Motor vehicle crashes are the second leading cause of death among teens, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Immaturity and lack of driving experience are the two main factors leading to the high crash rate among young people ages 15-19. Teens’ lack of experience affects their recognition of and response to hazardous situations and results in dangerous practices such as speeding and tailgating.
Other major contributing factors to the higher crash risk of young drivers are night driving and teen passengers. Teenagers are involved in more motor vehicle crashes late in the day and at night than at other times of the day. Teens also have a greater chance of getting involved in an accident if other teens are present in the vehicle, according to research from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm. Among drivers involved in fatal crashes, young males are the most likely to be speeding according to NHTSA’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis.
Graduated drivers license (GDL) laws, which include a three-phase program that allows teen drivers to develop more mature driving attitudes and gain experience behind the wheel, have been successful in reducing teen motor vehicle accidents. In 1996 Florida became the first state to enact a GDL law. Every state now has a GDL law.
History: To control the problem of young drivers accounting for a disproportionate number of motor vehicle crashes, each state has adopted one or more elements of a graduated drivers license (GDL) system. Graduated licensing requires a more rigorous learning period before granting young people between the ages of 15 and 18 a drivers license with full privileges. Graduated licensing consists of three stages. Stage 1 (learners permit) requirements and recommendations include a vision test, a road knowledge test, driving accompanied by a licensed adult, seat belt use by all vehicle occupants, a zero BAC level, and six months with no crashes or convictions for traffic violations. Stage 2 (intermediate license) includes the completion of Stage 1, a behind-the-wheel road test, advanced driver education training, driving accompanied by a licensed adult at night, and 12 consecutive months with no crashes or convictions for traffic offenses before reaching Stage 3 (full license).
Impact of Graduated Drivers License laws: Studies dating back to the late 1990s attribute reductions in teen crash deaths to GDL programs. GDLs had reduced deaths among teenage drivers in New Zealand, Australia and Canada, where versions of the system exist. The first long-term study to investigate the benefits of each licensing stage was conducted in 2002 in Nova Scotia. It concluded that GDLs led to crash reduction among young beginning drivers in both the learner and intermediate stages. The study, “Specific and Long-term Effects of Nova Scotia’s Graduated Licensing Program,” marks the first six months of the learner stage as the most significant period of crash reduction. For beginning drivers who got their learners permit at 16-or 17-years old, crashes declined 51 percent in the learner stage. During the intermediate stage, when drivers can drive unsupervised except late at night, crashes were reduced by 9 percent in the first year and 11 percent in the second year. Crash rates increased by 4 percent, however, during the first year after the drivers graduated to full license status. Nova Scotia’s GDL program was adopted in 1994, before many U.S. states began adopting the system.
A 2012 study conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found that the death rate fell 68 percent for 16-year old drivers from 1996 to 2010. Among older teenagers the death rate fell 59 percent for 17-year olds, and 52 percent and 47 percent for 18- and 19-year olds, respectively, during the same period. The IIHS attributes the declines to the adoption of GDL laws and said that if every state adopted all five of the toughest laws that it had identified, about 500 lives could be saved and 9,500 collisions prevented each year. The five most effective laws it identified were a minimum permit age of 16, a minimum intermediate license age of 17, at least 65 hours of supervised practice driving, restrictions on night driving that begin at 8 pm and banning all teen passengers.
Research shows that when teenage drivers transport teen passengers there is a greatly increased crash risk. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety released a report in October 2012 that showed that the risk of 16- or 17-year old drivers being killed in a crash increases with each additional teenage passenger in the vehicle. The risk increases 44 percent with one passenger; it doubles with two passengers and quadruples with three or more passengers. The study analyzed crash data and the number of miles driven by 16- and 17-year olds.
