are worthless, so having that licence will boost their whole wellbeing, and their family and community as well," she explained.

So far it has given dozens of people the freedom to drive and thrive.

Darren Toomey, the head of the local Aboriginal Land Council, believes it is providing his community with fresh direction and hope.

"We are the most resilient people in the world. We have been around for a long time and I think it is an opportunity now for our youth to move forward. They are our future," he said.

At the end of another productive lesson, Aiden Burns is bursting with ambition.

'Words can't describe how driving feels," he told me. "I'm excited. I know it is going to be a life-changer.

"My life goal is to be a chef, so I am definitely going to use this opportunity to push towards my goal."

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