Recent immigrants seem to be steadier behind the wheel than long-term residents, researchers have found.

Some people might presume that many new Canadians are unsafe and accident-prone drivers, dealing as they do with unfamiliar roads and customs, along with extreme weather conditions. That wasn't the case in a decade-long study.

Researchers tracked almost one million recent immigrants to Ontario and compared their involvement as drivers in serious road crashes compared to long-time residents of the province, matching each subject in the two groups by age, gender, living location and economic status. 


Recent immigrants appeared to be safer drivers than long-term residents of Ontario, an eight-year study suggests. ((The Canadian Press))

More than 10,000 crashes occurred during the study period. After analyzing hospital and other records, the researchers determined that immigrant drivers — the highest proportions from China and India — were 40 to 50 per cent less likely than long-term residents to be driving a vehicle involved in a bad smash-up.

"These findings suggest that contrary to popular opinion, recent immigrants are less prone to be drivers in a serious crash," said lead investigator Dr. Donald Redelmeier, an internal medicine specialist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre who is often on call in the Toronto trauma centre's emergency department.

"And perhaps one-third of the total 5,000 hospital admissions for road trauma in Ontario each year might be prevented if long-term residents changed their behaviour to match recent immigrants."

In fact, Redelmeier and colleagues calculated, if long-term residents had the same accident risk profile as recent immigrants, that would have meant about 49 lives saved, 1,000 fewer patients admitted to a critical care unit, a reduction of 2,000 surgeries and 30,000 fewer days in hospital.

"So we're not looking at violations of [driving] etiquette," he said. "We're looking at serious crashes that end you up in the emergency department and hospitalized."

Cautious drivers

The study, published in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, found immigrant drivers' comparative risk of being in a nasty collision was lowest in the initial years following arrival, but still persisted beyond the fifth and sixth years of the eight years each person was tracked.

"But at no point did we find the opposite contrary pattern," said Redelmeier. "At every year, recent immigrants appeared to be safer drivers."

While other studies have shown that recent immigrants are less likely to own a car, have shorter daily commutes and tend to use more public transportation compared to long-term residents, those differences are not nearly large enough to account for a 40 to 50 per cent reduction in crashes, he noted.

There could be several factors that explain why new Canadians seem to be more solid drivers:

  • They may travel shorter distances at slower speeds and with greater caution.
  • Bad drivers could be indirectly screened out by immigration policies that select for higher education and income levels.
  • Lack of local driving experience might be accompanied by a sense of trepidation.

"If you're a newcomer to the region, you're alert and you're not going to take unnecessary risks and you certainly do not want to get into trouble with the local enforcement agencies," offered Redelmeier. Contrast that with many long-time residents, who may have a false sense of security and be somewhat slack about safety precautions after driving the same roads for many years.

But what about accidents involving pedestrians?

That was one finding where new Canadians didn't appear to have an edge, he said.

"When it comes to crossing the road by foot, they are no better or no worse than the rest of us."