Other studies examined the issue of passengers of teenage drivers. A March 2008 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report found that when there were multiple passengers in vehicles driven by teen drivers, the crash risk was three to five times greater than when driving alone; the risk was greatest for the youngest drivers (age 16 and 17). In California, Massachusetts and Virginia passenger restrictions have reduced crashes among 16-year-old drivers. Crash involvement per 1,000 16-year-old drivers fell from 1.07 to 0.85 in California after passenger restrictions were passed. The reduction was from 0.88 to 0.61 in Massachusetts and from 1.41 to 1.10 in Virginia. Earlier studies by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and State Farm, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and the National Institutes of Health also found that restricting passengers lowered the numbers of crashes and other behaviors such as speeding.
In most countries 18 is the minimum age at which a person may obtain a driver's license. In the United States most states permit unsupervised driving at age 16. A study highlighted in a September 2008 report by the IIHS found that raising the age at which drivers are licensed would save lives. The study focused on driving age and rules in different countries and found that raising the driving age would substantially reduce crashes involving teenage drivers in the United States.
A 2017 Liberty Mutual study found that older teenagers are more likely to engage in dangerous behaviors than the youngest drivers. The study surveyed almost 3,000 high school students and showed that seventy-five percent of high school seniors felt confident in their driving abilities after driving for a few years, and 71 percent used a phone while driving. Over half of seniors reported having a car accident or a near miss, compared with 34 percent of high school sophomores. Moreover, 47 percent of seniors drove with three or more passengers in their vehicle, compared with 31 percent of sophomores, and 40 percent of seniors said they changed music using a phone or app, compared with 26 percent of sophomores. Thirty-five percent of seniors admitted to speeding compared with 18 percent of sophomores.
Safety experts say that using a cellphone while driving is a major distraction and is a significant factor in crashes for drivers of all ages (see Distracted Driving). The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s National Occupant Protection Use Survey (NOPUS) measures observed data on driver electronic devise use. The 2018 survey found that 3.2 percent of all passenger vehicle drivers held cellphones to their ears. The rate was highest for drivers age 16 to 24—3.9 percent. The survey also showed that 2.1 percent of all drivers visibly manipulated handheld devices while driving. The rate for drivers age 16 to 24 was 4.2 percent, highest for all age groups.
Studies have demonstrated the pervasiveness of cellphone use among younger drivers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s June 2016 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey shows that in 2015 about 41.5 percent of high school students said they texted or emailed while behind the wheel at least once during the previous 30 days, about the same as in 2013. The highest rate of texting or emailing while driving, 63.2 percent, was among teens in South Dakota. The lowest rate, 26.1 percent, was among teens in Maryland. The survey is conducted every two years. Among the twelve large urban school districts surveyed, Broward County, FL had the highest percentage, at 38.7 percent and New York City, NY had the lowest, at 14.1 percent. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety’s 2012 in-car video study, found that teenage girls are twice as likely as teenage boys to use cellphones and other electronic devices while driving.
About two dozen states ban the use of hand-held cellphones behind the wheel for all drivers. The use of all cellphones by novice drivers is restricted in more than three dozen states, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Text messaging is banned for all drivers in virtually all states and the District of Columbia; novice drivers are specifically banned from texting in Missouri, (see chart: State Young Driver Laws.)
Alcohol: Underage drinking remains a factor in teenage highway fatalities, according to NHTSA. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that numerous studies since the 1970s show that when the drinking age is lowered, more people die in crashes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that since 1975 about 31,959 lives have been saved through 2017 (latest data available), by these laws. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a study in October 2012 that showed that the percentage of young drivers who drink and drive has been reduced by half in two decades. The agency said the 54 percent decline was the result of stricter alcohol-impaired driving laws, laws that restrict the hours teens can drive, and a decline in driving itself, possibly related to the recession and higher gasoline prices at the time. However, despite the decrease, nearly a million high school students admitted they consumed alcohol before driving in 2011. In addition, according to NHTSA, drivers are less likely to use restraints when they have been drinking.
Marijuana: A February 2021 study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs found that recreational marijuana legislation (RML) in California was associated with increased adolescent marijuana use in 2017–2018 and 2018–2019. In California, recreational use of marijuana became legal in 2016, and retail sales of recreational marijuana began in 2018. The authors studied data from 3.3 million California 7th, 9th, and 11th grade students and focused on possible effects of RML in California on lifetime and past-30-day marijuana use. Likelihood of lifetime use of marijuana increased 18 percent and past-30-day use increased 30 percent among nearly all demographic groups. In addition, increases in use were more likely to occur in groups that previously had lower rates of marijuana use. They point to increased acceptance of marijuana use after recreational legislation enactment and the sale of a wide variety of marijuana products as factors in the increases.
The authors of a December 2020 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) suggested that teens believed that driving after using marijuana was more acceptable and less dangerous than drinking and driving. This misunderstanding may have resulted from the growing number of states that have legalized medical and recreational marijuana use, a conclusion that was also cited in the February 2021 study described above. The JAMA study found that almost half (48.8 percent) of young drivers who say they use marijuana drove after using the drug. This is 17 percent higher than the proportion found in a 2014 study of underage college students. The lead author, affiliated with the College of Public Health at Ohio State University, used data from the 2017 national Youth Risk Behavior Survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is comprised of 6,800 students age 14 years and older in 2017 who said they drove in the past month. When viewed in the context of all drivers in the survey, 12.7 percent drove after using marijuana, more than double the proportion who admitted of drinking and driving (5.0 percent). Driving after using marijuana is highest among 16- and 17-year-olds and teen drivers that have used alcohol in the past month. The rates were about equal between male and female drivers.
Seatbelt use: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), tracks seatbelt use based on the National Occupant Protection Use Survey (NOPUS), which observes occupants driving through intersections controlled by stop signs or stop lights. The 2018 survey found that seatbelt usage was lowest in the 16-to-24 year-old age group.
Distracted driving: According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data, in 2018, 9 percent of all teen (age 15 to 19) motor vehicle crash fatalities involved distracted driving.
Speeding affects teenagers more than any other age group. From 2015-19, teen drivers age 13-19 and their passengers accounted for 43 percent of all traffic fatalities involving speeding, according to Teens and Speeding: Breaking the Deadly Cycle, a study sponsored by the Governors Highway Safety Association(GHSA) and the Ford Motor Company Fund. All other driver age groups accounted for 30 percent of all speeding traffic fatalities. The GHSA says that teen drivers do not have the experience to quickly react to dangerous situations while speeding. After being taught to drive within speed limits they emulate the speeding behaviors of adults on the road.
Auto insurance premium discounts: Rates for auto insurance for teenage drivers are always higher than for other drivers because as a group they pose a higher risk of accidents than more experienced drivers. Adding a teenager to an insurance policy can mean a 50 percent or even a 100 percent increase in the parents’ insurance premium. Some insurance companies offer discounts for students with good grades. The Good Student Discount is generally available to students who have a grade point average of a B or higher. Many companies offer programs that foster safe driving habits, such as online safety courses for young drivers and parents, contracts between young drivers and parents, educational videos and practice driving logs.
Insurance companies are also helping to reduce the number of accidents involving teen drivers by subsidizing the cost of electronic monitoring devices that parents can install in their cars to monitor the way teens drive and by offering discounts to policyholders with teens who use these devices.
The American Family Insurance Company has supplied at least 2,000 families with a DriveCam video camera that alerts parents when a teen driver makes a driving error. The program includes discounts for families that use the camera, which is free for the first year. The camera is operated by an independent company that provides weekly reports for parents.
21st Century (Zurich) and Safeco Insurance (Liberty Mutual) use global positioning systems (GPS) to monitor teen drivers. 21st Century’s free GPS works with a program that allows parents to be alerted by email or text message if their children exceed preset boundaries on speeding, distance or time. Safeco’s GPS lets parents monitor their teen drivers in real time.
Progressive’s MyRate program, which can be used by all drivers, uses a black box to record speed, braking, time of day and distance driven. The information is evaluated for discounts.
Allstate offers Star Driver, a smartphone app that has a driving agreement between young drivers and parents that sets parameters for when, where and how fast the teen is allowed to drive, with alerts for parents of teens who overstep these parameters.
(As of January 2021)
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (U.S. Department of Transportation)
Centers for Disease Control, Teen Drivers Fact Sheet
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